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August 1, 2014

Who says there’s anything wrong with performance anxiety, anyway?! 

Jennifer performing with the Ibiza Symphony, Spain 12/2011

Getting “butterflies” before a performance is NORMAL, and I’ve decided there’s nothing wrong with it.  Sure, it’s uncomfortable sometimes (like when you feel in danger of dying because your heart is pounding so hard!), but it’s a normal – albeit not essential – reaction to exposing yourself in public.

Yes, that’s what we musicians do.  We expose ourselves in public.  We put our hearts, souls, hopes, and a huge amount of time and energy into preparing for our performances – sometimes over a lifetime; and then, after a very short amount of time onstage (which can sometimes feel interminable), it’s over.

In the meantime, people are (usually) paying close attention to the display of the fruits of our labors, and we don’t know if they’re going to react positively or negatively.  Besides, we often make the mistake of equating our self-worth with those fruits, so it can really feel like we’re putting ourselves on the line.  If people like what we do, we’re ok; if they don’t, we’re worthless.  No wonder we get nervous – it’s simply human nature!  Does any of this happen to you? 

Some TIPS to help you manage your performance anxiety:

  1. Remember that YOU are more important than what you do.   You are a human “being”, not a human “doing”.  Your self-worth is determined by your awareness of being human, not by your doing human.  Just be yourself, ALWAYS – and that’s enough.  Do not equate your self-worth with what happens onstage.  Even if your worst nightmare happens onstage, you still win – simply because you had the guts to BE there.  You showed up.  You are worthy just for being aware of yourself being yourself.  Don’t forget that.
  2. Stop calling it “performance anxiety”; call it “performance excitement” instead.  The word “anxiety” has a negative connotation; most people feel like there’s something wrong with us if we’re “anxious”. Call it “performance excitement” instead.  After all, the same fight-or-flight hormones are coursing through your system whether you’re looking forward to a roller-coaster ride with excitement or you’re dreading stepping under the spotlight.  Your body feels pretty similar.
  3. Running energy: Notice how your body is subtly trying to run away from the situation.  Can you redirect that excited running energy inside your body towards the stage instead?  Let yourself move.  Running in place or doing jumping jacks, or just swaying your torso around can help.  Some people like pacing.  Just don’t do it mindlessly or you’ll just be increasing your tension instead of releasing it.
  4. Notice in detail what you’re feeling in your body, and stay with the feeling instead of trying to block it out.  Tell yourself, “How interesting!  My heart is pounding.  How interesting!  My legs are shaking! Wow, how interesting!” and keep checking in with the experience.  You might be surprised to find that it keeps changing, depending on what you’re paying attention to.  The more familiar the experience is, too, the less scary it is.
  5. The greatest antidote to fear: LOVE.  Love includes a conscious decision and an action to move towards something/someone, in order to share your best self – your heart – with them.  First of all, love yourself by getting in touch with your deep love of what you do; then, connect to a deep love of humanity; then, feel love for the audience you’re going to share your musical heart with, maybe even including specific people you know will be there.  If you focus enough on feeding your feeling of and desire to love, anxiety cannot survive because it will be starved of attention.
  6. Another antidote to fear: COURAGE.  Along with love comes courage.  Resolve to love, and resolve to overcome all obstacles to express that love through your music.  Resolve to be a warrior and a hero, for love.  This might sound dramatic, but reality IS dramatic, and living with zest is courageous!  See how powerful you can be, and decide to step into that ideal, amazing, REAL version of you.
  7. Decide. All it takes is a decision.  It’s like choosing to jump off the high-dive into the pool; it’s terrifying the first time, but all it takes is one split-second decision, and you’ve done it.  Actually, you don’t have to decide to go onstage at all until the very last moment.  You could just relax the whole time backstage, thinking, “Hmmm… maybe I won’t go onstage, and that would be totally fine.  I don’t have to do this at all.  It’s my choice.  Right now, in this moment, I’m NOT going onstage – because I’m just relaxing here backstage, taking a break from life, hanging around… In a little while, I’ll decide whether to change my mind and go onstage or not, but for now, I’m staying put.  It’s so nice to just sit here and relax instead!  I’m not performing right now.  Just being here.  Ahhh!” And a little while later, a stagehand might come and tell you, “Ok, it’s time! You’re on!”  That’s when you could think, “Oh, how interesting! Someone wants me to go onstage now.  Hmmm… shall I?  What do I want to do?  Maybe I’ll just stay here, relaxing for awhile longer.  Or… hm! Going onstage sounds EXCITING! I’d like to go explore what that experience will be like.  I wonder!  Let’s go!”  All of a sudden your curiosity is piqued, and you make the decision to jump off the high-dive – you’re onstage.  Easy!
  8. Get CURIOUS about the experience.  You just might have the time of your life!  Why not find out?  Don’t miss this opportunity.  Carpe diem!….
  9. Take your time. Some people like to walk onstage really fast.  This can be fine if it’s done very consciously, but often this hurry to perform stems from a fear of being watched, and it just adds to the overall tension.  Some performers might even feel that they’re wasting everyone’s time unless they’re actually engaged in making music. Personally, I prefer to enjoy a leisurely stroll onstage, as if I were a queen gracing everyone with my presence (actually, just ask my family… they know I AM the queen, haha! 😉 ).  Really, truly:  there’s no hurry.  I remind myself that I have all the time in the world, and I’m not going to let anyone rush me.  Feeling hurried makes me feel tense.  This is MY time onstage and I’m going to savor every minute of this opportunity to share and connect with everyone present – I love this time to actually SEE my audience, look in their eyes (if the spotlights aren’t too strong), getting comfortable with a sense of the space before I play.  Why would I want to waste this precious time by hurrying through it?  (Besides, it gives people a chance to wiggle around a bit while clapping – let the audience makes some noise and move before they have to sit still in silence for half an hour or more!)
  10. Have FUN! Give yourself a good-luck smile in the mirror as you walk onstage.  I almost always do this. Be your own best friend and supporter!
  11. Consider getting coaching to help you manage the pre-performance experience and to improve the quality of your overall performance (and life satisfaction!).  Click here to learn more about my offerings, and sign up for my newsletter through one of the forms found throughout this website.

You can access my full-length ARTICLE with more extensive advice on dealing with performance anxiety by filling out the contact form in the upper right corner of this page.

Which of the above tips do you personally find the most helpful to manage your performance anxiety? I’d love to hear comments about your own experiences!

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Alexander Technique, alexander technique cincinnati, anxiety, Awareness, doubt-monsters, love, musicians, negative thinking, performers, reactions, self-control

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  1. This post is so useful for performers of all types, including public speakers! Although composers don’t have what can be called “direct performance anxiety” unless they perform their music themselves, we do very much have “public exposure anxiety.” Musicians, as you well write, expose themselves in public, but not only as performers: composers feel their souls utterly exposed in public when their music is performed, and in a way also have “third person performance anxiety,” because they depend on someone else’s performance. The big difference, though, is that our anxiety is totally interior, and has no risk of affecting the public presentation of our music, as it does in the case of a performer or a speaker.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Miguel. Hearing about the composer’s perspective can be very useful for performers, and can help us understand your experience better. I can imagine it would be challenging to give up all control of the performance of your work when it is in the hands of others. Thanks again for posting!

  3. This is such a superb post, Jennifer. I have performed as a singer in concert and theater for almost forty years and I still have performance anxiety. The difference is that I have learned to embrace it and to be present with it. I know that it is an expression of my vulnerability which allows me to communicate the life of what I am singing. I look at the anxiety as the tension between the desire to open and the all-too-natural fear of that. However, I know in my bones that only when I am open will I be able to invite my audience into the music and the “I” will disappear. Thank you for your brilliant—and useful—insights.

    1. Wow, Jean, I really appreciate your comment – and your own approach. I love the idea of the anxiety being the tension between the desire to open and the fear of that. I agree completely. In the end, it’s a choice between loving acceptance and fear, don’t you think?

  4. What I would like the most when playing the piano for an audience is to express the feelings and have the audience gain having felt something. My ideal would be to bring out all I want to express and feel it myself while performing. When I’m nervous, I can’t do it. Once I couldn’t feel my hands at all. I did find that interesting! I did say to myself, “wow, I can’t believe my hands are tingling and I can’t feel them”. Somehow I still managed to play the piece. Jean, I appreciate your thoughts!

  5. Yes, it can be really frustrating (!) to want to express ourselves through the music but be unable to do so because our body doesn’t seem to be cooperating! In this case, I try to remember that I can prepare for years, months, days… but in the end, it is the ME of the present moment that I really want to express most. And it’s impossible not to do that, after all. Who could I possibly express but the me that I am right now?

    So my hand is numb or shaking? Ok, then that’s me right now, and that’s what the audience will see. Can I be so open and vulnerable that I can allow the audience to see my flaws and shortcomings, too, and not just the perfection of my practice-time done without an audience? This is where the real jewels – the hidden treasure to performance – can be found, I think…

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us, Kim!

  6. Hi, Jennifer! Thank you for another lovely article. Lately, I have been re-organizing my thoughts regarding “performance anxiety.” I think that we are so terrified of experiencing “other than comfortable” feelings, that we automatically label/designate them as bad feelings.

    I know that at one point I did have extremely severe anxiety that I learned to mask and deal with all the way through college. These days, now that I am more sure of myself (personally and musically), I feel slight excitement, but nothing debilitating. I know I wouldn’t be here without all of my Alexander and Grinberg work – you wouldn’t think that it would take 27 years to be able to just be!

  7. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Daniella – appreciated as always. 🙂 I agree completely that we have an unhelpful tendency to judge our feelings and to try to run away from, change, or fix the feelings that we don’t like because they feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t work, of course, because the more we ignore an experience or fight with it, the more insistent it becomes as it tries to get our attention.

    In my opinion, and in my experience in life so far, it seems like it may take an ENTIRE LIFETIME to “just be”. Either that, or one split second, like right NOW. So I’d say you’re right on track! 😉

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