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I have been learning how to play Spanish guitar for more than two years and half.
Every time my friends ask me to play something, I get scared and my hands start to shake.

How to break this fear?
I know this is a subjective question as every one has his own ways, but please share what works for you.

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Wish I could help, but I shake terribly even when I don't emotionally notice it... –  rshallit Jun 13 '11 at 4:04
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@rshallit Yeah, I get that too sometimes. –  Rei Miyasaka Jun 14 '11 at 9:29
    
Close your eyes and pretend you're playing for yourself and no one is there. I usually get more nervous playing to a smaller crowd of people then I do for a much larger one. It's all in your head anyway, I've seen guys play that were HORRIBLE and they weren't nervous at all, just enjoying themselves, others who play beautifully were super nervous. it's all a matter of confidence. –  InternalConspiracy Jun 19 '11 at 9:15
    
just a random note on what NOT to do: I was at an Open Mike Night last night and was trying to decide what to play. I was afraid to pick a difficult piece due to the ultimate fear of forgetting mid-piece how it goes. So I started thinking about the pieces I knew and try to think out how each one goes. Big mistake! Without the keys in front of me it was a hopeless thing. All it did was kill my confidence and make me sure I'd forget how to play the piece. Practice ahead of the performance to ensure you're confident you know the material. But don't think about it right before the performance! –  Brian Schroth Jun 21 '11 at 20:20
    
If this is any consolation... I was once so nervous about playing in a flute duet in front of my school, I lost all sensation in my fingers. Nothing except a faint tingling. It didn't help that we were last on, so there was a long wait. However, I was so well practised that I played faultlessly, despite absolute terror, and it was a very fast piece. I think the lesson here is let it happen on automatic. –  Marian May 31 '12 at 10:47

16 Answers 16

up vote 31 down vote accepted

I had a teacher who liked to say "The key to overcoming performance anxiety is through rigorous application of technique." This basically means: practice, practice, practice. Practice not until you get it right, but until you can't get it wrong. Practice until the technique you have to execute on the guitar is just as natural as clapping your hands.

There are pharmaceutical means that are endorsed by some teachers in very rare cases (called beta blockers); a natural alternative is known by many to be contained in the common banana.

I include that tidbit for the sake of completeness, but I really don't recommend it. You will reap far greater benefits from practicing more and more efficiently, and learning how to relax yourself and gain greater self-awareness of tension in your own body.

Some other practical suggestions:

  • Start out small. Many musicians encounter performance anxiety only once they go to music school and need to play for large audiences. Before you have a big performance, perform for just one person, then a small group of friends, then perhaps your studio class, etc. If you're even having trouble working up to the one person level, try performing for your cat!

  • Memorization can be tricky, and is a personally major source of anxiety for me when I need to perform memorized. As before, apply technique rigorously to the end of being able to write out the entire piece of music note for note completely from memory. Then do the same thing on a different level (i.e. the sections of the piece, Theme I, Theme II, AABA form, Eb major to G minor, what have you).

Lastly, it sounds a little like you are only playing for your friends when they ask you to, which has the psychological effect of calling you out and putting you on the spot. Instead, try preparing a piece of music that you are totally comfortable with, and then perform it for them on YOUR terms.

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@Binary - I agree with all points except that practicing more will not help. More practice, at any level, will increase one's confidence in his or her abilities. (You'll notice I did mention playing in low-stress situations in my answer.) –  NReilingh Jun 13 '11 at 15:26
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+1 for "can't get it wrong". –  Lotus Notes Jun 13 '11 at 17:45
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Two+ years of practice hasn't solved the issue. QED more practice is not the solution. Doing the same thing expecting different results is insanity. You're not anxious because you don't know how to play, you're anxious because that's your nature when you're in front of people. The answer isn't to practice guitar more, it's to play in front of people more in low-stress situations and to be ok with playing imperfectly and with nerves. Accept it and it will begin to go away as you acclimate yourself to playing in front of others –  Binary Phile Jun 13 '11 at 19:57
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In learning, one talks about levels of competency: First, you are unconsciously incompetent in that you don't even know what you don't know. Then you become consciously incompetent, then after much practice you become consciously competent: You can do it and you know it. At the last level, you become unconsciously competent: You can do it, and you don't even have to actively think about it anymore. I'm sure at that level you won't shake anymore :) –  Lagerbaer Jun 19 '11 at 16:35
    
@Lagerbaer I've never heard of that model before, but I dig the hell out of it! Do you have a reference I could check out? –  NReilingh Jun 19 '11 at 17:55

As a singing coach, preparing actors for musical auditions, they have the odds stacked up against them on two counts: not only is singing the most vulnerable activity when in front of others, but in a an audition you are also being judged. My advice has always been to inhabit the music totally. With a lyric you can enter the character of the person singing and imagine being within their universe rather than performing in front of an audience. Similarly, even without lyrics, you can still perform from inside the world that you've created. This means that rather than you going out to the audience, they are being drawn towards you. In this way, you gain power and confidence. For the audience you have become charismatic rather than someone uncomfortable to watch.

I should add that before this can happen, you must know your material thoroughly, so that you are not anxious about the technicalities when performing.

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If you are shy to perform in public, you have chosen the wrong instrument and/or style of music to play. It is not your authentic musician self. Your body is trying to tell you that.

That's my own personal theory derived from having performed publicly on many instruments in many different styles, and having observed a wide range in nervousness within myself for each instrument/style. I have a similar ability on all the instruments, but anyway, the nerves can be higher on my first instrument, the one I play the best. Go figure.

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I agree with Finbar to a certain extent. The only way to overcome your fear of performing in front of an audience is to do it often. Take your guitar to a park and play while you're there. Entertain the passerbys and if you mess up, who cares?

Perform in front of friends and family members, but avoid those who will tell you that you're awesome no matter what. People like that are poisonous and will only serve to halt your growth and progression as a performer and person. Tell your friends and family to give you constructive criticism.

I recently sang and performed a set of my original music with an orchestra in front of an audience of about 400 people. It was quite daunting, but I was not nervous, because I believe in my music and myself. If you can play guitar by yourself, you can play in front of anyone. The only thing you have to remember is everyone messes up, unless you make many major mistakes consecutively, then more often than not the normal un-musical listener will probably not even notice.

Perform, perform, perform and above all else avoid the poisonous people who tell you that your performance was awesome even when you messed up!

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+1 Practicing the music is not enough: you have to practice performing. Rehearse in public. Get used to bearing the weight of people's neutral and even fond attention. –  Codeswitcher May 11 at 21:46

Well, tonight is the night before I sing to my school so I can have a solo at the hexagon. You guys have been really helpful. Here is some of my advice: don't look if your scared, it's your friends. They wouldn't say bad things. Just picture yourself alone.

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best way to overcome it is to do it, then in time you will be used to being in front of a crowd. you might be best performing with a group of people so that you can get used to the idea of being on stage in front of an audience, then in time one will get used to not feeling really conscious while on stage. from there on its fairly easy to get up and "just do it".

one of the hardest yet possibly the best things you could do is perform in front of your peers. doesn't matter if its in your friends living room or in a bar, doing it will help you overcome your fear because some friends will tell you your amazing no matter what, and others will tell you the truth and give constructive criticism if needed. all very useful for confidence and development as a musician.

you just need to take that step towards being more comfortable within yourself and then it will all fall into place.

Good luck! :)

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This is such a huge issue for many musicians. Please excuse blatant self-promotion but my iPhone app 'Musicians Hypnosis' and the 'Self Hypnosis for Musicians' CD and download have helped thousands of people. There's a video run-down of the material on the musicians hypnosis website which explains all. I appreciate hypnosis is not for everybody, but watch the vid with an open mind and decide for yourself. Good luck.

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One thing to keep in mind is that you should know it is not the end of the world if you do mistakes. Most mistakes that you do will not even be noticed by the audience, even if you think it's a big mistake.

Because of this, you must continue as nothing happened.

Knowing this fact, you can also have more confidence, because you will know that it is not important to play 100% perfect (or even 93% perfect). Even if you do mistakes that are so obvious that the audience will notice, it will be no issue if you just ignore it yourself.

If you make faces or stop and comment it or something, the audience will most likely remember the mistake after the performance, but if you ignore it and just play on, the audience will have forgot it after less than a minute.

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Someone has already suggested you some important advice on how to overcome the fear of performing in front of an audience... I'd like to give you mine, too:

  1. When you're on a stage, in the spotlight and everyone is looking at you waiting and, often ready for one's criticism, begin thinking that everyone smiles, cries, feels happy or sad, feels strong or weak, goes to the bathroom... just like you!! Does it sound peculiar? Actually it helps you to relax, because you can feel a sort of closeness with the audience.

  2. You are what you're performing. So, feel and LIVE what you're playing\singing as the audience can feel and live this, too! Be confident in what you are and what you want to say to the others, even when your performance in not technically perfect.

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1) Knowing your piece(s) so thoroughly that your fingers can play even when your mind is occupied or distracted is one step towards performance confidence. 2) Practicing rough spots over and over in isolation will give you comfort and should reduce nervousness about making mistakes in front of an audience.

3) Lastly, recruiting a friend or family member to be your practice audience, then go through all the practical steps you would in a real performance should take away the awkwardness. Don't underestimate the effect of a different environment will have on your comfort level.

I was a very shy child and my drive to perform music well usually resulted in success if I faithfully followed the steps above. Best of luck to you!

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Welcome to Music SE! Thanks for your helpful advice. +1 to get you started. Again, welcome to Music SE! –  American Luke Sep 4 '12 at 13:22

I do know this question is marked as Answered, but I'd still like to offer up some additional advice by telling you how I overcome this.

I have been playing guitar since I was 7 and I am now 21, I have played in many events for school, and have played in a few bands as well as done a few solo acts my self. My first big show was at school in front of over 1000 people (teachers, students, and parents). Truth is (for me) you never get rid of that fear, you just need to be able to control it. The way I do this is think of a time where I was more nervous than the time I would currently be playing.. doesn't even have to be another time that you were playing in front of people, and it doesn't have to have anything to do with music.. just a time where you were more nervous. This helps take my edge out.

Another thing that helps.. Repetition, of playing in front of others. The more you do it, the easier it does get.

And one last thing to keep in mind, not everyone can do what you are doing. Most people would not even go on stage themselves, so the fact that you are on stage puts you above them if they are not a nicer crowd, which you will always have to be ready for. Don't let anyone discourage you from playing.

Hope this can be of help to anyone

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This makes me think of the many times I have had to do public speaking. In some cases this was in front of an audience of 300+ people. There were really two keys to success: training and practice.

For training I had the opportunity to take a handful of classes and seminars on public speaking, and this will be the same with all the lessons you have taken with your music teacher or through self study. If you are a talented player with years of training under your belt it will show in your performance. Past experience performing in front of an audience counts here, but there is a first for everything.

Regarding practice, there is no secret. You just practice, practice, practice. For a presentation you need to know the material by memory, to the point where your note cards are there just in case, but you never use them because you know the material so well. In some cases I even videotaped myself doing my presentation out loud just for the camera. Same for music practice; you should know your material inside out to the point where you can play it in your sleep. As stated previously, practice until you can't get it wrong any time you play it.

With training and practice comes confidence. You may still be nervous, but one thing I was taught was that usually this will not be noticed by your audience. I also have always found that if I wasn't nervous then it translated into a mediocre performance. I am pretty much always nervous when I speak in front of people, but because I am prepared, and I KNOW I am prepared, I feel confident. There is nothing more exciting than the feeling after a big performance that you got it done, and done well. Now it's Miller Time baby! Thinking about how elated I would feel after my 1 hour presentation was done definitely helped to calm me down some.

Hopefully this helps you. Years ago there was nothing I feared more than getting in front of an audience, but now I know I can do it, and this experience in public speaking should hopefully translate well when the day may come that someone wants me to play for them.

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Thank you, informative (and passionate) answer. –  Chiron Jun 15 '11 at 16:43

(NOTE: This answer was written for a different question (pianist, problems with audience-fear on stage), but got migrated in here, so not everything might match up with this question!)

I'm guitarist, but I might be able to help you. (Because we all have to deal with being nervous from time to time)

Some people just say that you just need to get better or more confident in your playing, but I think that it's just a part of the truth. (A smaller part) Because you can be good and confident about your playing and still be afraid of messing up... Or maybe you just don't like being watched by strangers and you feel akward in these situations. (subconsciously and/or consciously)

In generell, it's good to practice with audience as much as possible, may it be friends, family or neighbors. That actually really helped me over some time.

The best thing you can do before you go on stage is not to think about it too hard, I know that's easier said than done, but you should try to find something to distract you. For example I talk with someone, play a game on my cell-phone, or I solve a rubiks cube... If you stand there and think about the situation and what happens if you mess up, you likely WILL mess up. Just try to stay calm, If you can't... do the opposite: take a walk, or go jogging for a few minutes, but come back soon enough so that your pulse can relax again. (Don't overdo it! It should be more like a healthy walk under fresh air than training) A little drink might help, too.*

These are some "tricks" that helped me, or fellow musicians I know. Not all of them might help you, since people deal differently with nervousness.

Over some time, when you can control your nervousness better, you can use it to your advantage. Nowadays I'm usually better when I'm a little nervous. :D

I hope that helps.

*Note: Do NOT get drunk! A little beer or a glass wine usually helps though. And NO underage drinking!

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I don't think there's a silver bullet answer. Here are a few thoughts though.

  • Have you tried chamomile tea? It's easily available at practically any grocery around here.
  • There are practice techniques that help to improve your technique while nervous. For violin, there's the one-minute-bow practice, where you try to produce a tone for an entire minute on one really really slow draw of the bow. In about 2 weeks of doing that, my bow control improved dramatically, especially during performances. Obviously this particular technique wouldn't apply to guitar, but there might be something out there for guitarists.
  • The nerd in me always has something to say. A lot of professional StarCraft players use hand warmers at competitions:

Andrenaline will actually make your extremities (especially hands) cold. Starcraft simulates a fight or flight scenario in your brain (hence the adrenaline rush). Its a sympathetic nervous system response. This causes your body to pump less blood to non-essential areas (hands) and send blood to more areas like your core, brain, thighs. Things like hearing, vision, reaction time, heart rate all sharpen/increase. However, your hands get cold, due to lack of blood.

  • Many would argue that nervousness is a good thing. When I interviewed Ran Matsumoto, she commented that "yes, I get nervous all the time. I think a performance isn't worthwhile unless I do get nervous." I'm not sure I agree entirely, but it's at least encouraging to know that being nervous isn't necessarily a bad thing -- which, hey, thinking of it that way might ironically help you relax too.
  • I have some anxious tendencies, but I don't get stage fright too often. I think it's because I tell myself that people don't really have very high expectations anyway. If (when) I screw up, I just smile politely and keep going. Besides, most people appreciate when people can admit to the occasional screw-up, being that this is the YouTube generation.
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chamomile tea? i've nvr heard of it.. is it sold in 7/11s? –  Pacerier Jun 14 '11 at 11:35
    
Might be, not too sure. 7/11 tends to localize their selection, so they might have it if there's demand for it in your area. –  Rei Miyasaka Jun 14 '11 at 18:00
    
It is really nice to know about how Andrenaline effects music playing. –  Chiron Jun 15 '11 at 13:26

The key to overcoming this is simply to do it a lot, just like the key to getting better at playing is to practice. Kill two birds with one stone- practice in public. If you're constantly practicing where others can hear you, a performance ends up being the same as a practice and won't feel so psychologically nerve-racking. There's a spectrum of performance from practicing alone to performing in a concert hall. There are multiple elements that contribute to anxiety: How big is the audience? How focused are they on listening to you? How distracting are they to you? You can scale up in all of these categories- Start at a place where you generally have no audience but sometimes someone passes by, then move on to places where people come by more frequently. Start at a place where people are busy doing things and nobody will stop to intently listen to you, to places where people actually will focus on you. Start secluded from your audience and move up to places where they're right in front of you.

Obviously this is easier said than done- it's easier to practice in your own home than to go somewhere else; it might be difficult to find a place that meets the exact criteria you're looking for. But simply practicing performing in front of people has worked wonders for my shaking, and when that fails there's always taking Propranolol.

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My technique was to go to a coffee shop outdoors and wait for it to clear out, then start playing. In my head, anyone who sat down after that had implicitly given me permission to play. –  Binary Phile Jun 13 '11 at 19:56
    
@Binary Phile -- Do you ever actually drink coffee when you do that? Because for me caffeine just makes things even worse. Then again, I have an unusually low tolerance to caffeine. –  Rei Miyasaka Jun 14 '11 at 9:34
    
Occasionally, not always. More so than the caffeine, I think the milk isn't good for vocals, but that's not fact, just a guess. Personally, I've noticed I perform better with caffeine in me and it is a performance-enhancing drug according to exercise physiologists, but I drink so much that it doesn't affect me greatly. Not everyone can tolerate the caffeine in a cup of coffee, however. –  Binary Phile Jun 14 '11 at 14:20
    
Really nice technique, thanks for sharing. –  Chiron Jun 15 '11 at 13:24
    
As an addendum to this answer, the perfect way to follow this strategy is to find Open Mike Nights in your area. These vary, but the whole purpose of Open Mike Nights is to provide a venue for artists to practice performing. I was just at an Open Mike Night last night. Some of the performers were really not prepared at all and did not do a good job. It makes it a lot easier to not worry about making mistakes when every performer before you has made several mistakes! Different OMN's have different levels of performer skill, so find one with unskilled performers and scale up from there. –  Brian Schroth Jun 21 '11 at 20:15

My hands can shake just by thinking about performing to others.

I used to play at church, first few times I get really anxious and keep making mistakes. After few months of performing, I got used to it, and everything was quite fine. One time it get worse when I have to perform in another place (out of my comfort zone and normal audience). I was totally playing crap (but it was covered by other players music, so it was fine). I think you need to make it feels like home and probably make it a habit.

some advises are:

  • find out what you are afraid of. You are probably fear of making mistakes, fear of unaccepted or you are afraid that your friend will not like it. After that, you probably need to change your motive. For example, play not to impress, but to have fun, so making mistake is not a problem at all.

  • be focused. Sometimes when I'm practicing, my mind go wild about performing to people, and fear will come and I start to shake. I overcome this by trying to enjoy every note or stroke of my hand picking the guitar or pressing the keyboard. By doing this, I sometimes forgot that my friend is actually in my room listening.

  • improve self confident. Your friends won't ask you to play anything unless they think you are good. Even though they never say it out. My friend always taunt me and complaint that he don't know what song am I playing. But he keep showing up to listen when I'm playing.

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+1 There is some good psychological explanation here--it's the hardest to fix yourself, but generally involves letting go of the fixation around "performances" being "special," accepting that you'll make mistakes, not judging yourself in the musical moment when you do make mistakes, and allowing yourself to have fun while making music. –  NReilingh Jun 13 '11 at 14:36
    
Agreed. To get over this I had to a) accept and believe that the music was positive even if my performance wasn't perfect, or even particularly good, b) accept at face value people's positive feedback and c) practice in public places all the time, since other people enjoy it and gets me used to playing while people hear it. –  Binary Phile Jun 13 '11 at 15:13

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