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I have a big performance coming up and I am SUPER anxious that I'll mess up the song or something. I need help from anyone who has had experience with orchestra concerts and that sort of thing. How can I keep a level head? (I play violin.)

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    I'd recommend reading The Musicians Way by Gerald Klickstein. It deals a lot with questions like these. Maybe not enough time to take it in for the upcoming concert, but for the next one... – Meaningful Username Mar 23 '15 at 21:46
  • @MeaningfulUsername Somehow I missed that book in all my music education and training. I picked it up yesterday, and it already seems to be worth its weight in gold. – Greg Jackson Mar 24 '15 at 17:52
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    If it makes you feel better, Rachmaninov used to feel the same about his own Paganini Variations and resorted to booze: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… "[...] presents considerable technical difficulty for the pianist, [...] Rachmaninoff confessed trepidation over his ability to play it. [...] had a glass of crème de menthe to steady his nerves. [...] prior to every subsequent performance of the Rhapsody, he drank crème de menthe." I find this story amusing, perhaps thinking about it before climbing on stage will put you in a relaxed mood :) – Some Dude On The Interwebs Mar 25 '15 at 8:24
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    before you do a concert or performance just relax and think of how much fun its going to be, then you will do just fine and the nerves will go away. it gets easier after a long time and then its no problem at all – Angel Mar 8 '18 at 14:11

13 Answers 13

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Firstly, realize that it's normal to be anxious before an important performance. Experienced performing musicians often still have some level of anxiety, and there are even stories of some big-name artists who still get nervous. That said, there are definitely some things you can do to lessen both the anxiety and its impact on your performance.

Use the anxiety: One very common technique is to transform the anxiety into energy. You may think that energy and stage presence are the domain of rock musicians or opera singers, but even individual members of a large ensemble have to convey that energy to their audience. When you get a jolt of nerves, that's your brain dumping adrenaline into your bloodstream. Tell yourself that you're not nervous, you're excited or amped up. It's really the same thing, physiologically. The difference is your mental state.

Take care of your health: Many amateur musicians, and some professionals, underestimate the impact of taking care of themselves on their performance and on their mental state. Make sure you're getting plenty of sleep (7.5 hours+ if you can manage it), drinking plenty of water (I easily drink a gallon and a half or more throughout the day), and getting a reasonable amount of exercise (I find cardio in particular useful, but it's up to you). If you're not taking care of yourself, the increased stress on your body will put increased stress on your mind.

Prepare well: Obviously, if you're not properly prepared, you're not going to have a good performance, and this will make you much more anxious. Make sure you practice properly and for enough time, and make sure to take a little time before the performance to mentally prepare yourself (breathing exercises, meditation, a nap, or just laying back with a favorite beverage), and to warm up thoroughly (but don't be tempted to use the time for last-minute practice).

Realize that live performances are often not perfect: Ask (nearly) any performing musician, and they'll tell you that they've made their fair share of mistakes during performances, often ones that they were very embarrassed about or that felt like stupid mistakes.

Studio recordings use the best bits and pieces from as many takes as is necessary, and are picked through and polished meticulously. Live music isn't so. No amount of preparation can keep you from being human or can make you perform above your skill level (practicing makes you better, but no amount of practice makes a first year violin student on par with a professional).

Do your best, learn from your mistakes, and seek to minimize them, but don't beat yourself up when you do screw up. As you get better, you'll begin to learn how to roll with mistakes and make them less noticeable, and to recover from them smoothly. The real secret of professionals isn't that they never make a mistake, but rather that they cover it up skillfully and recover quickly.

Also remember that the vast majority of the time that you make a mistake, the audience doesn't notice. Most of the rest of the time, they don't care. If you don't acknowledge the mistake (for example, by grimacing), then that's not what they'll likely remember.

I'll share with you the word-for-word advice that my choir director gave me before my first solo gig: "The hard work is over with the writing and practicing and planning. Time to coast and enjoy! Write off the foibles. Live music isn't ever airbrushed--that why we love it!"

(Bonus) Get some "help": This is not advice that can, or should, be applied universally, but in the interest of creating an answer that's broadly applicable to the community, and in having a frank discussion about some of the techniques that musicians use, I'm including it here.

There are a few techniques to relieve anxiety that involve ingesting certain substances. The three that come to mind are alcohol, herbal supplements (no, not that kind of herbal supplement), and prescription medicines.

Alcohol: Some musicians find that a small amount of alcohol helps relax them. Others find that it throws them completely off. I'm not advocating underage or excessive drinking, and, in fact, it's incredibly important to be extremely familiar with how alcohol affects you, in general and musically, before you try this in a performance.

Herbal: The main herbal supplement that comes to mind is Kava root. It helps relieve anxiety in general, and can be useful to musicians. It does have side effects that could make it potentially dangerous for some people, so I'd advise working with a doctor.

Prescription medicines: Some doctors are willing to prescribe beta-blockers to reduce nervousness for performing musicians. I've never tried them, but I know a performing musician who is also a medical doctor who swears by them. These have a strong potential for interactions and side effects, and should never be used except under the close supervision of a doctor.

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    In case anyone's serious about getting rid of shaky hands/the jitters when performing: propanolol. – Matthew Mar 24 '15 at 6:37
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    In my opinion, using substances to achieve relaxation is a high-risk choice which can lead to dependency, and in normal circumstances, should be avoided in favor of almost anything else. – brainbolt Mar 24 '15 at 17:09
  • As I mentioned, I included it for the sake of completeness. I'm certainly not advocating abuse. As we all know, many musicians fall into that trap. That said, for someone who's not susceptible to alcoholism, drinking a single beer or a glass of wine before a performance isn't particularly high risk... though still should be done with great discretion and a full understanding of its effects. – Greg Jackson Mar 24 '15 at 17:26
  • @Matthew Propanolol is a beta blocker, so it's already on my list. A different doctor friend very strongly cautioned me against its unsupervised use, and mentioned that I'm unlikely to convince a competent doctor to prescribe me any, since my (very slight, long ago) history of asthma makes taking it especially risky. – Greg Jackson Mar 24 '15 at 17:30
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There is some good advice here but I think the most important thing to remember is to learn to shift your mind to focus on the music and not on yourself. Think about presenting the music in the best possible way for the sake of the music. If you can forget about everything but the music and make the music the focus, you should have no trouble at all.

Just tell yourself that it's not about you, it's about the music. If you make it about you, all sorts of thoughts will be running through your head. "What if I mess up? What will people think about my performance? Will I get distracted? Will I lose my place? Will people be looking at me?

It's a mental shift from yourself to the music. Start practicing performing in front of others as a way to learn to make this mental shift - from yourself to presenting the music the way you know you are capable of - for the sake of the music.

It's the same concept that allows a parent to do things for their child, that they would never even think about doing if the focus was on themselves. Like the mother who does not hesitate to jump in the pool to save her child who just went under, even though she can't swim and would never otherwise be persuaded to jump in the pool. She loses sight of herself in that situation and shifts her mental focus to saving her child and there is no fear or hesitation.

Or a parent who will stand up and speak in public on behalf of his/her child who would otherwise never have the courage to speak in public if it was about themselves and not about their child (or perhaps even their pet).

If you learn to make this mental shift, you can be confident that your performance will be the same as if you were just playing for your own enjoyment with nobody listening. Good luck!

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  • This is excellent advice in general. Giving a talk for example, is easiest done if you speak passionately about the subject rather than try to put on an act. Some people say "Be yourself" whatever that means. No. Be the music. – chasly - supports Monica Feb 6 at 23:36
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Those two points help me get through anxiety on the day of the concert. The days before are usually better used practicing than thinking about it.

  • My life is not in danger. It may sound obvious, but to our old reptilian self, it's pretty much alike. Keep in mind that whatever happens, you probably will not lose something really important. You may fail an exam, lose a job opportunity or something. But no need for our heart to race so much.
  • I won't be playing this passage any better five minutes from now. This also may sound obvious, but when on the verge of getting on stage, when the tension is at it's highest: keep that in mind. Whatever you can do, the only thing you have is yourself, so enjoy it. Forget everything, and go have fun.

It's easy to try to focus on technique during performance, which may or may not help you make less mistakes, however especially in ensemble music, and to a lesser but still important extent when soloing or playing with piano, making music should be the primary concern, not escaping mistakes.

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In my experience, breathing is the one of the most important things there. When we get anxious we trend to block our breath cycles and this causes more anxiety, as the brain seems to start working in an "under danger" mode. If you can get back to the basic breathing (don't forget to exhaled! most initial artists forget that to take a deep breath you need to clean out the air before!) your brain will get back to the "normal mode", and you will feel the anxiety fading away. Search for how to control anxiety using deep breath. This pre-stage anxiety is the same as any other anxiety, but in a minor scale, easier to control when you get used to it.

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    I find it works in major scales too! Couldn't resist it... – Tim Mar 24 '15 at 12:23
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One of my instructors told me something that has stuck with me - the audience doesn't care what you just did, they care what you're doing right now. Like others have said, when you perform, you will make some mistakes. But if you dwell on that and let your anxiety get the best of you, that'll just lead to more. Instead, just like the audience, forget about the mistake and keep focus on what you're doing in the moment.

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First, it might help to have a little more clarity on the root of the anxiety you are feeling. Are you simply afraid that you will play imperfectly, or does this have something to do with what others will think of you, or something else? Get clear about your fears, and you might see some strategies for addressing them.

Second, consider practicing performing. Ask some friends to watch you perform your music in a private setting, or do your practicing in a public place where there are a lot of people around. Make the setting as real as you can - recreate the pressure so you can get accustomed to it.

It is also important to understand that feeling nervousness and anxiety is a normal part of the process which tends to change with experience. I'm not sure where you are in terms of experience, but I have found that pre-performance anxiety simply decreases with time, so one strategy would be to simply accept it. In fact, there are some interesting ideas out there that suggests that what you believe about your stress/anxiety has a dramatic effect on your health, and (I suspect) on the result of it (http://ideas.ted.com/7-ways-stress-does-your-mind-and-body-good/). If you believe that the anxiety you are feeling is your body preparing you to perform well in a challenging situation, it just might be more likely to do that.

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You reduce you anxiety buy practicing and playing in front of people. Just like a sportsperson also has nerves at the beginning of his career musicians will also have it but by constantly playing in front of people you get used to the pressure and you learn to cope with it.

You play in front of anyone who would listen. Your parents, at the mall, at retirement villages, at house concerts. It is a slow and arduous process to build up your confidence.

Your first performance should not be the big event. Play a host of smaller events to hep build you nerve.

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Jumping Jacks.

Seriously, there'a ton of literature on how you can change your body's response to anxiety with some simple physical exertion like Jumping Jacks, Pushups, etc. Good luck!

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There are three things that can go wrong in a performance:

  1. You make a mistake. This is entirely forgiveable! Probably no-one will notice.
  2. You play without feeling. This is much worse! Bear in mind that the more you enjoy your performance, the more your audience will! Consider that it is your duty to have fun and you should relax a bit more.
  3. Your equipment lets you down. This is the only one you can do anything to avoid in the last few days before the concert. It may apply more to electric instruments than violin, but if you want to channel your anxiety into something useful, this would be it. A big gig is usually the time I treat myself to a new lead for my guitar, just to be sure I won't get a bad connection on stage. I'll also maybe change the strings (but a good week before, so they settle in and don't go out of tune!)
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Lots of excellent answers here.

Here comes Captain Obvious to chime in, however: have you tried seeing a psychologist/therapist?

I wouldn't be surprised if they know of techniques based on more than anecdotal evidence to deal with this

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  • The pianist Claudio Arrau credited psychotherapy with being immensely helpful in both overcoming stage fright as well as deepening his musical interpretation. If I come across the source where I read this, I'll update. (Might have been Harold Schonberg's "The Great Pianists", which is well worth a read even if not the source for this comment.) – Aaron Feb 6 at 22:19
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There are a two easy ways that I cope with the anxiety and stress before a concert and that is:

  1. Take DEEP BREATHS before you begin to play and let go of all your fear
  2. Take your mind off of the concert. Don't think about the concert, just think about other things. For example, read a book or watch a movie. Anything works that does not involve the concert and this includes practicing! Don't over practice! You'll make it worse! Play the piece a few times through, but, don't play it so many times to the point where it starts to hurt.
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Some of the things that help me:

Arrive (very) early

This way, I know I don't have to worry about arriving on time, having time to dress, having time to prepare my instrument ... any pre-concert prep needed, I'll have plenty of time -- ideally, with time to spare to just chill out or maybe chat with whomever else is around.

Eat (or not)

I find that eating something -- especially something on the fatty side -- helps calm me down. Not so much that I feel full, but just enough that my body uses some of its energy to digest and has a feeling of "safety".

The caveat here is that many musicians find that just the opposite works best for them and pointedly don't eat until after a performance.

Close your eyes and ears

Sometimes I'll sit in the dark or cover my eyes to shut out distractions. Also putting on headphones -- whether or not I'm listening to anything -- to shut out auditory distractions. This just gives my mind less to process overall, even if on an unconscious level. A cell-phone alarm on vibrate will let me know when I have to return to the world.

Regarding the headphones: silence is good, but I also suggest white noise, relaxing music, or, if you want a focus, a recorded book.

Pantomime the music

I find "rehearsing" in my mind difficult, because the nervousness interferes. More successful for me it to go through the physical motions of playing the music, but without my instrument. This helps connect my mind to my body, which is something that goes when I'm nervous -- I go right into my head.

Keep warm

When I'm anxious, I get very cold. To keep my hands warm, I sit with them gently clasped. (Gently is a key, because squeezing will actually make them colder.)

My preferred hand-clasp:

Image of clasped hands

I also like to hold a warm cup of water/coffee/tea/etc.

I like to cover my head -- my ears being the most important. Earmuffs are good; or a light piece of fabric, like a sheet or scarf -- something that won't mat my hair.


Exercise before practicing

A bass-playing acquaintance would run several miles immediately before practicing. His idea was to get his heart racing and to try to recreate the physical effects of stress, and then practice under those conditions.

Another caveat: I've never tried this one personally.

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I have a lot of experience with this but I can only share my experiences. I'd put the task back on you to provide more info.

  1. At the time of writing this question was this going to be your first performance?

  2. If the answer to 1. is No, does it always happen or does it depend on the nature of the performance.

  3. Does the anxiety fade once you play or grow to the point of impeding your performance or making you sick?

There is a difference between being a little nervous which every human feels and having an anxiety disorder. I true anxiety disorder deserves attention from a therapist or psychiatrist. And it may require medication. But I'd refrain from "self medicating" as this is quite dangerous.

I have had various levels of stage fright throughout my life and the level depends on many factors like; solo performance versus orchestral, classical venue versus playing a club or bar, playing with new people versus an= familiar crew.

In my personal experience playing with an orchestra can be less problematic than solo performance. At least you have a team to back you up. If you're one of 25 violins you'll be fine. If you have a solo that's another story and could be the source of anxiety. For me, nervousness tends to grow more and more up to the point where the playing starts. At that point a calm feeling washes over me. Perhaps I'm lucky that this happens but the way I see it once you are playing nothing else matters. The audience is not there. Ideally you want to play for yourself but in an orchestra you have a boss, the conductor. So just play for them. Just like in rehearsals, it's you, your team mates, and your conductor. Everything else is gone. This might not work for you but it's one approach. This is why I ask more of you in your description of the problem. Perhaps you are afraid of your conductor, have they been harsh with you during practice? If it's the audience's judgement you are afraid of but rehearsal goes well, just imaging you're at rehearsal.

If you do not have a real medical anxiety disorder then With experience you will learn to handle the preperformance nerves. I look forward to them, I see it as excitement rather than fear, but that took training myself to see it that way.

If you really do have an anxiety disorder get help from a therapist. A few things that helped me when I began to experience anxiety (later in life, not at all related to stage performance) was transcendental meditation. People with anxiety can catastrophize things, letting a small mistake or glitch grow in the mind into a bunch of "what if's" or "could have happened", and this makes it worse. TM can train your mind to not go down this path. It's not the only approach but it worked for me. This is a long term solution not something you can do 10min before a show.

Based on your description of having fear of making a mistake, this is the most normal human experience. Everyone has it in every career. As a musician I'd recommend reading "Effortless Mastery" by Kenny Werner. Even if his experience and the way he approached dealing with it do not resonate with you, it's nice to read about it from someone else's point of view.

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