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Normally when I have a piano performance/recital I tend to get nervous. I have done a couple of exams, and all I do is stare at the wall. But then I start sweating and then my hands are all sweaty which makes matter worse.

Are there any ways to not get nervous, and not get sweaty hands before a performance, or test? This year I am starting a competition, and I hope to have an answer before it starts.

So far some tactics:

  • Chewing gum
  • Eat bananas
  • Practice in front of friends, family, audience
  • Breathing exercise
  • Eat cantaloupe
  • Pretending the only thing there is the piano, music and you.
  • Keep practising your songs
  • Might not work for you, but chewing gum beforehand often relaxes me. – FlipTack Dec 28 '17 at 16:50
  • @FlipTack I could try that. I've heard that works for some people – iiRosie1 Dec 28 '17 at 16:54
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    Eating a banana before the performance is supposed to help with being nervous. I had a conductor who would eat a banana before every concert he played, and he said that when he auditioned for college, he ate three bananas. – General Nuisance Dec 28 '17 at 17:59
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    I knew a conductor who would eat about 5-10 bananas to prepare for a performance. – Clarinetist Dec 28 '17 at 19:08
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    Just curious - are the nerves just before performing in front of people? Or do you basically get nervous in front of an audience, whether it be a speech, answer in front of the class, or perform with an instrument? – BruceWayne Dec 28 '17 at 19:53

17 Answers 17

17

How often do you practice in front of others? You could try asking people to join you while you practice, or find a public piano and jump on to practice. The idea is to have more experience playing in front of people than just at the recital or test. The more familiar you are with a given situation, the more comfortable/less anxious you're capable of being.

However, some people actually have performance anxiety for their whole lives. Bob Dylan is said to still get anxious before shows and he has literally been on tour since 1988, referred to as the Never Ending Tour. This is a situation that is a little harder to overcome but not impossible. Lots of these people only feel anxious until they get on stage, then they're fine, presumably because they are doing the thing they are comfortable with at that point. For something like this to work, you have to be extremely well practiced, having the piece(s) memorized and not having more than maybe one or two spots that you're not feeling 100% confident in (obviously virtuosic passages may still be concerning due to the sheer difficulty).

Beyond all that, if you can't get your anxiety under control, you could consider speaking with your doctor and getting an anxiety medication for these situations. If you do this, it is very important to take the medication a couple times before the performance(s) to make sure you are entirely aware of how it affects you. Some medications of this type can make you drowsy, which could inhibit your performance, or you may have other side effects. You don't want to be experiencing those side effects for the first time while you're performing.

I did read a story, I believe in the Oliver Sacks book Musicophilia, about a classical performer who always took his anxiety medication before shows. One night he finished his performance and found his pill, which he had thought he had taken, sitting in the green room. After this, he no longer had to take the pill, realizing that it was likely just a placebo.

One thing to realize about this is that anxiety isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's our body communicating with us, reminding us that we're doing something we care about and trying to make sure we're alert and ready. You could attempt to embrace the anxiety with this in mind. Since anxiety can tighten you up, it can be a good cue to stretch out before you perform, which is generally a good idea anyway.

In the end, your solution may be entirely different than what works for others, so it's important to try a few things out and see what works best for you, however, I'd say that getting a prescription should be your last option.

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    +1 Excellent answer. "consider speaking with your doctor and getting an anxiety medication for these situations." I'll go out on a limb and say that Cheech and Chong never had to resort to this. :) – Don Branson Dec 28 '17 at 17:29
  • There is also self medication, yes, but there are legal aspects to consider there as well, depending on your location. – Basstickler Dec 28 '17 at 17:30
  • Indeed. I'm not actually promoting that as a solution, it just came to mind. – Don Branson Dec 28 '17 at 17:32
  • If used legally and medicinally, marijuana may be a great solution, really. As long as you don't get arrested before you get to play! – Basstickler Dec 28 '17 at 17:34
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    There is a courtyard at my university where music students would often go for exactly this reason, it was secluded enough that it didn't really bother people most of the time, but anyone could walk in and listen to you practice whenever they wanted – bendl Dec 29 '17 at 13:59
14

What I used to do before giving a lecture to a large crowd was the following ritual. (I never had time to do this in a music context.) First, hit the restroom; next, eat one small slice of cantaloupe. The purpose being not to worry about discomfort during the talk (or performance); second to get a small amount of water and sugar into the body so that one gets a small blood pressure rise; third, it gives a ritual which whether meaningless or not is calming in itself.

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    Musicians usually substitute whiskey. +1 for 'the ritual'. – Mazura Dec 28 '17 at 18:03
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    I think a ritual that calms and prepares you is the real thrust of this answer. Likely everyone will have to develop a different ritual. I've often gigged at bars where there is no peace or quiet to be had before, during, or after a show, so about 30 - 45 minutes before the show, I go out to my car and put in earplugs and do breathing exercises. I also like to have a little caffeine in me so I'll have some iced tea that I've brought with me. But generally make yourself comfortable and perform a relaxing ritual before every show seems like the best advice. – Todd Wilcox Dec 28 '17 at 18:08
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    Is there also stage 1.5: leave the restroom? ;-) – David Richerby Dec 28 '17 at 21:20
  • What if you can't get hold of cantaloupe? – Strawberry Dec 29 '17 at 0:21
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    @Strawberry "Please note, the following advice will NOT work with Honeydew. I tried that once, and I've never been the same" – SGR Dec 29 '17 at 10:40
10

Being nervous beforehand is part of performing. Back when I was practicing law and arguing cases before the Maine State Supreme Court, I noticed that when I wasn't nervous beforehand my argument would be labored and flat. The key is to use that nervousness. In my case I thought through the various lines that the argument could take and how I could respond; ran through my planned presentation (which never survives contact with the justices); and looked up legal points that I thought I might not be clear about. None of this was planned beforehand; I just went wherever my nervous thoughts took me. As a result, I had far more of the details at my fingertips, ready for use when needed.

  • Fancy that, I'm from Maine... +1 on using your anxiety as the impetus for better preparation – Basstickler Dec 28 '17 at 17:33
10

More performances. Lots more performances.

If it's enough to make you nervous, that's a performance.

Does just pressing record make you nervous? That counts.

Get a friend to randomly come in the room.

Stuff like that.

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    I like the idea of recording yourself. It's a great practicing mechanism, and (for me, at any rate) it raises the stakes and simulates what your performance will be when you're actually in front of an audience. – No don't shown my real name Dec 28 '17 at 20:01
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    Open mics are a good option, if OP does anything that works as a solo performance. You get in front of an audience, but the stakes are low and the audience is very supportive because 90% of them are performing, and the rest are family or friends of somebody performing. – Ed Plunkett Dec 29 '17 at 14:42
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    This worked for me. It took me a year of weekly performances at the open stage, so about 50 performances finally get me to where I can perform without so much fear that it hurts my playing. – Wayne Conrad Dec 30 '17 at 5:11
8

There was a study done where it was attempted to reframe pre-performance anxiety as excitement. The idea was that you could choose to interpret your physical reaction (fast heartbeat, etc.) as fear or excitement -- that the body behaves similar in both circumstances.

The paper is available online, but The Atlantic also covered it.

Here is the abstract (emphasis added)

Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement

Alison Wood Brooks, Harvard Business School

Abstract

Individuals often feel anxious in anticipation of tasks such as speaking in public or meeting with a boss. I find that an overwhelming majority of people believe trying to calm down is the best way to cope with pre-performance anxiety. However, across several studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance, I investigate an alternative strategy: reappraising anxiety as excitement. Compared to those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better. Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying "I am excited" out loud) or simple messages (e.g., "get excited"), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mindset (as opposed to a threat mindset), and improve their subsequent performance. These findings suggest the importance of arousal congruency during the emotional reappraisal process.

  • Something to do with adrenalin? – Tim Dec 29 '17 at 8:37
5

Nerves are a sign that you care. This is a GOOD thing. An actor once said to me:

  • There was once an actress who was so scared she was having heart palpitations backstage before going onstage. She was so nervous she couldn't walk onstage. Instead, she stood there, worrying she was going to mess up. An actor came up to her and informed her that it was simply her vanity getting in the way. You are worried that YOU are going to look stupid. Stop it. THERE IS NO REASON why your vanity should get in the way of your skillset. Don't worry about what COULD happen or why you are getting so NERVOUS, that is not helpful. It's natural. Just got out, and do your thing, that you have rehearsed and practiced for. Don't let these gremlins, these nerves get in your way from being fabulous.
4

I'd say this topic touches on psychology, and how to handle anxiety in effective ways.

Apart from pharmacotreatment, there is plenty of evidence regarding the efficiency of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for reducing anxiety in these situations. If done properly by a certified professional there are zero side effects, and the treatment outcome will last you a lifetime.

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    Can you expand on CBT? Maybe a link where we can go study it more. I interpreted CBT as Computer-based training at first, but you probably mean Cognitive behavioral therapy. – Don Branson Dec 28 '17 at 18:38
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    Yep, cognitive behavioral therapy. It would be unethical for me to try to assess the original poster, but generally speaking i'd say that Clark and Wells' social anxiety treatment model (even though performance anxiety does not entirely qualify as social anxiety per se) would have an effect on performance anxiety. There are lots of published research articles on C&W's work, and you'll probably also be able find good self help material online or in book form. – Erik Dec 28 '17 at 20:05
4

I had a music student who was so terrified of performance she couldn't play her songs in front of me in a private rehearsal room. I told her to go busk, play in the subway (this is New York City) or in the park. Once 2000 people an hour ignore you and you don't die it gets better. She did that and went on to perform in the local folk club in front of her friends.

I generally don't trust a player that doesn't get at least a little nervous before the show because many times they get deer-in-the-headlights as soon as the show starts. I find a routine can help. Reading. Chess, cards, discussing something off topic. Doing anything besides going over the upcoming cues last minute. Note that routine shouldn't be booze because that gets boring, at least for the audience which is where it counts.

2

Many people find their performance anxiety can be defused using "tapping", that is, Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). A 3-minute tutorial on how to do it can be found here. Some additional description and suggestions can also be found here.

Tapping can be done at a time and place remote from the event, or immediately preceding your taking the stage, or both. The focus in the first case may be any trauma you might have experienced as a result of embarrassment or performance failure or criticism. The focus in the latter case might be your physical symptoms (e.g. sweaty hands) or fears associated with performance failure in the current instance (the worst that can happen).

2

A lot of good answers here. Try all of them. I'm not a doctor but:

Propranolol is often used by performing musicians to reduce the physical symptoms of nervousness without dulling the mind or affecting dexterity.

Propanolol is a beta-blocker so it's very important that you discuss its use with your doctor. Fortunately, it's quite cheap.

Framing, as mentioned above, is very effective at reducing performance anxiety. Things I used to tell myself included:

  • The audience does not know my intention. Unless I act like I made a mistake chances are they will never know.
  • In jazz, "If you play it twice, it isn't a mistake."
  • Also in jazz, "There are no mistakes, only interesting choices."

You might also try ignoring the audience and the judges. They don't exist. The only thing that really exists is the piano and the music and you. Everything else is on a television in the room with you.

In addition, you may want to practice performance in non-musical areas. Act in community theatre. Take up public speaking. Perform all the time. Performance and practice are two entirely different things. Practice is perfection. Performance is presentation. Make a strong impression.

Have fun.

  • Wow. Thanks. I liked how you included " The only thing that really exists is the piano and the music and you. Everything else is on a television in the room with you." – iiRosie1 Dec 29 '17 at 19:57
  • You're very welcome. Please upvote. Upvotes are love. :-) – pro Dec 30 '17 at 1:23
  • Lol okay, there ya go! :-) – iiRosie1 Dec 30 '17 at 1:25
2

Pretending the only thing there is the piano, music and you.

It might be more helpful to imagine the opposite. Before practicing a piece or arrangement, pretend you are in a room full of people. In theory, over time, if you’re able to simulate the on-stage feeling adequately, it should help regulate your nervousness down to a manageable level.

If you have trouble imagining something that isn’t real (like a room full of people), there are things you can try to loosen up your ability to suspend disbelief.

Think of a time when you recall believing something that wasn’t true — you were sure it was true because there seemed to be no evidence otherwise — only to find out you were missing key information. One example is a surprise party. Remember walking into your house to see it empty, only to have all of your friends and acquaintances jump out from behind furniture to cheerily surprise you. If that’s possible, perhaps a room full of people would be willing sneak into your practice room each time you turn your back to sit down on the bench. As a more extreme example, perhaps you’ve had others plant a livestream camera in your practice room that you control with a switch that when turned on thousands are waiting to watch and listen as you practice.

All things considered, each person is unique and it might be that suspending disbelief for such an imagination is just not something you’re able to do very well and/or doesn’t really help you prepare for real situations. However, I presume it to be considerably easier to imagine yourself in a room full of people when the room is empty than imagine an empty room in a room full of people. Because, no one is actually watching you pretend in the former.

Disclaimer: elaborate imagination of people watching you can (out of context) make you appear paranoid ;)

1

First and foremost, recognize that being somewhat nervous is actually beneficial and will enhance your performance. It is only if your nervousness is excessive that it will interfere with your performance.

Those who regularly perform run the risk of losing that nervousness edge, which can lead to overconfidence and, in consequence, a weaker performance. So don't work to eliminate that nervousness completely, but rather to control and leverage it to even greater performance.

1

I suffer from exactly the same problem. My solution was two fold :-

  1. Beta blockers as mentioned earlier.
  2. Chalk powder on my hands. I used to be a rock climber and tried the chalk bag I still had to see if I could beat the sweaty palms and fingers.

I never managed to 'mentally' beat the nerves. Just overpowered them with these other measures. I also shoot competitively and found the exact same problems in this field of performance. My heart thumped so hard, I literally couldn't hold the firearm still. It bounced with every beat of my heart.

I got some funny side effects from the Pro-Paronal (Beta Blockers) so I definitely wouldn't take them unless you speak to a doctor first, though if you're in the UK you won't get them (legally) any other way

1

openquestions' answer above is excellent for a general audience, but since the OP mentions piano: join twitch.tv [or a site that specializes in music, if you find Twitch distasteful] and livestream yourself performing. Even if you attract only a couple of viewers [or your friends/family - or no one at all!] the fact that someone might be watching is often enough to help you confront any performance-related fears.

In addition to being more convenient than lugging a piano across town ( :-) ), this has the advantage of not requiring a busking license, a potentially long trip into a city where busking is legal, etc. There may still be legal requirements around performing rights if you play pieces or arrangements which are under copyright.

0

From my own experience, lots of stage time is key, as many hours and nights as you can get.

I got over stage fright early in my career, but I had a different problem for a while. Playing in front of a huge audience was just as fun as for an intimate audience, however if one of my mentors or "idols" was there I'd choke up and play terrible.

One of those same mentors helped me through this by making something very clear:

No one in the audience, including mentors and idols, wants to hear me play what I think they want to hear. They are there to hear what I like to play.

Once I stopped playing careful, stopped trying to please certain audience members and did my thing instead, everything got better and more relaxed and it's been that way ever since. I guess that's another way of talking about the key to happiness, be yourself.

Not sure how much of this applies to you but it was a powerful thing for me so I wanted to share.

0

My best performance ever was one where I had forgotten the lines in a play. People started booing and then stopped booing. My mind blanked out, and in the lull, I suddenly remembered my lines. I delivered, perfectly, to a pin drop silent audience. It was a competition. I was the director and a supporting actor. We won first place. Never underestimate the power of nervousness.

0

My suggestion would be to know the material so well that you have confidence that you could (almost literally) play it backwards. I've played in several bands in 100s of performances and when I had confidence that there would be no problems, I could relax and had no stress/stagefright. I can remember the different feelings when, say, a new member who wasn't up to scratch (or was just rubbish) would make me nervous, compared to 'knowing' everything would be OK because we all rehearsed enough that we had confidence in each other's ability that any mistakes wouldn't be noticed and could be 'hidden' from the audience.

  • You don't seem to be describing stage fright, but rather the inherent stress of performing while under-prepared (either as an individual or as an ensemble). However, people who have stage fright get (very) nervous regardless of their preparation. I am not sure this is relevant to the OP's situation. – 11684 Jan 1 '18 at 17:04

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