I've been playing guitar for around 12 years or so, but never played in front of others while learning (minus family members or friends on occasion). Recently, I convinced myself to finally start performing solo acoustic guitar at open mics. However, besides the normal nerves of playing in front of people (which I'm working on), my hands tense up rather quickly once I start playing.

I play finger-style acoustic guitar (Andy McKee, Don Ross, Calum Graham, etc.) and need my hands and fingers to be able to remain flexible during performances. For example, I just performed Calum Graham's piece called 12:34, but there are quite a few pinch harmonics throughout. (Including a few instances where they are the focus of a phrase.) When I practice at home, they are not an issue, but my hands get tense when performing and the harmonics do not ring out, or sound at all. A lot of the time, I find that the first pinch is decent, but as I play the following notes, it's as if my thumb ceases to move and doesn't do the actual pinch motion.

I was hoping that someone here might have advice for this specific issue. Is this just directly tied to the stage fright? Or are there any exercises that may help alleviate this problem? If it is just due to the stage fright, does anyone have tips on overcoming the nerves for a live-performance-newbie (besides repeatedly performing)?

Obviously, there are MANY more problems with my live performances, but my hands' flexibility is absolutely crucial for this style of playing so I'm focusing on that for now.

Any tips for playing this style (or playing live in general) would be greatly appreciated! The frequent mistakes are not great for the confidence to force myself back on the stage. Thanks in advance!

  • 2
    Do you practice in the same posture as when performing? Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 17:35
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    I noticed a suggested edit by a user named "Acoustic Tony". If this is you, User Tony, you might want to contact the moderation team to merge the two accounts.
    – user45266
    Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 0:18

2 Answers 2


This is an interesting question. Before finishing the entire description I would have opted for your technique is not up to par and you are getting fatigued. However, you point out that this does not bother you at home and that it starts right away on stage (after the first pinch).

If this is solely a performance anxiety issue it's probably psychological. You are nervous and that causes muscles to tense. Once they tense it's a vicious cycle!

After one mishap the mind might go to one of two places in my experience. (1) I need to repeat that last bit and get it right, or (2) oh no it's falling apart I hope the next one isn't so bad.

Neither of these is a useful mind frame for performance. If this is a fair evaluation of what's going on then I can relate as I have had varying degrees of stage fright in my life. One thing to consider is that if you are playing solo (no back up) then you really are naked (and possibly afraid [couldn't resist]). What helps me is working with bands either as the front or as back up. If you can get on stage and back someone else up for a song or two that may give you a chance to acclimate to the climate and relax a bit while someone else has the heat on them. Sorry if that sounds selfish but it's true. Of course you need to do a decent job as a back up or all eyes are on you, but in my experience this is a low key task. It puts you in front of the audience for a while in a non-threatening way and hopefully in time your nerves will calm down.

It has been my experience that my stage fright peaks right before the first song but then completely vanishes. This is probably due to years of live playing. The calm during the storm is critical for job security. I do it for a living and if I had the problem you are describing that would not be possible.

Sight readers have the problem of wanting to stop and go back when they mess up and that is not possible during a gig. One thing that helps with this is to do regular sight reading exercises. There are good books by William Levitt on this. The goal is not to read a song to learn it but to set the metronome at a decent speed and NEVER STOP, even if you F@$k up. Always stay on beat and either stop and jump in on time or recover as gracefully as possible. I am not suggesting that you have a sight reading problem but this method can help you relax during performance. The same tension builds (or used to build) when I played in large orchestras and missed a cue or felt like I might fall out of sync with the group. That mishap causes extreme tension and loss of confidence and eventually an inability to move forward. You could try the same approach when practicing at home by simply pretending you are on stage and either playing with a metronome or a recording of the song(s) you want to perform. If you mess up, let it go, DON'T STOP just pick up ASAP. The flow of time will not stop for you, or anyone, and that is one thing live performance teaches you. Keep track of how well or poorly you do with the pick up and try, try, again. You will find that even though mistakes come you are better able to handle them gracefully.

Now on to technique. Based on what you have said I'm going to guess that your technique is fine but it is worth mentioning that if you have any bad habits, or poorly developed techniques, or even if you don't know the songs you are playing perfectly, these will all come out amplified by 100x's when you get nervous. If your hand is cramping to fatigue you are definitely squeezing too hard but my question to you is, do you practice long enough at home to know when you will fatigue? Believe it or not many guitarists practice bits and pieces of songs, and get really good, but don't rehearse the entire pieces. On performance day they might fall apart 2 minuets into a 5 minute song because they haven't tested themselves. Be honest with yourself. If you have noodled with a tune and really think you know it make sure you are playing several times in a row without fatigue before attempting it on stage. If you cannot get through it w/o a hand cramp or other issue at home it will not happen on stage. And again, nerves will make it worse. What I'm saying is make sure your body is really ready for it. That will help reduce the amount of tension generated by stage fright. It's all about reducing risk. If you know the song inside out and don't fatigue you might be able to let your body take over. If you cannot get through the tune several times at home then you are probably not ready. If you start getting hand pain you may need to evaluate your technique and improve it.

Last but not least on the stage fright front usually playing more makes it go away. But if you get the same type of anxiety talking to people in tense situations, like returning something at a store, giving a presentation at work, you might want to try regular meditation or TM. The long term effects are that the tendency to get anxiety simply goes away in all situations.

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    +1. Like I say to students - you can't unmake a mistake. It's already happened - carry on, take no notice, keep up with the piece. And always blame the bass player (often me...)
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 7:04
  • Hey ggcg I had a longer message I wanted to leave, but I'm not 100% sure how one does that so I'm just leaving a comment. Thank you for all the advice! There were a lot of issues with the initial performance of 12:34, but my second go around was much smoother. I learned the tune in a week because I was so hopped up on inspiration so I think I needed a little more time to practice.
    – Tony
    Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 18:14
  • @Tony, I'm glad it helped and that your second attempt was better. It is really easy to "get hopped up" when playing out. At least you want to rather than staying in.
    – user50691
    Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 18:54

Playing in front of an audience has almost nothing in common with playing at home with family and friends, so stage fright sets in and you tense up. Not only that, but your hyper- critical ears kick in and you hear things about your own playing that you never noticed before and often it throws your concentration off. It feels somewhat traumatic when it's happening, at least it did for me. If I remember correctly, I faced that dilemma for a few weeks when I first started playing publicly, and although my performances were not a pleasant thing for me, I eventually came to realize I was still standing at the end of the performance, the trauma was all in my head, and others had enjoyed my performance and some were returning to see me perform again. What was happening for me was the negative feelings were being replaced with the positive feedback from the audience. Add to that, performing in public was less and less a new experience and the uncertainty that goes with new experiences was fading for me each time I performed. Now, I make certain I'm well fed and rested and take steps to insure my own comfort, comfortable shoes and clothes and the like, when I'm on stage and I approach the whole thing as a social situation that I'm there to enjoy, as opposed to a performance that someone may decide to critique. I just kept in mind that I really wanted to be a performer and I wasn't going to let stage fright stop me. And it didn't.

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