Coping with Performance Anxiety

I wrote these notes for my adult students to help them overcome their anxiety about performing in my forthcoming concert. They are coming to my home a couple of days before the event for an evening ‘soirée’ of music and wine – an opportunity to play their concert pieces in (I hope!) a non-threatening environment, amongst friends.

First, it’s ok to feel nervous! It is normal, and it is a sign that the body’s “fight or flight mechanism” – i.e. the production of adrenaline – is working properly. Performance anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways; the most common physical symptoms are:

  • Dry mouth
  • Moist hands
  • Trembling hands
  • Nausea
  • Palpitations

I find Pilates-type deep breathing (“thoracic breathing”) very useful for dealing with anxiety. The physical act of breathing like this calms you down. It also forces you to focus. When I am playing and I make a mistake, or I find my concentration slipping, I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. This helps me refocus.

Learning to deal with performance anxiety is a useful skill, and will make any kind of public performance, musical or otherwise, easier to deal with.

1.    Before you perform, take time to remind yourself that you have practiced to the best of your ability, that you know the piece intimately, and that even a small slip is not going to put you off. Confidence comes from knowing the piece intimately. Before the main performance, play it for family and friends and imagine yourself in a concert situation.

2.    Do not be self-critical. Do not pre-judge the event or draw conclusions about what just happened or what might happen. Self-criticism is pointless because it destroys your focus and takes you out of the here and now. Rather than judge your playing, simply observe it without saying anything. Do not over-analyse, play from the heart.

3.    Avoid inner dialogue. Do not distract yourself with the “what ifs” and the “maybes”. Focus on the music. Hear it in your head and imagine your fingers on the keyboard.

4.    Do not pre-judge the audience’s reaction. Remember, no one is going to boo, slow hand-clap or heckle. Most people who go to concerts, whether given by professional or amateur musicians, are full of admiration for anyone can get up on stage and do it. Everyone who comes to our concerts is there because they want to be there, to support the performers and to enjoy the music.

5.    When you go to the piano, acknowledge the audience – without them it would not be concert! – but then try to blank them out: look straight ahead at the score.

6.    When you sit down to play, take a moment to compose yourself. It is up to you when you start – the audience must be patient. Think about where your hands should be on the keyboard. Get acquainted with the look of the piano – if it’s an unfamiliar instrument.

7.    Just before you begin, take a deep breath and breathe out slowly. As you exhale, allow your fingers to float onto the keys – and then begin. Remember to breathe when you’re playing – it’s amazing how many people hold their breath when they are playing! If you feel your focus slipping, use the deep-breathing technique to help you.

8.    When you have finished, let your hands float off the keyboard. Wait for a moment and then stand and acknowledge the audience again

Cue rapturous applause!


    • If you have the opportunity to play for other people, do it as it can really help. Gradually, you stop being so fearful of what the audience are thinking and you become more and more focussed on the music. I think it was Arthur Rubenstein who used to single out an attractive woman in the audience and play only for her! I try to forget the audience is there. Barry Green’s book The Inner Game of Music is full of invaluable advice, together with Seymour Bernstein’s With Your Own Two Hands. Good luck!! 🙂

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