Performance Anxiety Anonymous

Last week, I hosted a workshop on performance anxiety for the London Piano Meetup Group. We used a small room with a grand piano at The Music Studios on London’s Marylebone Lane, just around the corner from the Wigmore Hall, appropriately. The aim of the workshop was to offer strategies for coping with anxiety for a small group of mostly novice performers, of varying levels, from near-beginner to diploma. Seated in a rough semi-circle around the piano, one of the participants admitted that it was rather like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – hence the title of this post.

In fact the AA analogy is not inappropriate, for there is a great deal of taboo and shame surrounding performance anxiety, with many people feeling they should not admit to feeling nervous ahead of and/or during a performance. So, to kick off the workshop, I stressed the fact that performance anxiety is normal and that even top professional musicians suffer from the unpleasant effects of nerves and stage fright. We then talked about individual symptoms from headache and cold hands to nausea and shaking, palpitations and sweating. People described particular instances where they felt nerves had got the better of them and spoiled or harmed a performance or exam. The overriding theme of this discussion was “fear” – fear of making mistakes, of looking stupid in front of one’s peers or the audience, or the fear of receiving negative feedback from colleagues, peers and others.

The unpleasant physical symptoms of performance anxiety are due to the effect of the release of adrenaline, the “fight or flight hormone”. It’s the hormone that, when we lived in caves, made us decide whether to run away from the sabre-toothed tiger, or stay and fight it. Now, performing it nothing like fighting a sabre-toothed tiger, though for some it can feel as momentous, frightening and difficult. Adrenaline can be used in a positive way too and it can actually raise our performance, making us “play up” and play with more expression, emotional depth and communication.

For me, the most significant and useful process in conquering my performance anxiety (which had developed over many years of hardly playing the piano, and limited performance experience when at school) was reaching a state of acceptance: accepting that the state of mind and body is normal and that one is “allowed” to feel nervous. Giving ourselves this permission can help us let go of some of the negative psychological effects and messages we give ourselves when we are nervous.

A couple of members of the group then admitted that when they had said to themselves “oh I don’t care, I’ve probably failed this exam anyway!” their playing improved. This is another aspect of ‘acceptance’.

We then discussed pre-empting one’s performance with negative messages such as “I know I’m going to play badly”, “I played this better at home”, “I’ll probably make a mistake”. Instead, one should replace such harmful messages with positive affirmation such as “I know my pieces” (to quote Vladimir Horowitz), “I feel nervous but I am also excited about performing these pieces”, and “I can do it!”.

We also talked about performance rituals and drugs, including the use of products such as Rescue Remedy and beta blockers (which should be used under the guidance of a doctor), and “good luck charms”, including favourite shoes, clothing or jewellery, which can help create positive feelings. Finally, we all did some deep breathing exercises, which can be wonderfully useful in helping one feel calmer and centred, both before and during a performance.

Finally, each participant gave a short performance, with the rest of the group offering supportive comments and enthusiastic applause. We talked about how we felt after we had performed, and I hope everyone who took part in the exercise found the workshop useful and positive. You can download my notes from the meeting here.

Remember, don’t feel embarrassed about admitting that you suffer from performance anxiety: it is perfectly normal!

Pieces played at the workshop:

Beatrice – Little Prelude in C minor BWV 999/JS Bach

Phillipa – Minuet in A/Krieger

Tina – Etude op.10 no. 3 ‘Tristesse’/Chopin

Steven – The Power of Love

Rick – Sonata in G/Scarlatti

Alison – Ivan Sings/Khachaturian

Fran – A Sad Song/Kabalevsky


The Music Studios, Marylebone Lane

The Inner Game of Music – a blog post by pianist Alisdair Hogarth on performance anxiety