Understanding and coping with the stress of performance

We all have a tendency to post-mortem our performance after a concert, audition, or exam, focusing on the negatives and the errors rather than the good things, and in the heightened state of sensitivity that often accompanies such occasions, small errors can become huge. Of course it is important to review what happened and to reflect upon it, for this informs our future practising, but dwelling too long on mistakes is not healthy as it can  negatively colour our attitude to our music making.

Wouldn’t it wonderful if we could see into the future and predict what is going to happen in a performance? To be able to look ahead and figure out all the things that could go wrong, and try to work out what you can do to prevent those things from happening. We might call this a “pre-mortem”.

The “pre-mortem” technique of risk assessment was devised by research psychologist Gary Klein who found that “prospective hindsight” – imagining that the event has already happened – increases and improves our ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes. We can use this technique to help us prepare for stressful situations – such as performing – and a pre-mortem ahead of that potentially high-stress situation can ensure that rational thinking and reactions are available to you despite the inevitable physical and emotional side-effects of stress.

As musicians the single most important thing we can do to protect ourselves is good preparation. This is not simply practising at the piano but also recording and filming ourselves, playing to other people (teachers, friends, colleagues), playing other pianos, giving practise performances ahead of the big day, visualising the performance and imagining the sounds of the music in our head before we play, recalling previous successful performances, and engaging in positive, affirmative and mindful thinking. This is the musician’s “prospective hindsight” toolbox.

Managing our anxiety is another important aspect – and I refute anyone who says they do not feel nervous ahead of a performance, whether they are a world-class internationally-renowned musician or a young person taking Grade 5. Being nervous is normal; it is also a sign that you care about what you are doing. Understanding why we are nervous is also important: when asked, most people will respond that it is fear of making a mistake that fuels the anxiety.

Fundamentally, performance anxiety is fuelled by straightforward fear, and this is hard-wired into our physiology. There’s an evolutionary reason for this: when face-to-face with a predator, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode and releases stress hormones adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol, which cause certain bodily systems to shut down (for example, the digestive system, the libido, and the immune system) to focus on supplying the brain and muscles with much-needed blood, glucose (sugars) and salts to enable the body to react immediately: stand and fight that sabre-toothed tiger or flee from it as quickly as possible. The physical symptoms of performance anxiety – racing heart, sweating, nausea, trembling – are entirely due to the release of stress hormones, and one’s anxiety can actually increase by worrying about these symptoms.

In a performance situation, the body reacts in exactly the same way as in the sabre-toothed tiger scenario, and the physical side-effects of stress hormones flooding the body can be extremely unsettling when we are trying to be as calm as possible in order to play accurately and well. Many of the techniques suggested for alleviating performance anxiety are to do with “kidding” one’s mental state – positive affirmation (“I can do it!”), Neuro-Linguistic Programming, mindfulness – which can distract one’s mind away from negative thoughts and damaging self-criticism. There are also some very useful physical strategies, including deep-breathing (Pilates-style thoracic breathing) and power poses, which have been proven to reduce cortisol and increase testosterone. In addition to the unpleasant physical symptoms before the performance, many of us also suffer afterwards due the depletion of sugars and salts during physical effort, and the effect of the stress hormones leaving the body and the body settling back into its normal state. frustrated-piano-teacherThese symptoms, which may linger for a good 24 hours post-performance, can include tiredness, grumpiness or depression, and physical aches and pains. Personally, I have found these symptoms more unpleasant than those of pre-performance anxiety. That is until a pianist friend of mine, who is a medic at a leading London teaching hospital, suggested I try using an isotonic sports drink before and after a performance.

Sports people use isotonic drinks, which contain similar concentrations of salt and sugar as in the human body, to help fuel the body when exercising, and to replace electrolytes and carbohydrates which are depleted during exercise. These drinks (the leading brands are Powerade and Gatorade) have also been proven to help patients recover more quickly after undergoing complex colorectal surgery (surgery which puts the body under significant stress) resulting in reduced morbidity rates. I used Powerade before and after a recent concert and took note of the effects. Certainly, I didn’t feel as physically or mentally tired after the performance (c45 minutes of continuous playing of advanced repertoire), and by continuing to drink Powerade on the drive home after the concert seemed to reduce the post-concert slump and the aches and pains I usually experience the day after. An understanding of what my body was undergoing physically before, during and after the performance certainly helped too, and I think if more musicians appreciated the physiological effects of stress they may be better equipped to cope with the psychological side effects too: it largely is not “all in the mind”, rather it is “all in the body”.

Until fairly recently, performance anxiety was a taboo subject for most musicians. To discuss it openly may betray a weakness which might lead to loss of work and by default income. Today many of the leading conservatoires and music colleges have courses, workshops and practitioners in place to help students understand and cope with performance anxiety: the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, for example, offers a course in mindfulness for performers, while the Royal College of Music has a dedicated Centre for Performance Science. I believe that a better understanding of the physical effects of stress combined with a positive and sympathetic approach to the emotional and psychological effects will enable musicians to not only discuss performance anxiety more openly with teachers and colleagues, but also put in place effective personal strategies to enable them to play with confidence, fluency, expression and vibrant colour.


Further reading

How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed – TED talk by Dr Daniel Levitin

Your body language shapes who you are – TED talk by Amy Cuddy

Science finds new way to overcome your performance anxiety


(Header photo from livescience.com)



I recently attended an interesting and inspiring workshop with acclaimed pianist and teacher Christine Croshaw.

Using the metaphor of The Hero’s Journeya pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development, Christine showed how this template can help us understand the challenges of the musician’s life.

In the workshop we first explored our initial “call”, the overwhelming desire to become a musician, and discussed how this dream and aspiration gives us energy and direction. Of course we may not achieve our dream in the form in which we originally imagined it, but pushing at boundaries forces us to develop and discover resources to help us, including guides and mentors, to overcome our demons and cross thresholds, and, on the way, learn to transform failure into a valuable resource.

Though we may face “demons” such as:-

  • injury
  • illness
  • dismotivation
  • negative feedback and criticism
  • lack of support from family and friends
  • mental & emotional issues
  • financial issues

– we should always be aware that there are people out there to help us. Sometimes these “mentors” are people already known to us – teachers, colleagues, friends, family – and sometimes they are “inner mentors” who resonate with us and who we have identified as offering us what we need for ourselves. These may include a fictional character or a great musician whom we admire. As we resonate with these mentors, we tune into their qualities and draw those qualities into ourselves so that we can utilise them.

We then engaged in an exercise (“Mentor and Resonance Pattern”) in pairs in which we named three mentors, arranged them metaphorically around us and identified the special qualities which we felt each mentor could offer us. We then offered these qualities from each mentor to our own selves. At first I found this exercise slightly daft, but the more I thought about and engaged in it, the more I found myself carefully considering what qualities I wanted to take from these mentors (one of whom is the pianist Maria Joao Pires, who I much admire not only for her exquisite playing but also her mentorship and support of young and emerging musicians).

Just as the Hero’s Journey is fraught with difficulties and dangers, so is the musician’s, and sometimes along the way we may get “stuck”. Often this is because our focus becomes too narrow and we forget to look at the bigger picture: perhaps we are obsessing about a small section of a piece of music we are working on rather than standing back to consider the piece as a whole, its landscape and choreography. As our music becomes more “embodied” within us, so we become more adaptable, able to react to anything that happens without losing a sense of the whole or the structure of the music, and more open to possibilities. A good example of this is the pianist who because he/she has done the right kind of preparation does not allow mistakes or a memory slip to throw him/her off course during a performance. In this state of “relaxed alertness”, we are more able to connect with self, music and audience.

A person’s errors are his doorways of discovery

James Joyce

Failure may come from external factors such as poor exam results or a bad concert or review. This can be tough, but any failure can be turned into a resource from which we can learn and move on. Trial and error, exploration and experimentation allows us to gain feedback and adjust our approach if necessary, before trying again and progressing.

The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new


Much of Christine Croshaw’s approach is drawn from Neuro Linguistic Programming, a way of identifying how people are able to excel in various fields (business, sports, therapy, the arts and many others), and which, put simply, teaches one to “accentuate the positive” by understanding how we create and influence our own experience and behaviour. The techniques of NLP may seem obvious, but putting them into practice can be more tricky, especially if one is prone to negative thoughts, low self-esteem and lack of confidence. The practice of NLP sits well with mindfulness: taken together, the two practices can give us powerful tools to progress in our musical lives with flair and success.

Related articles

The Piano and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

Christine Croshaw’s website

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was created in California in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. The name asserts a connection between the neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”), and behavioural patterns learned through experience (“programming”) which can be altered or harnessed to achieve specific goals in life. Popularly known as “the study of human excellence”, NLP uses the criterion “does this work?”, and gives us the tools and processes to deconstruct how we do things to discover the key elements of a positive strategy to enable us to do something more successfully. Equally, it can highlight negative issues and help us to discard unsuccessful actions and impulses.

In NLP the word “strategy” is used to describe how we organise sensory representations – external and internal images, sounds, sensations and feelings. This determines how successful we are in doing something, assuming we have the relevant skills.

NLP has been much used in sports training after the writer W. Timothy Gallwey formulated a coaching method which employed the “inner game”, that of focus, concentration and self-belief, discarding bad habits, and learning to trust oneself. In simple terms, sports men and women were encouraged to visualise a positive outcome and to imagine the physical and mental processes they would employ to be successful. When a player relaxed and held a picture and feeling of the desired result, the player improved. Mr Gallwey has gone on to write many popular books employing the inner game strategy, including the excellent Inner Game of Music with Barry Green, a manual for overcoming anxiety and self-doubt to achieve excellence in playing and performing. I have found this book enormously useful in my own development as a musician, and a teacher.

These principles of coaching, enhanced by the tools of NLP, can very successfully be applied to teaching and performing music. In my teaching, I use NLP techniques to encourage positive development and learning outcomes in my students. This includes aspects such as:

Positive feedback and reinforcement. The student may have played with errors, but I would never start a teaching session by saying “Oh that was dreadful! So many mistakes! You haven’t been practising this properly, have you?”. I will always try and find something positive even in the most ropey performance. This gets the lesson off to a good start and the student feels rewarded for his/her efforts. Rewards lead to emotional and physical relaxation, which encourages a positive learning experience, and (hopefully) better playing.

Avoid calling attention to incorrect movements and ‘mistakes’. Instead, draw attention to what the student is doing correctly – a good hand position, a lovely tone, an understanding of the technique of arm staccato, and so forth.

Visual, aural and kinesthetic techniques:

  • “Imagine the sound” is frequently heard in my studio. It is a technique I use myself in my own playing, and one I find students respond to easily. By reminding students that the piano can be any instrument – or indeed any sound! – we want it to be, they can imagine the sounds they want to create: trumpets, bells, violins, voices, growls, raindrops, deep bass drums. Hearing, both internal and external, is a crucial element of a successful strategy for learning and studying music.
  • “telling the story” – what is the music about? what kind of picture are we trying to create for the listener? how are we going to tell the story?
  • “what colour is this note/notes/chords/passage”? I’m a grapheme-synaesthete – I see numbers, letters, days of the week, months, and musical keys in colours – and I use this “colouring” of music a great deal in my own study and teaching. A note that is red might have a strong, proud sound; a gold note might be shiny/sparkling; a dark purple chord might be rich and sonorous.
  • How did it feel, when you played that passage beautifully? Can you recreate that feeling each time you play the passage?

Problem solving and seeking solutions Students learn more if they are encouraged to find the answer to a problem themselves, whether technical or artistic. How might one approach this or that passage? What kind of technique (staccato, legato, rotary) might be helpful? What is the composer asking of you at this point in the music? A right answer is rewarded with praise and positive reinforcement, and, hopefully, this will ensure the student remembers the answer/s in the future.

Banishing the fear of failure: Older students, particularly adults, can suffer from the fear of failure, of making a complete hash of their playing in front of teacher, and there can be some very harsh, self-critical and perfectionist internal dialogue going on in these students. If the student is hesitant and anxious, when their level of skill should be allowing them to play more fluently, it is likely that a negative internal dialogue is getting in the way. Most people are unaware of their internal dialogue until it is pointed out to them, and it is often derived from things our parents and teachers said to us when they were either cross with us, or frightened for our safety. NLP seeks to turn negative thoughts and feelings into positive ones. One of the lessons of the Inner Game of Music is the ability  “switch off” that voice inside us that seeks to remind us of our weaknesses, and instead turn to the one that says “I can do it”.

And in performance situations:

Positive thoughts, positive outcomes Performance anxiety can be the bane of the musician’s life, and can develop at an early stage (unpleasant exam experiences, a memory lapse in a concert). Learning how to deal with anxiety is an important part of the musician’s training.  We have different experiences of performance through our individual thoughts and beliefs, and we can use good experiences and positive thoughts to achieve an optimum performance. This is the “neuro” element. Meanwhile, language can be used to enhance learning abilities by simply ruling out any negative comments (“linguistic”). The “programming” is putting these tools into practice in a stressful situation.

Here are some of the strategies I employ when approaching a performance:

  • Continual affirmative reinforcement of my abilities, and a positive outlook when practising.
  • I am well-prepared: I have nothing to fear. Even if I make a small slip, I can recover
  • I know I can do it.
  • My last performance was good. I try to recall the positive feelings and sensations from that performance.
  • No one in the audience is going to boo or slow hand-clap if I make a mistake. In fact, it is unlikely anyone will even spot an error.
  • Just before going on stage, I visualise myself walking across the stage, taking a bow and sitting at the piano.
  • As I approach the piano, I visualise the opening bars of the music and hear the music in my head.
  • After the performance: I try not to dwell on imperfections, except in the most positive “how can I make it better next time?” way. I try not to post-mortem a performance and instead look towards the next one.

Self-belief and identity issues also play a role in creating a successful strategy: while most self-belief must come from within, the positive endorsement and praise of peers, mentors, and colleagues (and even reviewers and critics) can be invaluable to building confidence. How special it is to walk off the stage to a group of friends/colleagues applauding warmly and telling you how well you played!

Another strategy I have employed successfully is not to constantly compare myself to others – something I used to do far too often, in the mistaken belief that I too could be a great concert pianist! (this chart, while somewhat tongue-in-cheek, is a useful reminder of the negative thoughts and feelings musicians can experience). One can look to professional pianists and great performers for successful modes of behaviour, values and beliefs; one can attempt to emulate them, be inspired by them, but one should not seek to compete with them. Instead, one should learn to listen to one’s inner voice, and to trust one’s own instincts and musical integrity. The striving then becomes a personal quest, to meet the standards set by the composer and the literature, rather than by others in the profession.

A good article on the Inner Game of Music by pianist Alisadair Hogarth

The Musician’s Way Blog has many useful articles on strategies for successful practising and confident performing

The Inner Game of Music website

An earlier post on Synaesthesia and music