September 2019
Conquering Performance Anxiety
by Jack Ashworth
Performance anxiety is a common phenomenon. I would conservatively estimate that it is experienced by, oh, say, about 99.99% of us. But there are different levels: it can range from the light buzz even experienced performers feel just before beginning even the easiest pieces (so easy, in fact, that they are easy to mess up) to debilitating, stomach-churning attacks that leave some people literally vomiting.
If you suffer from relatively light cases of stage fright, you may have noticed that you welcome the extra edge it can give your performance. But for many people, it drains the enjoyment out of performing altogether.

Is there a cure for it? 
No, there is no “cure” because stage fright is not a disease. It is, rather, a psychological state. But you can reduce its effect, both by re-configuring some of your practice habits and by approaching a performance with some appropriate preparation.
Probably the most common cause of performance jitters is the fear of playing wrong notes. A book I highly recommend for dealing with this is The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning To Trust Your Musical Self by William Westney (Amadeus Press, 2003). While the book covers many topics, including performance anxiety, a central theme is the introduction of practice techniques intended to neutralize the overarching fear of playing wrong notes -- whether in lessons, public performances, or practice sessions. The big takeaway for me is to treat mistakes as data points instead of moral failures. When you hit a wrong note, analyze why it was wrong instead of blowing up (“I’ll NEVER get this right and this just proves that I shouldn’t even be playing the recorder”). Instead, zero in on what, specifically, will correct it – more breath? less breath? more secure fingering? a sharper attack?
Also helpful is Notes from the Green Room: Coping with Stress and Anxiety in Musical Performance by my University of Louisville colleague Paul Salmon, written with Robert Meyer (Lexington Books, 1992). Paul is both a psychologist and a fine musician, and the book goes into detail about psychological elements concerning both performance and stress-reducing practice strategies. There are useful lists, including such things as the following.
What You Can Do
In the practice room: Visualize the performance in all its aspects. Visualize playing the piece, scoring all the half-holes and cross-fingerings, without an instrument in your hand. Visualize standing on the stage, and what the hall looks like from that perspective. Mental practice such as this has been shown to increase free-throw percentages in basketball players, among other things.
Before the concert:  Play through your piece a few times with an informal audience before the “real” performance happens, and increase the size of these “test” audiences a bit each time from one friend to two or three, to seven or eight. Since these aren’t yet the actual performance, mistakes will be generously forgiven – and by the time you’re done, you will have practiced not only the piece but the act of playing it in front of people.
 At the concert site:  Practice progressive relaxation techniques, concentrating on different parts of the body, and/or meditation. Both practices are described more fully in Notes from the Green Room .
  Actively think:  In other words, force yourself to remember to keep the performance in perspective. People are there to enjoy the full musical experience, not whether you flub a note or a meter change. You may not give them every note, and others in the group may have their difficulties, but you can always remain in charge of giving a pleasing musical experience . And remember--the audience is on your side! They want to enjoy it!
I was able to use this technique before a performance for which I was very anxious. Eva Legêne was touring with Wieland Kuijken several years ago when one of their dates fell through. She called to ask if they could play in Louisville. By a miracle the date was open on the school calendar, so they came. I was to play with them. We had time for only two rehearsals, so I was plenty nervous when the concert came around. But as I sat there at the harpsichord giving tuning notes to Wieland, and feeling that grinding sense of anxiety and doom that I am all too used to, I suddenly thought: “Wait. Wieland Kuijken is sitting a few feet away from me on MY stage… and I’m about to play with him on MY harpsichord. Whatever happens in the next hour, I WIN!!!” The concert went smoothly, and they returned on two more occasions.
Make Everything “Bulletproof”
But my favorite advice from Paul Salmon concerns how to prepare for the event itself: “Make everything bulletproof,” meaning to make sure:
  • you have the music, all pages of it and in order
  • music is taped together or in a binder so pages don’t go fluttering everywhere
  • your performance apparel is clean and ready the day before.
You may be perfectly prepared musically, but little things going wrong can distract you to the point of making silly mistakes.
To Take a Pill--or Not?
No discussion of performance anxiety would be complete without mentioning beta blockers, the drugs which inhibit shaky hands (among other uses) and are thus taken by many performers to improve their accuracy and so reduce their worrying. Do I use them? Yes, before high risk performances. Do they work? I’ve never known for sure, since I don’t know what things would have been like without them, but in my case they don’t completely suppress shaky hands. I do think they help, however. Should you take them? With some teachers and colleagues there seems to be a moral dimension to this decision, the idea being that if you prepare sufficiently you shouldn’t need to take them and they should not be used as a crutch. But among the most highly respected performers with whom I’ve brought this topic up, the answer, universally, has been that if you feel you need them, take them. As one highly respected gambist told me, “If I’ve been practicing for a concert for six months and the difference between playing it comfortably and flubbing things up may depend on taking one little pill, I’m going to take the pill.”
Finally, just remember that many, or most, or maybe even all of your audience won’t notice wrong notes, which are perhaps the main cause of performance anxiety. And anyway, what’s a couple of wrong notes among friends? As my harpsichord teacher Margaret Fabrizio used to say, “There are no wrong notes in Baroque music – only appoggiaturas.”

Jack  Ashworth is  professor  of  music  history  emeritus at  the University  of  Louisville, where  he  continues  to  lead  ensembles  of  recorders  and  viols  as  well  as  teaching harpsichord and organ.
Do you enjoy our ARS NOVA emails?
Click here for our archive s , with articles on many topics ranging from how to care for your recorders, to useful apps, to scholarship and grant opportunities though ARS. If you've received this from a friend, sign up for your own monthly subscription using this link .
How to Join the ARS
Take advantage of our 1/2 price rate for first-time members! Get immediate access to all the information available on our website, as well as other member benefits including the quarterly American Recorder magazine.
USA: First year $25
Canada: First year $30