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10 Tips for Managing Performance Anxiety

When it comes to performance anxiety, I am the king (I say that like it's a good thing?). I get all the fun symptoms: nausea, dizziness, cold sweats, heart palpitations, sleeplessness--you name it, I get it. It starts days before the event, then gets exponentially worse. I've come super close to cancelling many events because I physically could not leave the bathroom.

Yeah, maybe that's TMI, but acknowledging and accepting the ugly truth of the matter is the first step towards dealing with it. Pretending that it doesn't exist simply doesn't help.

Luckily, I have a few tricks up my sleeve to help put anxiety in its place. I'll admit, they're not always 100% effective, but even if they take 10% of the edge off, that can be enough to get me out of the bathroom and onto the stage.

Here you go!

  1. Mistake Allowances: Everybody makes mistakes. If you go into any performance thinking everything will be perfect, you are expecting the impossible, and that's a lot of unnecessary pressure. "Allow" yourself a certain number of mistakes, so you don't feel bad if you make them. Plus, as Beethoven allegedly put it "To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."

  2. Practice Performances: Perform for people, or record yourself, in low pressure situations. Invite a friend to your home and play for them. Shoot a live video on Facebook. Make a recording just for yourself. Think of this like an "anxiety vaccine." The more small doses of performance anxiety you experience, the more immune you get to it.

  3. Purposeful Distractions: During a performance, you may become hyper aware, and have ridiculous, distracting thoughts racing through your head. "What did I eat for breakfast"..."Somebody just coughed, what does it mean?"..."Would Martha Argerich put an accent on that note?"...It's impossible to stop these intrusive thoughts during a performance, so instead, practice with them. Ask a friend or family member to talk at you while you practice.

  4. Preparation: Maybe this is obvious, but the more prepared you are, the less anxious you will be. Make sure you can play your piece(s) at least three times in a row with minimal mistakes. Visit the performance space beforehand, so you're not surprised by anything there. Know who your audience is going to be. Also, you don't have to play the hardest stuff for every performance; choose music you are comfortable playing. Leave "challenge" pieces for the practice room.

  5. Mood Changes: Telling yourself "don't be anxious" is about as helpful as covering yourself in gravy and telling a shark "don't eat me." Instead of focusing on what you can't do, focus on what you can do. Get your adrenaline going with a little workout. Listen to music that makes you cry tears of joy. Talk to a friend that always makes you laugh.

  6. Meditation: When I first heard this word, I thought it meant throwing on an orange robe, shaving my head, and humming "ohm" for hours. Don't get me wrong; I'm impressed with anyone who lives that lifestyle, but it's not for me. Luckily, meditation can be as simple as taking 5 minutes to sit in silence and focus on breathing, and even that minimal version makes a world of a difference.

  7. Comfortable Attire: When anxiety takes hold, clothes can feel tighter, warmer, colder, or just generally unfit. To avoid these problems, wear looser clothing, and if possible, wear layers, to help with temperature control. Personally, I also avoid "fancy" clothes as much as possible. If the venue allows it, I'll wear jeans and a polo, and I'll bring a hoodie for when I get cold. Since it's what I wear every day, it feels like "who I am." I get anxious when I have to pretend to be somebody else.

  8. Thinking Through It: Ask yourself "what's the worst that could happen?" Are there solutions if that happens? Are the implications really that bad? Will it affect your life long after the event? Is there anything you can learn if it happens? Any other opportunities that could come out of it? The more you challenge your thoughts, the more you'll discover that the worst case scenario really isn't that bad.

  9. Routine: Try to develop a pre-performance routine. What time will you go to sleep the night before? How long will you practice on the day of the event? What will you practice, if you do? What foods will you eat? A routine prevents any fears that something trivial you did will affect your performances, and the more times it works, the better it works.

  10. Medical Help: If your anxiety is so bad that you have physical symptoms or your performance is severely affected, you may want to consult a doctor. Anxiety that affects quality of life is a serious medical condition. In this case, qualified therapists and psychiatrists are way more effective than tips on a blog post from a piano teacher.

If these tips help you, let me know! I'd love to hear about your experiences; just shoot me a message on the "contact" page. Go have some fun performing, and break a leg! I mean, don't actually break a leg; but even if you do, then you get to wear a cool cast and have everybody sign it, and have an excuse to not do chores for a week...see, I thought through it!



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