How to Deal With Performance Anxiety and Play Your Best

These five tips on how to deal with anxiety will calm your spirit. Performance anxiety is a common problem for musicians; not only does it prevent us from playing our best on stage, it robs us from the joy of performing music.

how to deal with anxiety performance musiciansAnd yes, we should be enjoying the time we spend playing music for people! Our audience wants us to succeed, they love listening to music, and they can tell when musicians are enjoying their performance. Our audience wants the best for us. Performance anxiety detracts from the quality of our music and steals our joy as musicians.

Below are my five favorite tips for dealing with performance anxiety. I play the flute; I have an upcoming concert and a recital that I’m practicing every morning for. I don’t suffer from performance anxiety when I’m playing in a band or orchestra, but the recital is different. It’s a duet – me and an organist – and I’m the principle in one of the pieces. AND, the composer of that piece will be at the recital! Hence, I am researching tips on how to deal with performance anxiety for musicians – and I need to go beyond the usual strategies.

Sometimes dealing with performance anxiety is easier when you know you’re not alone. Did you know that some of the most successful musicians struggle with stage fright? Famous examples are Barbra Streisand, Rod Steward, and Carol Burnett.

Here’s a really surprising tip on how to deal with performance anxiety, which musicians don’t talk about: use beta blockers to quell nerves. I don’t know if famous musicians do this, but some professional orchestral musicians use prescription medication (beta blockers) to help them deal with anxiety while on stage.

I’m NOT recommending you do this to deal with anxiety as a musician – that’s why it’s not in my list of tips for dealing with performance anxiety! It’s just a fascinating bit of information I found while researching anxiety in musicians. Beta blockers are cardiac medications that block the action of adrenalin and mute the sympathetic nervous system. Some professional musicians take beta blockers to calm their nerves – and according to Better Playing Through Chemistry, this prescription medication might actually improve technical performance.

How to Deal With Performance Anxiety and Play Your Best

In this post I don’t offer the usual tips on for dealing with anxiety as musicians, such as:

  • Practice your music every day; know your piece inside and out
  • Rehearse your concert or piece at the actual place you’ll be performing
  • Perform in front of people as often as you can
  • Use special breathing techniques, such as the Alexander Method
  • Picture your audience naked

I tried those tips for dealing with performance anxiety, and they failed me. Instead, I’m doing this…

Learn how the stress of performing music affects your body

I’ve listened to several TED talks on the effects of stress. The bottom line is that stress causes musicians to tighten up, brains to forget how to think and play music, breathing to become shallow, and hands to sweat and bodies to tremble. Musicians who know their music forget how to play the most basic notes and can’t remember the words to songs they know well. They might forget their notes and words and feel threatened by the audience. At its worst, performance anxiety causes some musicians to freeze on stage…or not even make it to the stage in the first place.

“Our bodies constrict, tighten up, look down or inward, huddle in, and try to suppress the fear,” says life coach Pat Barone in my ancient post about feeling the fear. “We aren’t looking forward, we’re looking inward, and we can’t see the bigger picture.  Then, we start blaming/shaming in an attempt to feel less responsible for what is occurring.  We blame other people.  Chemical reactions occur in the body, with adrenaline and stress hormones flowing and circulating.”

It’s important for us to know how stress hormones (cortisol) affect our performance as musicians. Anxiety is a natural state when we are afraid – and this anxiety does not allow us perform or play well.

See your performance anxiety as a sign you’re ready to play your best

Those butterflies in your stomach? Your quickened breathing? Your slightly trembling knees? Those are GOOD signs! They’re signals that your body is up for this challenge, that you are awake and aware and ready to play.

This is one of those tips on how to deal with performance anxiety that works for some musicians, but not all. The key to calming down and playing your best is to figure out what works for YOU. Some musicians use prescription medications for anxiety, while others allow their heightened state of arousal to encourage them to play better.

Find ways to enjoy being on stage

how to deal with performance anxietyMusicians shine when they are passionate about their music, their songs, their instruments! The audience can tell when musicians love when they’re doing. Audiences love musicians who are happy and having fun. And, musicians who are happy and having fun have no room for performance anxiety or stage fright.

If you can find ways to enjoy playing your music on stage, then you’ve found the best tip on how to deal with anxiety as a musician. This might be the most personal and effective way to relax and play your best music because it comes from YOU.

Lose yourself in your music

When I lived in Kenya, I went dancing with an African guy. I felt weird because I was one of very few white people in this night club in Nairobi. I asked my friend for dance tips, and he gave me one.

“Don’t feel the music,” he said. “BE the music.”

He added that if I’m not enjoying myself as a dancer, I’m not being the music. If I’m thinking about what I’m doing, I’m not being the music. My “performance” is stiff and stilted, and I’m not loose and flowy. That was a great tip on how to overcome shyness on the dance floor, and it’s also one of the best ways to deal with performance anxiety for musicians.

Lose yourself in your music. Wear your audience’s attention lightly, like a loose garment. Allow it to drop as you pick up your flute, put your hands on the strings of your guitar, or sit at your piano.

Our audience wants us to succeed, they love listening to music, and they can tell when we as musicians are enjoying our performance. Our audience wants the best for us. Our performance anxiety detracts from the quality of the music and steals the joy from the song or composition.

Let go of your worry about what the audience thinks of you

When I started writing this post on how to deal with performance anxiety for musicians, my best tip for myself was to rest in God. I want to die to my self, to forget about how I’m perceived by the audience. I want to care naught about what people think of how I play the flute or what I look like when I’m on stage.

I want to let God flow through me. I want Him to direct my music, my high notes on the flute, our timing as a duet. I want to rest in God and let Him do the work. Of course, I’ll prepare and practice and play the best I can…but I want to let go of my worries. I don’t want to care what the audience thinks of me as a musician. I just want to let go and let God carry me through.

That’s still what I want for my concert and recital…but I also want to enjoy myself! I want to be one of those musicians who loves playing music for people, who is genuinely happy to share the beauty of the chords and notes and tunes and rhythm. Performance anxiety is about me…I want my concert to be about the audience and the music.

My music is not about me. Your music is not about you. Perhaps the best tip on how to deal with anxiety as musicians is to let our performance be about the audience and the music…not us.

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” ― Arthur O’Shaughnessy.

How to Deal With Anxiety as a Musician

how to deal with performance anxiety musicians

In The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness, Gerald Glickstein describes strategies to interpret and memorize compositions, fuel motivation, collaborate, and more. Part II specifically offers tips on how to deal with anxiety – it’s called Fearless Performance, and it describes the hidden causes of nervousness and shows how musicians can become confident performers. And Part III of The Musician’s Way shares tactics to prevent music-related injuries and equips musicians to tap their own innate creativity.

What about you – what have you done to deal performance anxiety in the past? If this is your first time performing as a musician, you are taking a step in the right direction: you’re searching for tips on how to deal with anxiety so you can play your best. Good for you!

P.S. Musicians dealing with performance anxiety could probably learn a lot from athletes who spend tons of time preparing themselves psychologically to compete. Sports psychology is a huge part of training for athletes…and in the same way, learning how to deal with anxiety as musicians should be a big part of our rehearsals before we go on stage.

P.P.S. “To fear is one thing.  To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.”  ~ Katherine Paterson.


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