3 steps for classical musicians to handle the fear of performing
*Welcome to The Musician's Mindset! I'm Katie, a certified life coach and flutist who helps musicians overcome performance anxiety and bring their best selves to the stage. I would love to talk to hear your stories about being a musician and what happens for you on stage. Click HERE and we’ll find some time to chat!*
When we experience anxiety or fear around something, the mind’s natural, protective instinct is to keep us safe and avoid the situation entirely. Our minds are Very Good at this. They create persuasive arguments around why you shouldn’t participate in certain activities, whether they are rock climbing, being in large bodies of water, or … performing.
How many times have you bailed on a performance or audition because:
You didn’t feel confident in your preparation;
Had a busy day and no time to warm-up before studio class;
Procrastinated on arranging travel and lodging for an audition;
Didn’t book the hall for your recording session or recital.
These are all examples from my own experience and I suspect (wink, wink) you have felt something similar.
“Fear is a part of our survival response. It is supposed to be intensely uncomfortable, and the urges to escape and then avoid the fear situations are supposed to be strong.” Julie Smith
Our brains can be very convincing when fear is at play and it is our job to manage it. Let's unpack three simple steps to start managing fear around performance so you can get about the work of making this world more beautiful through your music.
3 Steps to Manage the Fear of Performing
1. Commit to yourself (and create outside accountability, if needed) that you will perform. Write it in stone on your heart, and Do Not allow yourself to break that promise. NO MATTER WHAT.
“ The things that give us immediate relief from our fear tend to feed that fear in the long term. Every time we say no to something because of fear, we reconfirm our belief that is wasn’t safe or that we couldn’t handle it.” Julie Smith
When you honor promises to yourself, you are choosing to value your unique calling as an artist in this world OVER the discomfort of fear. Because guess what? Performing is incredibly vulnerable (as it should be!) and it is uncomfortable to be open like that to an audience of strangers. That is the reason that being a musician is such a beautiful gift to this world. We are a people who willingly enter into discomfort and vulnerability in order to create a shared experience with the audience. It is an amazing calling and 100% worth keeping your commitments to yourself.
2. Learn your own, unique persuasive arguments and call those thoughts out for what they are. When you sense resistance within yourself, alarm bells should start ringing. “My brain is trying to keep me safe! But, I have committed to this and am going to perform to the best of my ability, whatever that looks like on that day.”
We all have go-to arguments that trigger those old nerves of doubt and insecurity. My triggers center around my perceived lack of preparation and procrastination on housekeeping tasks like booking flights or halls. When you are aware of your brain’s strategies, you can:
Take proactive action. So, for example, if I know that I feel doubt around my preparation, I can create a practice log that documents how carefully I have prepared, schedule adequate practice time, or I can get feedback from a teacher or colleague. If I know my tendency to procrastinate on booking flights, I can schedule a time in my calendar to take care of it within a week of committing to the audition.
Use the concrete action you have taken to challenge your habitual thoughts and remind yourself that you have, in fact, handled it.
Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with the tools and time that you have. That is enough, my friend. That is literally all you can do. Maybe for some auditions, you have 6 weeks to perfectly execute a plan, and maybe for another, you have a 2-week blitz to get as much done as you can. Both are enough. Both are the best you can do.
3. Perform AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE. This type of work takes practice, and one could argue that performance practice is as equally important as the work you do in the practice room. Create as many performance opportunities for yourself as you can. For example:
Play excerpts, concertos, scales (whatever!) for colleagues. If you’re a student, knock on someone’s practice room door and ask to play for them. If you’re playing in an orchestra, set up a time before rehearsal to run 5 excerpts for a collegue. Sometimes these casual performances are the scariest! They’re also the easiest to build into your schedule.
Play for teachers, principal players in other orchestras, etc. Call it a lesson, call it a coaching - doesn’t matter. You’ll get feedback on your playing AND practice performing.
Take Auditions. Lots of them. Regional orchestras, big national auditions, competition recordings. Rip the band aid off over and over again.
Post on social media. Maybe there’s an etude group where musicians post weekly or a FB group where you can share something you’re working on. You could commit to posting 15 seconds of scales every day on Instagram or record a section of music for TicToc every week.
Play for students and family members. These are low-pressure performances, but they still count! Even if you have to use Zoom, play for your grandma or your cousins. Take it seriously, prepare and perform to the best of your ability.
Create a weekly accountability group with some friends or colleagues. Perform live or via Zoom so you can receive feedback.
Busque. Why not? Get a friend or two and go read duets. I did this all the time when I lived in San Francisco. We’d set up in a storefront once it was closed or in a Muni station and play for all the folks going out for dinner or drinks that night. It was a different kind of discomfort, but still great practice. (Just check to see if you need a permit.)
Casual Recitals. Maybe there’s an outdoor amphitheater you can use to play for joggers or hikers. Maybe there’s a downtown church that would allow you to perform for congregants. Or, a local coffee shop that you could play at and experiment with music outside your comfort zone. Open your imagination! See what you can create outside the formal structure of a classical recital.
Front Porch Concert. In Detroit during the pandemic, DSO musicians and community members would play music on their porch. Stand out there and run the slow movement of your Sonata or that week's etude. I know my neighbors loved it when I played to the street, I bet your's will, too!
House Concert. Gather together friends for dinner and then performances. The laid-back atmosphere is a great way to share music.
Gig. Say yes to those wedding and church gigs. They’re not always a lot of pressure, but they teach you to think on your feet and be flexible. Important skills for performance.
I know you are a diligent musician, practicing hours at your craft. I also know that when you apply that same diligence to your practice of performing, you will:
Bring more beautiful music into this world (which is our calling, anyway!)
Move through your fear and implement the best strategies to support your mindset.
My encouragement for you is to take the next 4-6 months and schedule in as many performances as you can - at least once a week. Bonus points if at the end of the time period you have concerts that are high pressure - a degree recital, for example. You’ll have practiced performing and practiced adjusting your thoughts around fear so when the pressure it on, you’ll be ready.
Next Steps and Additional Resources
Here at The Musician's Mindset, we have some incredible resources for developing and implementing mindset practices that will transform how you perform on stage.
Founder of The Musician's Mindset
Katie is a certified life coach dedicated to helping musicians overcome stage fright and believe in their own unique artistic voice. She believes live classical music is a powerful antidote for the division, pain, and loneliness pervasive in the culture and strives to support all artists to confidently share their work with the world. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, three kiddos, a dog, a snake, and a goldfish named Orca.