Adult Students Getting Into Performance – Part One: Argh! I’m scared! What do I do?! Dealing with anxiety

This post is one in a series of posts designed to assist adult students getting into performance for the first time or after a bit of a break, although the principles and ideas are pretty much applicable to any performer.



I, of all people, know what it is like to be an adult student of the guitar (i.e. not necessarily a young whippersnapper coming up through the Conservatory system) and facing performance for the first time in a very long time….It’s bloody scary!


Although I’d had quite some training in the performing arts (dance as well as music) throughout my youth, when I came back to my classical guitar studies some time in my mid-ish twenties (I’m kind of giving my age away now!) the idea of performing again at once excited me (getting to share my rekindled passion with others again) and bloody scared the pants off me! 



What if I sounded terrible? What if I couldn’t do it? What if I stuffed up? What if people hated it and I should really just forget this idea of picking up the guitar properly again? What if I forgot what I should be playing? What if I lost my place in the music?


There were some serious levels of anxiety and nerves there.


Over the last five years or so, however, I have tried and tested numerous techniques for dealing with that anxiety. Some of them have worked really well for me and I still use them today; some have worked less well for me and I have consigned to the “errrr, not quite for me” bin.


There are a heap of things I could share with you about dealing with performance anxiety, but wanted to share some without turning this into a book of Ben Hur proportions. So I have condensed down some crucial thoughts and ideas on techniques that have been more successful for me.


What is making you anxious?

Can you identify what is the most prominent or over-riding cause of your anxiety? 

Recognising the answer to this question can help you address it. 


One big issue for a lot of people is worrying about “stuffing up”. However, that in itself is not really a considerable issue, as most people, myself included, are pretty happy playing along in their lounge room or bedroom when we fluff a note or two.  “Ah well”, we say to ourselves, “no great shakes”, and keep on playing.




Most often the key source of anxiety related to “stuffing up” is the embarrassment factor and worrying about what people might think of you. We don’t want to look or sound bad in front of our audience. We don’t want them to judge us badly.


Have a think on these:


  •  So you fluff a note or two – big deal! It’s the whole piece that counts. You don’t tend to look at every single brushstroke of a luscious Monet landscape; you admire the image as a whole. Similarly, I’ll bet your performance of the whole is gorgeous and fantastic and you! In five minutes time no one will even have remembered any fluffs or stumbles (or what you think is a stumble or fluff…).


  •  Chances are, the mistake is super-amplified in your own mind; I’ll bet you it doesn’t sound nearly as bad as you think it sounds.


  •  Most people probably won’t even have recognized that you made a little fluff. Just don’t screw your face up and start swearing! Just tell yourself that’s how it sounds.


  •  And even if they do recognize a little fluff, so what?! Your audience are hardly likely to say to you during or after the performance “oh my god, you so stuffed up that section!” are they?


  •  If it were you listening to someone in your position performing, you enjoy listening to the whole thing. As a listener you’re probably not really worried at all about a few glitches here and there are you?


  •  What is the absolute worst thing that could happen if you stuff up? Are you going to die? Are you going to be injured? Possibly not.


It’s all about our poor old ancient brains!

All this performance anxiety stuff we feel comes from a primeval part of our brain – the amygdala – which produces a fight or flight or response in us. 


Now that was a pretty useful self-preservation tool back in day when we went out hunting for our dinner and had to face-off with potentially deadly prey or protect ourselves from predation from a massive large bear, for example.


Less useful when faced with performing on the guitar in front of live human beings.


It makes us feel butterflies in the tummy, sweaty, shaky, blushing and so on.


Being aware that this response is our “reptilian” brain, and not our logical “human” brain can help make sense of the feelings. By being aware of anxiety’s cause and accepting it helps to better control it.


Put the control back to your logical brain and remind yourself you’ve played the piece numerous times, you’re well practiced and you love to play it.



Accept your anxiety and nervousness

It is not a bad thing to be nervous or anxious. It is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of or something you need to try and hide. How can it be when it is programmed into every single one of us?!


Everyone feels it to a greater or lesser degree. A lot of professional performers have learnt to harness the energy and channel it into their performance.


Simply give yourself permission to be nervous; accept that it is there. Blocking it out is not the way forward! I do this by actually saying out loud to myself “yes, I feel slightly nervous – hello my old friend- and that is ok”. You might feel a bit of a banana saying that to yourself, but I find it helps me to accept those feelings.


Your audience is on your side

Unless you’re performing at a vitriolic meeting of Live Music Haters Anonymous, remember that the audience is most definitely in your side. 100%. 


We like to see people succeed. Especially those that are stepping up to the plate for the first time, or after a bit of a hiatus.


Think about it again from the perspective of you in the audience – you’re not sitting there to make harsh judgements, or otherwise, on players are you? You’re there to listen, to learn, to experience live music, to support, to enjoy. Well, that’s what your audience are there for too.


Trust Yourself

How long have you been practicing and playing your piece or pieces? Chances are it has been a reasonable amount of time, in that you feel you can play it reasonably well. It flows, it moves along, you really enjoy playing it. We’ll come to the subject of piece selection in another blog post.


Trust in yourself that you can play the music. You know you can and you’ve proved it to yourself countless times.


And remember that your interpretation or way of playing something is just as valid as anyone else’s. It doesn’t really matter what others think about your interpretation. How you play it is your unique style. That’s what ultimately makes it “good” and a heartfelt performance.



We are all different and act and behave in different ways so you may find different techniques work better for you than others. There is no silver bullet to dealing with performance anxiety; its a process of discovery about what works for you personally.



Before I sign off, there’s one final note to leave this post with.


You do tend to achieve what you focus on. In spite of all this talk above of fluffed notes and so on, put your energies and focus on the shape, character and musicality of the piece/s you’re playing – and most importantly focus on enjoying yourself and having fun! This is what you love to do right? Don’t let a bit of anxiety get in the way of a good time!



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