Anxiety… a paralyzing survival mechanism that seems to have outlived its usefulness.
Having the ‘jitters’ before a performance is far from pleasant: the shaky hands, sweaty palms, weak knees, stomach ‘butterflies’, nausea and overall tension can create big obstacles on our piano path.
The more we stress, the worse we seem to perform. And, to make things even more challenging – anxiety is at its peak before big events that could shape our entire career.
So, what do we do about it? How do we stay calm and confident before and during an important performance?
Watch the video to find out!
How to Overcome Performance Anxiety: The No. 1 Secret.
00:44. The secret to banishing performance anxiety. A funny recent example from my life.
02:01. Understanding how we are built. The ‘flight-or fight’ response, attacking tigers… and why our limbic system perceives musical performances as ‘dangerous’.
04:04. How this survival mechanism works: anxiety symptoms, and why they do not help us to perform well.
05:06. So how do we beat our primal wiring? It all starts with a change of perspective!
06:11. Being a calm performer is not about learning how to handle ’emotional peaks’. It’s about making performance part of our baseline.
07:17. Solutions. The step-by-step training process I recommend for becoming an ‘unshakeable’ performer:
08:33. Step No. 1: perform the piece for yourself. The difference between practicing and performing.
10:54. Why we need to alternate in-depth practice with ‘performing training sessions’. What to do if you can’t bring the piece to performance level.
11:56. Step No. 2: record yourself.
12:30. Step No. 3: perform for one person.
13:22. Step No. 4: perform for a small group.
13:44. Step No. 5: perform on stage.
14:48. Step No. 6: perform in important events.
15:38. A useful strategy used by professionals before an important concert or competition.
16:21. Bonus tip.
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Going Deeper: Additional Insights
The method I shared in the video is by far the most powerful (and accessible) one.
It works for everyone, regardless of age, skill level or years of meditation ‘under the belt’. It relies on ‘tricking’ our survival mechanism, and using it to our advantage.
However, there are also things we can do to re-program, override or even transcend our wiring – this way considerably minimizing our anxiety and stress levels.
I didn’t mention them in the video, because I wanted to keep it short. However, to make this tutorial as complete as possible, I will share some additional insights in written form:
1. Preparation is key!
Better preparation equals a more predictable outcome, therefore – less anxiety! This is a well-known truth. As I mentioned in the video, ‘performing training’ does not replace in-depth practice. Practice is the foundation, period.
Prepare well, in every possible way: besides mastering your pieces, you need to rehearse your entry and exit, make sure your shoes are comfortable, your concert clothes don’t limit your range of motion, the exam piano is familiar… The more ‘angles’ you cover, the less unpleasant surprises you will have during your performance (and your nervous system will have less reasons to ‘complain’).
Mental Practice is also crucial before any concert or exam: visualize everything – again, starting with your shoes and reaching the artistic concept of the piece.
2. Consistent mindfulness training.
If you only meditate on the day of your exam, this will not help much. You are better off practicing instead!
However, if you have a consistent meditation practice, your awareness and calmness will naturally increase over time. The process is very slow, and frustratingly unnoticeable at first – but if you stick with it, transformation is inevitable. This will create a foundation of inner stillness that you can tap into during more difficult times.
3. Consistent training and exercise. Whether it’s Yoga, Pilates, weight lifting, martial arts, tennis, running or surfing – we need to stay active in order to be healthy and strong (physically and mentally). Exercise has tremendous benefits for our nervous system. It burns excess adrenaline, lowers cortisol levels, oxygenates every cell – and offers us a wonderful sensation of well-being. Be consistent for long-term results.
4. Reframing the importance of the event.
Generally speaking, we take life too seriously. Ultimately, life is just a game – and this is especially true if we talk about art.
What is music? A game of sounds. What is painting? A game of colors.
Every art can be wonderful, life-changing, transformational and incredibly fulfilling… but it is still a game.
Sure, Ilinca! – you might say. I understand this – but my nervous system does not!
Yes, I know. My nervous system is not very different. Still, it helps me to remember the following:
Events are not ‘important’ per se. It is our interpretation that makes them so. If we think that this concert will affect our entire life, and that everyone will shun us if we make a mistake, guess what will happen? That’s right – paralyzing anxiety!
If, on the other hand, we realize how insignificant this event is in the bigger picture of our life… or life on this planet… or the vast universe… and that making a few ‘mistakes’ will in no way endanger our survival or even ‘social approval’… our nervous system will ‘take a breath’ and things will quickly deescalate.
The result? Less stress means greater accomplishments, better health, more energy – and enhanced chances of survival! Paradoxical, yet so true!
Plus, be aware that YOU are your biggest critic. As soon as you stop playing, most people from the audience will forget about you. Making an impact (positive or negative) is not as easy as you think – trust me!
So remember: nothing is ‘important’. Yes, play the game, do your best – but add a dose of detachment to everything.
We often look for ‘high-end’ solutions to our pains and dilemmas, but the answers are usually much closer to home: in our childhood traumas, and our inability to process them. Before walking the spiritual path, it’s worth checking: is there anything simple that’s holding us back – such as an unconscious desire to please a dictatorial parent, even 30 years after their death?
Is our anxiety really triggered by the upcoming concert? Or does it stem from our compulsion to meet that parent’s impossible standards? Anxiety likes the ‘impossible’ (even if it’s imaginary): when our chances of success are low, the amygdala starts ‘wiggling its tail’ – never forget this.
A good therapist can help us ‘clean up’ the subconscious and find freedom from burdens and assumptions we didn’t know existed. This can be really powerful – offering us the needed energy and mental alertness to deal with life’s present challenges.
The 5 solutions above (plus the method I shared in the video) are great for preventing anxiety.
But what can we do if we are already anxious? How do we cope with it until the event?
When anxiety strikes, these things can help take the edge off:
1. Take your mind off the upcoming event.
I know, this sounds silly, but it works. Please understand: if there are no tigers nearby, what does your limbic system react to? That’s right – the story in your mind!
Usually, the story goes like this: at 6 PM tomorrow I will have this ‘important’ concert, and I am SO AFRAID to fail! The hall is so big and overwhelming, and there will be many people judging me, maybe even filming my performance! And my piece is so complicated! What will my parents/friends/teachers say if I make many mistakes? I will die of shame! This will ruin my career!.. and so it goes, on and on.
Unless you’re enlightened, you cannot stop this mental ‘merry-go-round’ at will. However, you CAN distract your mind by doing something else – something that requires your full attention.
What works for me? Writing and video editing! When I create something, my mind is 100% focused on it. When I am deeply involved in my work, the whole world disappears. I forget about the nearby war, the price of gas, the next doctor’s appointment – or any other current stressor. There’s just the screen, and the words that are coming to life. I forget to eat, to drink or to look at the clock. When I’m in this ‘trance’, there is no anxiety – just a wonderful feeling of one-pointed concentration and purpose.
Find something that has a similar effect on you – and do it. Your anxiety might forget to visit you that day.
2. Light exercise.
What is our anxiety trying to accomplish? In its own primitive way, it’s trying to protect us from ‘danger’ (in our case, the performance) by compelling us to run away from it. We get ‘jittery’ because of all the stress hormones released in our system (such as adrenaline). Their purpose is to literally force us to escape the ‘menacing’ activity. Of course, we usually don’t listen to this compulsion, we do the scary thing anyway – and sadly experience lots of pain in the process.
So, if our limbic system wants us to RUN, we could trick it into thinking we ARE doing it… yes, by exercising!
Be aware, however: if you have a concert today or tomorrow, heavy training might not be a good idea – as it could exhaust you and make you sore. Save the hardcore sessions for the ‘non-performing’ days!
Light exercise is the golden middle – as you can burn off excess adrenaline without fully depleting your energy levels. Try doing a couple of Sun Salutations, some jumping jacks, some jogging in place, some squats, some stretches… you get the idea. Get your heart rate up and blood flowing – you will feel so much better after!
If you have time and the weather is nice, you could also go for a brisk walk. Nature is powerful – and its beauty can help take your mind off your story.
3. Relax the involuntary muscular tension.
Anxiety creates tension in the body. When you feel stressed, perform regular body scans, and consciously relax all the tensed muscles. We usually hold a lot of tension in our neck, shoulders, back and abdomen. Breathe and release all that tension – you will feel an immediate relief. However, once you take your mind off the body (and back into the ‘story’), the anxiety may return.
4. Deep rhythmical breathing.
Rhythmical breathing can trick the brain into thinking it is safe. After all, when the tiger is attacking, our breathing becomes rapid, shallow and chaotic!
If we consciously do the opposite, the amygdala might take a ‘chill pill’.
For example: inhale on the count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4 – then repeat. A simpler version is to inhale for X seconds, and then exhale for the same duration (without holding your breath in between). Repeat as many times as needed, until you start feeling calmer.
For me, this method is not as efficient as writing – but it does offer a bit of relief.
5. Warm clothing and hot drinks.
If you’re like me, anxiety makes you very cold! When I’m stressed, my hands get icy, and I get quite ‘shaky’.
The first thing I do in such cases is put on a warm fluffy robe – and drink a hot cup of water (as this is my only beverage).
If you tolerate coffee or tea, you can have some – but be aware: caffeine is a stimulant! If you are already jittery and on ‘high alert’, a strong coffee/tea will only make you feel worse. That’s why hot water is your best friend – helping you to warm up from the inside without the adrenaline-boosting side-effects.
Remember, however: no matter what method you use, be honest with yourself. Truth is always the foundation. If anxiety is already here, accept it, and use it as your starting point. Don’t be afraid of your fear. Instead, get curious about it, and try to fully embrace it. Counterintuitively, acceptance is often the only way to transcend an unpleasant reality.
… and that’s it!
As always, my desire to create a ‘short tutorial’ didn’t quite pan out… but I’m quite happy with the result, and I hope that you found today’s insights helpful and inspiring!
What about you? Do you have any anxiety-overcoming tricks that are not covered in this tutorial? Please don’t hesitate to share your experience in the comments below!
Sending you lots of love and ‘relaxation’ vibes,
Recommended free tutorials:
Studying Piano – How to Cope With Exams: 7 Basic Steps.
How to Handle Failures in Piano Playing? 16 Perspective-Changing Steps.
How to Get Rid of Cold Hands? Tips for Pianists.
Recommended tutorials (available on PianoCareerAcademy.com):
How to Overcome Anxiety While Preparing For an Upcoming Performance.
Practicing your ‘Performing Skills’: the 300%-200%-100% Principle.
Getting Ready for an Exam: Increasing Our Confidence.
Getting Ready for an Exam: The Final Stage.
How to Maintain a Calm, Focused State of Mind During Exams.
P.S. Many new online piano lessons and video tutorials are coming soon on PianoCareer.com! Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn or Pinterest to get instant updates, support and motivation!