Heart racing, wobbly knees. Shaky, sweaty palms. You’re backstage, in a warm-up room, or hiding in the bathroom.

Even if everyone has been saying “Don’t worry, you’re going to be great,” believing them is easier said than done. If you’ve ever been in this scenario, you’re not alone.  According to professor Dianna Kenny’s current research on music performance anxiety, 70% of orchestral musicians report performance anxiety.

But I’m here to say that there’s hope for you. I know exactly how it feels to be consumed by fear and anxiety. The story doesn’t have to end there! It certainly didn’t for me. I learned how to quickly manage my insecurity and anxiety, sometimes before it even shows up, and you can too. Here’s how:

1. Managing your energy

Here are a couple of my current practices:

  • Yoga
    Focusing on muscle relaxation is important, so I often practice tensing my whole body and then releasing all the tension. I also suggest trying some simple yoga stances like Warrior II, Tree, or Cat/Cow to help release muscle tension before your performance.
  • Breathwork
    A powerful technique that I would recommend for reversing stress involves breathing from the diaphragm. When stressed, our bodies have a tendency to revert to shallow, rapid, chest breathing. Doing so keeps us in fight or flight mode. This is why diaphragmatic breathing is the most efficient way to breathe. Furthermore, it’s conducive to activating the part of our brain that’s responsible for our body’s “rest and digest” functions, which serves as an antidote for the fight-or-flight state.

2. Connecting with and caring about every human involved

I like to consider every person in my audience. I do this so that I can feel compassion, care for them, and see them as close allies rather than potential adversaries. I think about what my audience and colleagues want, and how I can serve.

I encourage you to do the same. You might be pleasantly surprised with what’s reflected back when you bring unconditional kindness and compassion.

3. Focusing on one thing

As Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

Consequently, it’s important to set a clear intention. This is, in essence, a specific goal statement. You can ask yourself the following:

  • What do I intend to do once I get on stage?
  • How exactly do I want to sound?
  • Precisely what do I intend to communicate to the audience?

Pick a focus point, like a rallying cry, that you know will support excellence throughout the performance. Next, write your focus point down somewhere! Or, you can use Modacity‘s improve function to set a specific goal, and create a hypothesis about what will help you achieve it. Simply navigate to your playlist, select your practice item, and press the improve button in the bottom left hand corner. 

Here are some focused goals that I would recommend using:

  • “I am going to perform brilliantly, with passion and clear dynamic contrast.”
  • Nail the high note!”
  • “Share the musical message.”
  • “Feel my feet on the ground.”

Avoid using the word “don’t.” This could create a negative picture in your head that will generate fears and doubt. For example, when I say to myself, “Don’t miss the high note,” the first image that pops into my mind is watching myself miss the high note! This thought process is the opposite of ideal. However, when I tell myself “Nail the high note!” I am able to visualize a much more positive image of myself doing just that! This is why it’s important to learn to focus on what you want, not on what you don’t.

4. Visualizing with Expectation

How often have you wanted to win something and then repeatedly visualized yourself failing?!

If you have, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’ve definitely been there and done that too.

Now, I make sure to spend time visualizing positive outcomes before I perform.  I imagine how great I’ll feel when things go well. I hear myself playing music with divine beauty.

I recommend a practical step by step like this one to achieve positive visualization:

  1. Start with a calm and relaxed breath, releasing any tension in your body.
  2. Then, in your mind’s eye, picture sitting down at or picking up your instrument.
  3. Next, take a deep full breath and assume the position as if you were about to play a note.
  4. After that, visualize yourself effortlessly performing all your previous problem spots. If you are a wind player, blow the air forward as if you were actually playing your horn. Or, if you are a pianist, drummer, or bass player, bring your hands up and imagine that you are plucking a string, striking a key, or hitting a cymbal as you focus on visualizing effortlessness.

5. Mastering the art of detachment

As helpful as these practices are to me, what I believe to be most important in performing is mastering the art of being detached.

Whatever happens is what happens, whether you’re in the spotlight receiving a standing ovation or proverbial rotten tomatoes. You can take it in stride masterfully, but only if you remain detached from specific outcomes. Believe it or not, the results are less valuable than the process that brought you to where you are now. Your best work always remains ahead of you. But if you can truly understand the beauty in all your hard work and hours of practicing, when the time comes for you to perform, you’ll realize that you’ve already gained what matters most – more wisdom and strength.

So keep being brave, keep making music, and may these tips make your performance process even more enjoyable!

Mars Gelfo

Mars Gelfo

Mars has been practicing music for 30+ years. After applying cognitive science & computer science to French horn, Mars became an internationally touring symphony musician. His experience includes teaching and performing with thousands of musicians around the world, including the San Francisco Symphony.