October 11, 2021

About the Author: Ljubica Stojanović

Ljubica is a 1st prize-winner of over 20 national and international competitions. She is a concert pianist and piano teacher at The London Piano Institute

Performance anxiety is a psychological phenomenon – it is fear about one’s ability to perform any task. It can happen in many fields of work or in other life situations but here we will focus on public performing in classical music.

Anxiety can manifest itself in variety of ways. Nuances range from lighter symptoms such as elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, to the more severe ones; muscle spasms, hyperventilation, experiencing blackouts, puking, just to name a few.

I would like to discuss some ways that helped me tackle my performing anxiety as I personally experienced many layers of it – total absence of it, to a rather severe panic attacks followed by muscle spasms, (and some sleepless nights prior to performances)

woman reading music on the piano

1. Memory and Memory Slips

Perhaps the most common anxiety: fear of forgetting what is coming next.
It is not easy to memorise pieces that are long and have various complexities (our brains are different so it’s very important to know, that what we struggle with is 100% happening to many other people too). I like to analyse the piece, specifically, what is happening structurally, harmonically, and then memorising the key points of where music “turns”. It is essential to know the style and harmonic motion of the piece. Strengthening my memory usually happens in several attempts, I run through to my friends, to my mentor, and not all of those run throughs are successful. I always have memory slips in different places, in every single one of those runs, so I make sure I do at least a few until all of the weak links are strengthened. It is incredibly different to play through to someone else as oppose to oneself only… try it!

2. Meaning

Playing on “auto-pilot” mode at home and expecting a meaningful performance in front of an audience is pure insanity, sorry to say it. I learned that as a child, when I spent hours repeating things and then would go on stage and realise “oh! I have no clue what I am doing”. Our subconsciousness will get us through many situations but in order to have an aware performance, practice must be full of intention and even more important – meaning. Giving every bar, note, or chord, a meaning based on music knowledge – is the key aspect in looking forward to a healthy performance. It is not easy to stay sharp while practising in pajama and checking messages every 5 minutes but having an aim and sharpness that we will have on stage is something we can also practice, or at least imitate.

hands playing on the piano

3. Letting Go

Letting go on stage is a big source of performing anxiety. How to attempt to fully let go but not let go of what you are doing properly… it is a very fine balance and I am not going to pretend I know the answers.

4. Experience

One of the biggest violinists of all time David Oistrakh said: “If I perform less than 3 recitals a week, I consider myself out of concert shape”. This is of course a privilege that only established artists have but it does say that continuity in performing is the key. Building experience is of course a long process but the only way to do something well is to keep doing it and learn from the nuances of what went really well and what could be better.

5. Separating Self

For those of us who grew up performing, sometimes it’s tricky not to attach our self-worth to our performance. The sense of “succeeding” in a particularly tricky or a big performance is often related to feeling like you yourself succeeded as a person. The truth is, it is our job to perform , and also our hobby and our love, the sense of accomplishment is natural. Keeping an eye on “if I don’t play well I am a failure” is very important. For my LPI students it might be different, most of them grew up doing something else and approached music purely from a place of pleasure and joy, which is a fantastic start and most of the time keeps things strongly in perspective.

grand piano on stage

6. Strong Support System

Performing industry is harsh and very frequently not based on quality. Having a strong system of support is simply essential. For instance, a teacher that has your best interests in their heart, guiding you and sharing all their knowledge. Mentors who will advice you on how to decide your next steps. Family members and friends encouraging your artistic path and unconditionally being there. It makes things easier knowing you are not just a performer and it’s not prosaic entertainment for strangers, it is an essential part of our culture and what makes our society civilised. It nurtures soul and being reminded that we are all taking part in this, has to come externally, at times.

7. Embracing Failure

It simply won’t be great every time. Just like anything else. Learning from my own mistakes and mistakes of others, was the most important thing in carving out the path of security in my mindset. Share, exchange! (Talk to your friends, colleagues, everyone finds different things challenging – exchanging ideas is a beautiful way of staying connected to how complex performing actually is!)

woman concentrating on her playing

8. Self-esteem, Self-love, Self-reliance

I was, at times, finding it easier to relay on others than to trust myself. My performance anxiety was stemming from being afraid of sharing my own opinion, sharing what I have to musically say and frequently believing that it simply isn’t good enough or even interesting enough. I was so insecure about what I am doing on stage that I did not even know if the problem was psychological or is there something about music that I am not understanding. The answer was both… going deeper into matter was giving me stamina and confidence as I knew more and more. But loving myself better and trusting myself better helped too. Being self-critical is a daily life of performers, it’s how you make things better, buy carefully examining absolutely everything you do. That is dangerous as well, so again this is a matter of fine balance.

9. Staying Connected to The Essence

At the end of the day it is not about us. Sharing music is a form of a duty, fun… in any case it involves others, always. Making it into a beautiful experience for everyone is a nice aim. Staying connected to the music first, it can help us liberate from the claws of fear.

carefree female pianist

10. Some Right Ways to Practise

Securing things at home, that’s all.

11. So What!

This is a mindset that can sometimes help! “So what if I stop and start crying and everyone stares at me ?” That one always make me laugh and I remind myself not to take my life so seriously. Or “So what if I mess up everything, the only person who suffers is me, others will forget it tomorrow”.

12. Know Your Strengths

It is nice to chose the repertoire that we feel connected to. Usually it also reflects our strengths, some music is more passionate / intellectual / physical than other.. it is at the end of the day a matter of taste and finding those things that we feel natural ease with, is a big part of being comfortable.

Happy and joyous practicing and see you all on and off stage!

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