Overcoming Performance Anxiety

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Question: Hey Albert,

I learned how to play piano myself, but learned the music theory before in band class. I haven’t taken piano lessons before, so I haven’t attended or perform a recital before. I play really well when I’m practicing at home. However, when I play in front of people or they come and listen to me, I get really nervous, my hands start to tremble and I make mistakes. How do I overcome this dreadful habit?

Albert’s reply: While every performer must deal with being nervous before and during a performance, performing with confidence in the face of nerves, without making significant mistakes, is entirely a matter of competence. In other words, it is a product of one’s training.

Professional pianists at the highest levels of competence know, and know that they know. By contrast, amateurs don’t know, and they don’t know that they don’t know. If you graduate to the level at which you don’t know, but you know that you don’t know – that is your opportunity to make progress.

Musical competence is holistic, in that knowledge and skill in one area will positively affect other areas. Conversely, a deficiency in any area will often express itself elsewhere, entirely unbeknownst to the player, who experiences only excessive nervousness and, if he is lucky, the feeling that something is missing.

That “something missing” is professional training in one or more areas. By training I am referring exclusively to musical training, the kind that only a serious and accomplished professional performer can truly give you. No performance anxiety remedy will ever be sufficient to help those who lack training in essential musical categories and skills.

One of those categories is music theory, yet familiarity with music theory is not enough – far more important is your ability to apply that theory at the keyboard. Can you play the most common chords in all keys without hesitation, in any inversion? Do you know the most common chord progressions in all keys? Can you easily name the harmonies in the music you play?

Moving to the next category, regular key-notes readers know that I am a vocal advocate of ear training, since it is your ear that will help you to avoid musical wrong turns in performance. A trained ear forms a perfect synergy with your knowledge of music theory, thereby facilitating the acquisition of deeper knowledge and guiding your hands at the keyboard.

Security must also be built into your very technique. This means that your every movement – even the movements of which you are totally unaware – at the keyboard must be the products of deliberate mental direction and control. Such a secure technique is only something that long-term study with an elite and strict teacher can give you – it is far too subtle and the details too numerous for anyone to intuit on their own.

Finally, the aspiring performer must have an airtight learning and practicing methodology. Above all, practicing piano properly involves enormous self-discipline. This means building each piece slowly and steadily, and resisting every temptation to play your piece through up to speed during practice sessions. Above all, it is the premature attempt to play at full performance tempo, before each note, each fingering, each hand position, each motive and phrase have been worked out in detail, that dooms students to failure in performance. If the music student has yet to learn how to learn music and to establish good practice habits, is it any wonder that he or she experiences debilitating nervousness and makes mistakes in performance?

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