Top Tips for Nervous Performers

Top Tips for Nervous Performers
Do you suffer with bad performance nerves? Are they affecting your enjoyment of your music? If so, here are some top tips to help!

1. Accept them…

It’s OK to be nervous – accept it. As a teacher and accompanist, I’m often far more worried about the pupils who aren’t nervous than the ones who are. Being a little bit nervous is a good thing – accept that you will never, and should never want to get rid of your performance nerves completely.

2. They won’t just ‘get better’ on their own…

In my experience, nervous performers usually get better over time, but this comes from hard work developing strategies and practising these – your nerves are unlikely to get better without some form of pro-active intervention.

3. Be prepared…

The first thing to say is to make sure you are as prepared as possible for your performance. Not only should you practice your pieces, but also how you get on the stage, how you take the applause, where to put the music etc. etc. If you’re taking an exam, make sure you have some idea what the venue will be like. Practise the performance, not just the pieces. If you feel unsure about any aspect of your performance, this will inevitably affect your nerves.

4. Take it slowly…

In my experience, the best way to combat performance nerves is by performing – sounds ridiculous, but it does seem to work. Make sure though that you approach this in small stages. Start with small informal performances, playing things you know well – as a teacher, I run a series of termly Platform Performance sessions: an opportunity for a small number of pupils to perform to each other. You can also build performance skills by playing duets or taking part in ensembles, where you can ‘spread’ the load. Each positive experience will you give you another boost.

5. Talk to other performers…

Once you’ve accepted that you’re going to be nervous, accept that everyone else will be too. Try to meet with other performers to share experiences – the Platform Performance sessions I mentioned above have proved a good way to do this. It’s important to feel that everyone is in the same ‘boat’. These discussions are however best done with the supervision of a teacher (especially adults!) as it’s easy for the nervous energy to rub off on others; such discussions can also become a competition (“I’m more nervous than you…” etc.)

6. Play to anyone who’ll listen…

Every time you get the opportunity to play to someone else, take it. It doesn’t matter who it is – I taught one lady the piano for nearly eight years, and she played every time the window cleaner came. I don’t think he listened, but the point was that she played with someone else within earshot. Children are usually happy to play something quickly for friends or family (but please don’t turn them into performing monkeys!) while adults tend to prefer playing to strangers.

7. Record yourself…

A good way of simulating the pressure of performance, is to record yourself. As soon as your press the ‘Record’ button, you’ll feel as if your performance has started!

8. Don’t overstretch yourself…

When you feel ready to play to others, whether that be informally, in an exam or in a concert, don’t overstretch yourself. The temptation is to play something ‘showy’, but this often isn’t necessary. Pick something which, most importantly, you enjoy and which you feel comfortable with. Don’t pile on more pressure than is necessary.

9. Don’t expect to go it alone…

If you are suffering from nerves which are affecting your performance, don’t suffer in silence. If you have a teacher, they should be ready and willing to encourage, support and help you develop strategies to deal with them (and if they’re not, and if they say “it’ll just get better…”, it might be time to move on…) If you’re going to take exams or perform at any time, your teacher should be teaching you ‘how to perform’. As mentioned above, do try to get support from fellow learners too.

10. There are plenty of other things to try…

It’s worth mentioning that there are lots of things out there which purport to help with performance nerves. Some people find eating a banana before the performance is useful, while others swear by Rescue Remedy. I’ve taught people who’ve tried hypnotherapy, and I’ve taught people whose GP has prescribed them beta-blockers…do any of these things work? I think that ultimately, it’s impossible to say. My feeling is that treatments such as hypnotherapy are useful in helping you understand your nerves, but I still feel that in the end, your hypnotherapist is not going to do the performance for you – for the pupils that tried this, they didn’t find much of an improvement long-term. Likewise, beta-blockers might help, but they won’t remove the underlying problem. If you are still stuck for ideas and solutions and your a professional musician or teacher, contact BAPAM for advice (they produce a useful advice sheet here available to anyone). Greg and Ally Daubney have also produced a very helpful guide in conjunction with the ISM, and that’s freely available here.

Above all, there is no ‘quick fix’. I firmly believe that on balance, practising performing is the best way to combat nerves, but I also believe that this should be done under manageable and supportive conditions.

If you have any other tips, feel free to leave them below.

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