Dealing with Performance Anxiety in Piano Lessons

Ava practicingWe have all been there. We have all experienced the butterflies racing through the stomach, the constriction in the lungs that won’t let us breathe, and the spiraling thoughts: “I haven’t practiced page 5 enough… Am I really memorized or will I mess up big time?… What will the audience think?” Performance anxiety has been encountered by virtually every musician at some point in their career. Pavarotti would sweat bullets, requiring his makeup to be reapplied three times before proceeding to bring down the opera house. Chopin would become asphyxiated in front of audiences, so he avoided performing in public as best he could. Indeed, many of our musical heroes struggled with this crippling phenomenon of the mind. Some good news? Having some degree of anxiety before or during a performance means that you care. You care about the music and how the performance will affect your audience. This care serves as proof of your musical volition and honest music making.
How do we deal with performance anxiety? If we understand how it works, we can begin to free ourselves from its grasp. In one sense we have 2 selves, and both selves talk to us when we perform. Self 1 is the objective self. It notices what we are doing and nothing more. It just notices. It notices if we used the correct fingering we’ve practiced a million times, if we are playing with tension or freedom in our wrists, and it notices how the music sounds objectively. Self 1 doesn’t attach judgement to our performance. It simply notices what is happening and remains aware, like a mechanic looking under the hood of a car to see how all the parts are working. Self 2 is the part of our mind that creates anxiety. Self 2 assigns judgements. It says stuff like, “Oh, you missed that measure on page 2, how silly of you… your teacher will be so upset if your memory slips.” Self 2 incessantly judges us for our perceived mistakes, and inflates us when we are praised by others. It clouds our mind with all kinds of negative thoughts—no wonder we find it hard to focus when we perform! However, nothing that Self 2 says is actually true. Its comments have no basis in reality, yet we often believe that what it says is true and important.
To free ourselves from performance anxiety we have to train ourselves to stop listening to Self 2 and become friends with Self 1, the objective self. If we do this we can still give ourselves constructive criticism and notice what we can do better, but we won’t suffer and become anxious about our mistakes or become inflated when we are praised. The more we stop believing the judgements Self 2 gives us about our playing, the more our minds will be able to be present when we play. We can free ourselves to make music with more organicism, more honesty, and with a more relaxed mind. We begin to open the doors of creativity within ourselves that we didn’t have access to before.
How do we listen to Self 1 and not believe the stories told by Self 2? Like most things, practice. Practice and learning to breathe consciously. One of the best tools we can employ to come out of believing Self 2 is to breathe deeply whenever we find ourselves caught up in a story of deficiency. If we can pause and breathe, we begin to train our minds to become more present and see things as they really are, free from judgement. This provides you with a little more room to respond with wisdom to what is happening rather than react and become anxious. With practice, we really can learn to let go of our anxiety and simply be present and authentic when we perform. Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search For Meaning, once said that “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This practice can help us perform with more mental freedom, but it can also help us in daily life when we feel stuck in a loop of negative thinking. When we pause, we open ourselves up to the possibility of seeing our true and beautiful nature. We can learn to see ourselves as the incredibly vibrant and divine beings that we are. We have so much to offer the world. We have music to share. We have joy and freedom to share. It just takes seeing this innate goodness for ourselves, goodness that nurtures and expresses with creativity. We can share the music of our hearts more freely once we stop listening to Self 2 and listen to the music from within. With this perspective, we can truly change the world, one performance and one awakening heart at a time.