Performance Nerves

Jennie Oh Brown | May 2018

Question: I get nervous when I perform? Do you have any suggestions?  

Answer: I can definitely relate with that struggle. I remember trembling through my first competition. I walked off stage, and my teacher said to me in her concise yet encouraging manner, “That was the worst case of nerves I have ever seen.” It is still amusing to me that I didn’t then declare, “No more performing for me!” 
    Over the years, my quest to cope with nerves has also become an interesting journey of self-discovery. Even more interesting is hearing how others cope with nerves, including everything from drinking an entire pot of coffee to running 10 miles before every performance. The following are a snapshot of ideas for dealing with basic performance anxiety.

    One of the most significant ways that nerves first affect performances is in our perception of how we play. The heart begins to pound at the slightest error, and disheartening words of failure begin to trickle into the mind. As glaring as stumbles may seem to the performer, it is important to remember that they are often imperceptible to the audience. It is also interesting to note that the critical voice players dread onstage is actually the same voice that is quite useful in the practice room. I have found it helpful to contextualize this voice and quiet it on stage. Use mental focus and encouraging words to bring your attention away from negative dialogue. 

Prioritize the Art 
    I always find it encouraging that the best antidote to coping with nerves is still good old-fashioned practicing. Mastering technique is an important step in the artistic journey, but not an end goal itself. Striving for a sense of fluency with the music allows players to look beyond the notes to interpret the music skillfully. Imagine a great actor reading a script to prepare a role, studying every last motivation and mannerism to bring a multi-dimensional character to life. In contrast, if this actor chose to obsess over the letters on the page rather than the intricacies of the character, it would likely be debilitating for him on stage. Joy in performing is intrinsically tied to maintaining a profound connection to the music and the composer’s intentions, regardless of the difficulty of the repertoire. 

Practice Being Nervous

    The simple meditative exercise of visualization can be beneficial for elite athletes, musicians, and other high-level performers. Practice imagining two contrasting performances. First, imagine performing with compelling artistry, confidence, and mastery. Then imagine encountering a problem, a flash of anxiety or a mistake, and calmly recovering from the problem with resilience and confidence. Numerous authors can provide additional help with this technique including Don Greene, Timothy Gallwey and others. Visualizing a performance while silent reading scores can also be useful. I take note of where I tend to lose focus and where my eyes carelessly gloss over passages. It is easy to assume that every mistake is a technical issue, but there are times when the real problem might be concentration and comprehension. 
    On a different note, I remember being in a masterclass in Italy with Michel Debost when one of my classmates mentioned feeling nervous about performing. Debost instructed him to run around the block outside. Upon his return, Debost explained that nerves were often nothing more than an elevated heart rate. He mentioned that a short run before practicing can imitate this physiological response to anxiety and give players an opportunity to train their emotional and mental responses to it. 

Finding Your Comfort Zone 
    At the end of a tiring day, what makes you happy: crawling into bed with a great book or calling your best friends to hang out? These simple questions can reveal how you relate to practicing and performing. You might generally be perfectly content to spend hours alone in the practice room wrapped up in the music, or you might need a quick break to interact with friends to get the energy to continue practicing. Players also have similar tendencies towards performing on stage. Some connect to the music with such intensity that the world disappears while others thrive with the exhilarating presence of the audience. Understanding and embracing the positive aspects of your natural tendencies will help you craft a more ideal experience in concert situations. 
    At a recent performance of Joel Puckett’s Shadow of Sirius at Elmhurst College, I walked on stage to see our large hall filled. In the middle of the performance, the people sitting in the uppermost corners of the balcony caught my eye. Intuitively, I played to them, lifting my face and my flute to include them in the moment. The concerto performance suddenly felt as intimate as a great conversation over coffee, which is probably one of the activities in life that I enjoy most. What a wonderful contrast to my trembling high school experience! 
    As an added challenge, it can be fun and helpful to force yourself outside of your comfort zone on stage. The added benefit to this is that you might find a new way to market yourself as a musician. Some ways to do this include:

• Explore new repertoire or a new style of music. Try improvising by seeking out musicians who specialize in jazz, exploring the music of other cultures, or joining a local church’s worship team. Flutes are remarkably versatile and ubiquitous instruments. 

• Develop your online presence by posting your performances on sites like YouTube or SoundCloud and participate in groups such as #100daysofpractice or the Facebook Group “Etude of the Week.” 

• Develop your skills on alternate instruments like piccolo and alto or try your hand at flute-related instruments like the traverso, recorder, fife, or other ethnic flutes. 

Frequent and varied performances can help expand your comfort zone to better embrace the challenges and unexpected turns that are a natural part of live performances. 

A Final Thought 
    Walking on stage in concert can be a lot like jumping into a pool on a warm day. We always expect that first moment to be a shock of cool water, but as we acclimate to the new environment, that same cool can become invigorating and enjoyable. Move forward with courage and enjoy the thrill of sharing your art with the world.      

    Share your ideas about performance anxiety by emailing You can also send new questions to Ask the Pro to the same email address.