How to avoid performance axiety in music lessons
January 22, 2007 8:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking classical guitar lessons, and I can't seem to get over my performance anxiety when at my lessons. Anyone have any tips?

A couple of wrinkles to the basic question:

1. I practice ~2 hours daily

2. I frequently practice under the influence of mild mind-altering substances, but I never go to a lesson when thus modified

3. I seem to have less performance anxiety when performing for strangers, family members, etc. My worst performance seems to be reserved for my teacher

4. I practice(d) martial arts for a long time with the same 'practice crooked and perform straight' habit but without the same performance issues when demonstrating for the master.

It's the last one that confuses me the most - I don't see why the situations should be different.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, nothing helpful but I have been considering asking a similar questions for a while. I'm fine all month, even in front of my teacher, but when it comes time to take my monthly taekwondo belt tests I turn into jello and can barely perform, no matter how well I know the material. The only way I can get through it is to stop, breather very slowly and deeply, and then move one, but this doesn't help a whole lot.
posted by Brittanie at 9:06 PM on January 22, 2007

I took life drawing classes and I suck at drawing. The fact that everyone around me was much pretty damn good made me anxious. I drew and drew and once I saw improvement my sweaty palms subsided.
Moraleja: if you show yourself that you are improving because youre working hard the anxiety would slowly go away.
good luck.
posted by octomato at 9:15 PM on January 22, 2007

Remind yourself that you're just playing music! I used to get anxious in front of my violin instructor, and somtimes still do - but I just remember that I'm not an intern removing an appendix, I'm just enjoying the process of learning how to play music, and there are no consequences for a bad performance, and it helps me relax. Once you get pretty good maybe you can suggest to your teacher that a portion of each lesson can just be spent "jamming" along with her, and not performing for her.
posted by vito90 at 9:27 PM on January 22, 2007

#2 -- it would sure help to practice in the same conditions in which you have to perform. IE, make the substances consistent either way.

Also, kick your ego in the ass. It's not about you. It's about the music. (I mean that in the nicest way. I find that approach rather liberating.) In the end, the notes you play have died away, and that's it. It's just a moment that passes. If it goes great, it's still not about you. It's about the music.
posted by Listener at 10:04 PM on January 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Making mistakes is really no big deal. We all make 'em. Any time we learn something new it's a given that we're going to make plenty of mistakes. That's why we practice.

Remember that the teacher is on your side. The point of having them there while you play is so they can see where you make mistakes and where you get it right. They -need- to know this stuff so they can properly guide you.

Play it like you mean it and trust your teacher. They'll hear your mistakes and offer advice for how to fix them through practice. That's what they are there for.
posted by Rubber Soul at 11:05 PM on January 22, 2007

It proves you care.

Any teacher anywhere who gets a student who practices 2 hours a day is going to love that student. Don't sweat it. You don't want to screw up in front of your hero (of sorts) is all.

/been there
posted by Wolof at 3:06 AM on January 23, 2007

is the teacher especially judgemental?
posted by jak68 at 3:13 AM on January 23, 2007

Embrace your mistakes. Consider them variations, not errors, and just keep playing.

When you're practising, break up the set pieces with a bit of improvisation. Pick a phrase that you didn't enjoy the sound of the last time you played it for your teacher, and just play a that phrase over and over and over, with variations. If there's a tricky bit in the middle that always makes you stumble, simplify it until you can flow through the rest of it, then include bits of the tricky stuff in your variations.

The aim is to train yourself to relax, rather than tense up, when that phrase comes around again.
posted by flabdablet at 3:29 AM on January 23, 2007

Do you think you might play better when high? But you're afraid to go to lessons high because the teacher will notice? I'm wondering if you think you're just not good enough unless you're playing high.

In any case, explain your anxiety to your teacher, who must know a bit about performance jitters and, especially if she is a recently trained teacher, probably has been trained in anxiety control techniques. She can probably find ways to relax before lessons. In fact, if public performance is your goal, anxiety control should be part of your lesson.

And if you are tempted to use drugs to control performance anxiety, at least consider the right ones (get this stuff only through a doctor, of course). This report claims that a high percentage of professional musicians in US symphony orchestras take beta blockers to control the fight-or-flight response.
posted by pracowity at 3:56 AM on January 23, 2007

Ah, performance anxiety/stage fright. I used to have it in spades. The cure for me was playing 2nd trumpet in a big band with a huge working repertoire. After you play several dozen solos per gig, you either still have stage fright or you lose it.

Now as a much more mature player, I think it comes down to a couple things: relax. The more you can relax and the more you can encourage yourself to be comfortable with the circumstances, the better you play. I don't know of a single instrument where standard practice is to have you tense up first. So when you're sitting down to play, think about your body for a moment and think about what it's doing and where it's tense. Use a little active work to move the tense parts and loosen them up. Chances are it's your shoulders and neck, but everyone is different.

As said before, embrace your mistakes. Making a mistake? Make it wrong and strong. Play it loud and proud. There isn't a musician on the planet who hasn't clammed up a chart. Get used to it and learn to laugh at yourself. Meantime, keep your pencil handy and mark up the music where yo consistently clam. That's where you'll be practicing the rest of the week.
posted by plinth at 6:14 AM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I recently saw some advice on performance anxiety (specifically public speaking) that said to prepare, prepare, prepare, over-prepare really, and then be spontaneous at the performance. OK, easier said than done, but it might be a direction to try.

When you are alone, do you play about the same when high or not? Is this a factor at all?

#4 - probably because the situation is really different. Different teacher, different environment, and different kinds of skills. Do you like your teacher? Does s/he put you at ease, or make you feel tense? Would working with a different teacher help?
posted by DarkForest at 7:05 AM on January 23, 2007

If you practice 2 hours per day, it shouldn't take too long to get pretty good. However, if you are stoned for those two hours, it might take years. You may want to consider changing your approach if you want to actually change your results, and see if it has any effect.

Of the available permutations, I always considered the best one to be a sober performer and a drunk audience.

A good read... Zen Guitar
posted by FauxScot at 7:36 AM on January 23, 2007

In The Inner Game of Music (available here on WorldCat and here on Amazon), Barry Green suggests an approach to performance anxiety that I found incredibly helpful when I was playing the saxophone regularly. According to Green, it's a matter of turning off the regular commentary from the logical/analytical side of your brain that's constantly reviewing and critiquing your playing, and letting yourself be guided more by the creative side of your brain which actually does a much better job.

It may sound a little fruity, but it's really effective. I highly recommend the book, because he not only tells you that this will work, which is easy to do, but he explains, step-by-step, how to go about doing it.
posted by bokinney at 7:40 AM on January 23, 2007

Hi, I'm the original poster.

jak68: no my teacher is very non-judgemental

pracowity and DarkForest: I play about the same when straight or high, as long as the buzz is not fresh. I go to lessons straight due to respect for the teacher, and out of fear that my lesson performance will be even worse buzzed. Also I like my teacher, it's his prowess that intimidates me (as Wolof said).

FauxScot: I appreciate your comment, but I should have mentioned that there have been long periods of straight practicing and straight lessons in the past with the same performance issue(s). Also, my teacher has no issue with my performance during lessons or my progress [he said defensively]. He has told me that I'm his best student. I'm the one with the issue. That said, I'm sure that practicing buzzed is probably not accelerating my progress any.

Thanks for the book recommendations, I'll check them out.
posted by ShakeyFingers at 8:26 AM on January 23, 2007

Practice outside where you normally practice. Can you practice in the same room (or similar room) as you will use for the teacher? Set and setting, so try to get the setting consistent.
posted by geoff. at 9:08 AM on January 23, 2007

You might try warming up (practice for 30 min) before going to the instructor. There are songs and riffs that I literally cannot play until I've warmed up for at least 15 min -- fingers just won't move fast enough. Having your fingers not do what you tell them to when you're under the microscope can be pretty stressful.

Playing stoned is good for jamming with other musicians and writing new material. Not so much for working on technique.
posted by LordSludge at 9:49 AM on January 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've taken lessons from a bunch of different teachers, and found that the effect you're describing seemed to be inversely related to how close/friendly I was with my teacher. I got high a couple times with one of my guitar teachers. As a result of our good rapport, I would tend to feel more at ease and musical during a lesson. That wasn't always easy to do - I found that I would tend to be reserved around my teachers because of the nature of our relationship. Having respect for someone as an instructor can be good because it will drive you to do your best in order to satisfy them, but it can also cause you to put yourself through undue strain because of the fear of scrutiny and disapproval. So I think if there's anything you can do to become more comfortable with your teacher, that might help.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:49 AM on January 23, 2007

The most important thing to remember is that everyone has it. Glenn Gould stopped performing because of stage fright. Of course the more you practice the more comfortable you are and the less nervous you'll be, but it doesn't go away: you learn to play in spite of it.

I play trumpet, and anything that cause dehydration or dry-mouth is out, so no mind-altering substances for me.

Everyone is different. I have no anxiety at lessons with my regular teacher any more, because after 5 years the weekly lesson feels the same as practicing at home. But every other situation is bad -- friends, family, strangers, it doesn't matter.

Some musicians use beta-blockers to deal with the physical effects of the adrenalin. (Don't do that without a physician's advice, of course.) For me it didn't make that much of a difference -- seemed like the act of taking a pill made the situation more out-of-the-ordinary and increased my anxiety.

Keep practicing. Play on the sidewalk and in train stations. Try to find other people to practice with. It will get better.
posted by phliar at 2:43 PM on January 23, 2007

I overcame this in my piano lessons by simply becoming comfortable with my teacher. I really impressed her a couple lessons ago when I played a piece really well, and somehow I attribute it to the fact that immediately before playing it, I did an 'arm trick', demonstrating the flexibility of my shoulders, just to make her squirm.
posted by Stove at 8:07 PM on January 23, 2007

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