Performance Anxiety, Part 4: Reducing the Likelihood of Anxiety

Performance Anxiety, Part 2: Building the Bridge

Part 4: Reducing the Likelihood of Anxiety

Part 4: Reducing the Likelihood of Anxiety


Veteran performer, owner, and guitar teacher for 15 years at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, John Wunsch presents a series of articles on alleviating performance anxiety.

A series of articles beginning with Part 1.

Controlling Performance Anxiety, Part 4: Reducing the Likelihood of Anxiety
by John Wunsch
(Originally published in Mel Bay’s Guitar Sessions and edited by Stephen Rekas)

In the previous three installments of this series we have looked at a number of techniques and attitudes that can help prevent or reduce anxiety in performance. Now we will look at reducing the likelihood of anxious situations for our students by working to insure that the material is appropriate, the performance engaging, and the path of preparation well planned and well paced.

But first let me acknowledge something critical to many performance anxiety situations, that of memory failure. In my observation, memory issues on some level are the common denominator in occurrences of performance anxiety. They may not always start the ball rolling down the hill but they eventually become a part of almost any performance crisis.

Good “depth” memory skills can prevent many anxious moments or allow quick recovery from them if they occur. By depth memory skills I mean those that go beyond muscle memory. Muscle memory is a huge component in performance, but often fragile if interrupted. There are a number of effective and important tools for developing depth memory skills, and in Parts 5 and 6 I will present them. Even if memory is a particular student’s key issue, everything we have covered so far should still provide important steps toward his or her performance success. So keep all of these ideas in mind and check in later for further thoughts on directly addressing memory issues.

Planning for Success

No doubt, all the methods outlined in the previous articles for framing and pacing the performing experience are still dependent on being well prepared to present the music.

I keep four points clearly in mind as I coach students in performance preparation.

1. Use music that is well memorized.
2. Use music that is easily within a student’s level of capability.
3. Guide students to become involved with the music through presenting a level of expression beyond just playing the notes.
4. Pace the preparation of a piece in order to resolve memorization and execution problems well before it’s time to perform it.

Let’s examine each of these points individually:

Use music that is well memorized

While a young or beginning student may gain from early performing experiences while reading, I find it best to move on to performing from memory sooner rather than later; if possible, begin with memorized performance. Adding the challenge of reading to the execution of a piece with any level of difficulty can often be more of an invitation to performance problems than outright memorization.

Use music that is easily within a student’s level of capability

It is of paramount importance to select a piece that the student can manage very easily. The acceptable levels of challenge that push along and expand a student’s boundaries in lessons and practice may be beyond what they should attempt to perform, at least until they have reached a clear level of experience, comfort, and confidence in the act of performance.

In addition, if a player has already been having less than successful experiences in performance it is even more important to select easy pieces. In that case, the beginning of their retraining or desensitizing to anxiety in performance will likely need to incorporate starting with pieces that are even further “beneath” their current physical “non-audience” skill level.

I mentioned the use of easy pieces in the first article in this series. In that case we used it to bridge from the relaxed good breathing and positive visualization approach of a pre-warm-up to more standard practice material and playing approaches. In this case it can help a student cross the bridge from successfully playing a piece in the practice room to successfully performing it in front of others.

Guide students to become involved with the music through presenting a level of expression beyond just playing the notes.

Developing the ability to not only play the notes, but to add musical aspects such as dynamic changes, rubato, color and vibrato depends on having the physical skills needed to execute these elements; again, adding these elements of musicianship depends on initially choosing pieces that don’t tax the student’s ability to simply play the notes.

As a student’s skills mature and allow musical expression, the resulting emotional involvement a player experiences can eventually be of great help to get beyond the self consciousness that contributes to performance anxiety.

Anxiety is often triggered by distracted thinking that occurs when we are not sufficiently involved in the music we are performing. It’s often a challenge to persuade a developing player to choose to perform a piece which they can manage well enough to include expression, but when the time is ripe, this step not only brings students closer to artistry but can also contribute mightily to successful performance.

We are all susceptible to the following tendency to some degree, but the young and the highly motivated are especially prone to want to play an “impressive” piece while they may have trouble getting motivated to play a simpler work. Playing a piece with musical expression can be very impressive in itself, however, and more fulfilling for the audience than simply pulling off the notes of a difficult piece. If we believe we are here to serve our audience, and not to impress them or aggrandize ourselves, this approach to choosing repertoire may gain favor even among the young and most highly motivated students.

I have experienced success with my students not by stopping them from playing the more impressive, physically challenging pieces that they are just able to pull off, but by also requiring this kind of work as part of their training and performing. I openly require each of them to learn and perform a piece that is clearly “beneath” their current physical skills, and to do it with the utmost expressive concept and skill.

The assignment pushes them to find as much challenge in adding interpretation to the simple piece as they would find in learning a much more difficult piece. This approach has led to tremendous success in developing more meaningful interpretation and persuasive performances, and students often have their most intense experience of “feeling” a piece as they are playing it while being fully focused and present. This is a great confidence builder for young performers, and again a step towards artistry.

Pace the preparation of a piece in order to resolve memorization and execution problems well before it’s time to perform it

In Part 3 of this series, the article on reasonable expectations I discussed perfection being a relative goal. Teachers must judge how fully all problems can be solved for each student at a given stage of their development. Whatever that peak level of mastery is, the student needs to reach it well before any performance.

Simply getting a piece “finished” and ready for performance just days or a week in advance creates a very risky situation in itself, one that is likely to lead to more anxiety or a troubled performance. Given that the repertoire is level-appropriate, it’s a good minimum rule of thumb for students to have a piece well in-hand at least two weeks prior to any performance opportunity; that is, if it’s a piece which they can physically manage without excessive tension, risk, and stress.

Then, by using a paced performance experience program such as the one presented in Part 2 in this series, additional weeks are added to the process and a student can end up having a piece finished for up to seven weeks by the time they are in a standard “real’ performance, such as a recital or performance/studio class.

In our next two installments we will address the issue of memory as it contributes to performance anxiety. As we all know this is often at the root of many cases of performance anxiety.

Until then, best wishes,

John Wunsch

12 thoughts on “Performance Anxiety, Part 4: Reducing the Likelihood of Anxiety

  1. Excellent and well written advice. My experience is memory lapses (or anticipated fear of such) is the greatest source of an anxiety response. Presenting a piece well below one’s level with the focus on expressive techniques is well advised. Thanks.

    1. I could not agree more Scott, memory is such a big factor. Please stay tuned for the next two article that focus on memorization.

  2. Another point of view regarding performance anxiety: The reality of a life as a performing artist is there is no way you are going to be able to control all circumstances. One must know the unpredictability of touring and performance situations in general. I think I’d gear a young player more for: “when the unexpected happens, here are some suggestions for dealing with it…”. ’cause things are going to happen and can happen in a split second. Better to learn to be prepared for the unexpected rather than trying to control all circumstances all the time or avoiding everything that could happen. That’s been my 35 years of performance experience and that’s what I’ve been teaching for over 25 years. Unnerving things happen–trying to avoid it is like trying to avoid accidentally hitting an open string every time you play a guitar–not gonna happen. Learning music is multi-faceted. If a student has any intention on getting up on any stage at any point then hopefully they will have a teacher that will not just prepare them for success as a proficient musical artist, but will prepare them for “what it’s really like” to get up in front of an audience and perform. Best of luck to the budding young talents out there.

    1. Good point bd. I would completely agree, my touring an performing experience brought quite the list of unexpected circumstances. A good combination of building the foundation with an understanding of expecting the unexpected sounds like the right mix.

  3. One thing where is no control is the sound of the venue. Often this will be fine when empty, but when populated by the audience the guitar can become hard work. No reverberation, just dull sounding notes…

  4. My classical guitar teacher says that one way to lower performance anxiety is to continue to improve one’s playing skills. This might seem obvious, but should be remembered.

  5. Thank you for talking about anxiety when playing in
    front of people. I completely forget even the name
    of the song much less how to play. However my last recital was
    much better until I let myself lose concentration.
    I can use all your tips. Thank you

  6. Good stuff. Thanks for this. One question: when you say a student should have a piece “well in-hand” at least two weeks prior to a performance, what does that look like roughly? The ability to play the piece without serious disruption five times in a row? 10 times?

    1. HI Bill,

      While the judgement at this point is somewhat relative, the bottom line to me has always been the ability to play through it without technical or memory failures. The point is to avoid the student tendency to “finish” learning a piece at the last minutes, which can set them up for failure.
      Having the piece so they can confidently get through it a few weeks ahead of the performance also means they are already at the point that they can be considering interpretation, which affords the advantage cited in the article of becoming more involved with the piece and less susceptible to distraction during performance.
      To directly address your question about playing it multiple times without failure, my expired is that playing a memorized piece multiple times leads to possible confusion in the memorization. For example, you wonder as you repeat a section if you perhaps already played it 2 times (because you played it so recently in this repetition approach), and now “oops” am I in the wrong place???
      So, I recommend we base it on simply playing it through one time correctly, in other words be past the point of being prepared to perform several weeks before the actual upcoming performance in question.
      I hope that helps
      Jw ~

  7. So true, I think short of having a a sound absorption room for them to know this they will have to be there. But I think we can at least warn them

  8. Well, if we’re talking purely musical preparation there is nothing like practice. That’s a given. In this case: beginners: seek professional help. More advanced players: return to your fundamentals and refresh them. As for actual performance circumstances, I suggest to young artist to try a little creative visualization. There’s a lot about this on the internet. It’s all about trying to put oneself into a performance situation before actually getting anywhere near the real performance. Not unlike visualizing really difficult passages in one’s mind and then trying to execute them I have found this endlessly effective and calming. However, speaking of difficult passages and depending upon the level of the community (I, we,) are addressing here (beginners, intermediate, beginning advanced, advanced, seasoned virtuosos), actual music preparation and memorization is a multi-faceted endeavor. In other words: if you’re a young player then you should seek out a good teacher. They should be able to help you prepare on all fronts of musical performance. If you’re an older player (like me), that is still learning, watching great players perform will help remind you of the how-tos of great performance and preparation. And, not unlike me, you’re never too old to be re-minded “how it works”. I relearn things all the time. And they do get easier—but one can’t remember everything and that’s why we practice.

  9. Like Charlie Parker, the great jazz sax player.. Practice playing outside in front of random people and in different environments. Understanding how the brain works. In other words, using small chunks of information, practicing the feeling of cold hands, labeling sections, playing backwards, imagine playing each note in your minds eye away from the instrument, and experiencing performance conditions that are not ideal but persevering until the end, maybe performing for someone willing to really listen without interrupting, Framing the concert with a “free throw routine” type strategy and finally having an “escape hatch” to secretly leave the concert, just kidding an escape hatch such as the final phrase of the piece to at least end gracefully and walk away with some dignity to try the piece again. Just knowing this “escape hatch” is available seems to calm my nerves.

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