Performance Anxiety, Part 2: Building the Bridge

Performance Anxiety, Part 2: Building the Bridge

Part 2: Building the Bridge

Part 2: Building the Bridge


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.

This month’s article will present a paced approach to playing comfortably in front of others. This method can either help novice performers avoid ever developing performance anxiety, or assist those who are currently having problems getting past that anxiety.

Many performers feel their nerves keep them from playing well in front of others and some players simply cannot get comfortable enough before an audience to enjoy performing. There are great benefits to be had from overcoming these feelings; I hope you find this approach helpful for your students, your friends, or perhaps yourself.

Controlling Performance Anxiety, Part 2: Building the Bridge
by John Wunsch
(Originally published in Mel Bay’s Guitar Sessions and edited by Stephen Rekas)

Building the Bridge Step by Step

The conditioning we acquire from our experiences go a long way towards building confidence or breaking it down. While most of us are geared to shoot for the big one, i.e., performance of a challenging work for a public audience, we can do ourselves a huge favor by appreciating the value of performing short and simple pieces for audiences as small as one. You read that correctly, 1!

Performance is one of the ways of sharing our music. It involves physical skill but it also involves a level of risk and vulnerability. When successful it provides fulfillment that makes all the effort worthwhile, but for many it is very difficult to get past the nerves associated with the risk and vulnerability. A paced approach can make the transition from playing alone to playing for an audience far more bearable. Simply put, a gradual, patient buildup from the simplest pieces and smallest audiences can provide the opportunity for enough successful experiences along the way to make the developing player comfortable at the next level of difficulty.

While there is no substitute for experience, no number of completely negative experiences will prepare a player for being comfortable before an audience. Certainly some less than perfect and thoroughly enjoyable experiences are often a part of the process as we learn to deal with the emotions and nerves of live performance; a series of manageable experiences, however, can help players in developing comfort in performance, despite those factors of risk and vulnerability.

Each individual has their own set of sensitivities as to who intimidates them and who does not, so a consultation to set up a custom graded list of practice audiences for each student is best. The goal is to gradually increase the difficulty or the degree to which an audience challenges the performer. It is wise to spread the experiences out enough for the player to regroup and improve on problem areas, but keep them coming often enough for them to become a regular part of the player’s musical life. As with the list of audience members, the frequency can be customized to fit a player’s tolerance and practice needs.

The list might look something like this:

Week 1

  • Audience 1- A parent
  • Audience 2- The other parent
  • Audience 3 – Both parents

Week 2

  • Audience 1- A good friend
  • Audience 2 – A second good friend
  • Audience 3- Both of those friends

Week 3

  • Audience 1- Parents with another adult, or a sibling
  • Audience 2- Parents with 2-3 other adults, or siblings

Week 4

  • Audience 1 – Both friends from week 2, plus 1 more
  • Audience 2 – Both friends from week 2, plus 2-4 more

Week 5

  • Audience 1- A mix of adults and friends from earlier weeks.
  • Audience 2- A small new group of adults and friends or other known acquaintances, such as teachers from church or school.

Week 6
A recital or concert, perhaps a guitar teacher’s sponsored studio recital.

I often tell my students that we carry the souls of our listeners on a journey when we perform. It is much like we are building a bridge for them to cross with us. In the practice room, that bridge only carries our own weight. It appears strong enough to carry others, but until we have them on that bridge with us we may not discover the weak links or vulnerable portions of the structure. We have to go out and try it. We will discover the areas that we need to strengthen, only after we see how it goes in performance.

Of course this graduated approach not only helps put the structure of the piece in order it allows us to gradually get acclimated to the emotions of performing. So in terms of the analogy, when you have someone else on the bridge it may seem to move or sway, the footing is just not what it was in the practice room.. That is due to the emotions you experience with an audience present. But just like the person who learns to walk on a swaying or gently bouncing foot bridge, we can get used to the added motion of our e-motion-s as we perform, and be more and more comfortable with these added travelers on the crossings we lead.

So the performance is a necessary test and we must realize it is not unusual to discover problems in performance. But if we slowly add to the size of audience, and how much of a challenge that audience poses to us, we can gradually create the structure we need for safe passage to a successful performance.

In upcoming articles we will examine more facets of both preparation for performance and having reasonable expectations.

Until then – Best wishes,
John Wunsch

© Copyright 2007 John Wunsch. All rights reserved, used with permission.

12 thoughts on “Performance Anxiety, Part 2: Building the Bridge

  1. Thank you for this series. I’m 68 and started the uke about 5 months ago. I joined a weekly small group about 6 weeks ago. They had a uke performance of several Hawaiian songs already scheduled at an elementary school and had been practicing them for several months already. I’ve been practicing like mad and still stumble here and there. I almost told them I wouldn’t be joining them even though they’ve been very encouraging. Now we have scheduled ourselves in a week and a half for a last practice at a local upscale grocery store which has a cafe and an open mike night for anyone who wants to perform. Again, I almost said, “no, way, Jose!” but decided it would actually be a good thing for me since I realize I’m a perfectionist and tend to not want to do anything in front of people until I can do “it” perfectly. Somehow I overcame that when practicing with this group since after all, we are “practicing” and are not expected to be perfect. I realized that I’d been looking at the performance at the elementary school as something that I had to do perfectly or not at all. That message was coming from me, not from the other members of the group. In this case, with other members playing the same thing, if I miss a chord change, none of the audience will even realize it and I can just catch up.

    I realize that when I want to play something solo in front of the whole uke society then I do want to be perfect and won’t do it until I am.

    1. Hi Mary, I think you have come to a great point of using the environment of a large group to give you the permission you need to ease into you performances without expecting perfection. That’s super healthy for a developing performer.,
      When you do go for a solo experience it is great to aim for perfection, but you may need to be OK if the result is less than perfect. All performers have to live with that, because as we develop further our idea of perfection gets more and more advanced. In other words we are constantly moving the goal posts on our selves so we seldom accomplish all that we intend. But it can still be fulfilling once we realize the audience can still get pleasure from what we in the end are able to accomplish. Good Luck!

      1. Thanks, John. I see what you’re saying about moving our expectations of ourselves as we get better, so, we might never perform actually up to our own expectations – which is a very liberating way of thinking. We might get good enough that the typical audience members don’t notice our imperfections, but I do expect that there will always be something I’d like to tweak before I play it again for the next audience. I look forward to the rest of the series.

  2. That sounds like a really good way to do it. It is brilliant in its simplicity. My problem is not with an audience, but with a recorded session. I can play a piece perfectly 5 times in a row, but as soon as I turn on my webcam to record it, I will make a mistake every time. I’m not sure how I could extrapolate and apply your method to recording a piece of music, but perhaps someone can offer some advice.

    1. Douglas,

      I have no advice, but I just need to say your experience is exactly mine!

      I can nail a tune with perfection at home time after time, but I’m telling you, there are times on a solo gig or when I press ‘record’ when it feels like I haven’t played the song in years…


    2. Hey Doug (& Gil),

      Yes I think we all can have this experience at times. This one (recording) is a bit different than the live audience, but also falls into the general issue of anxiety getting ingrained into our response. I think perhaps the first installment of my series may be relevant here. It is not complex but offers some tools to start reprogramming our selves.

      But there is a similarity here to my analogy of carrying audience members along with you, but in the case of recording you are carrying more and more of your own expectations. So in either case it takes a host of tools to get there and adding some new ques to your practice can be a helpful step. The later installments of the series will continue to add more tools, I hope in aggregate they can make a nice difference for you.

  3. Dear John Wunsch,

    As a rather often collaborator and today as a reader I think this is a very useful subject. Performance can be affected by many internal or external aspects. Thus, it is good idea always to revise the methodologies and skills to make more enjoyable and accurate our playing when we perform in front of audiences. I found very applicable the methodology by weeks proposed here, in this article and i think this will be helpful for my students.
    Thank you for bringing up this subject, and I am sure many musicians young or professional can learn and apply these practical ideas!

    Thank you, and I looking forward for the next articles in this serie:)

    Kind regards,


  4. Interesting and well thought advice to help people Mr. Wunsch, it’s funny how we all have the same symptoms. Only advice I can give is to learn a piece till your sick of it, then u will know it and you can express yourself and feel the music as u perform it. When u dont have to think about “how” to play it your there. So get out and do it! The more u perform live the easier and comfortable u will be. And remember it’s ok to make a mistake, we’re human. So when it happens (and it will) u just move forward, the average listener rarely notices it anyway. Sometimes I call it “getting paid to practice” Music should be a emotion, a way to express who you are, not the notes on a sheet of paper, its one of the only languages everyone from all over the world understands, it moves people in different ways. There will always be some gigs better than others, just always do your best but never be content, my attitude can always be better! No matter how good or many compliments I get I know it can always be better. So get out there and perform, and do it over and over, be it a recital or a open mic. or even just for family. The more often ur in front of people over time it will get easier. And remember your never gonna make “everyone” happy so dont get bothered by a crooked look, be yourself in what u play and do it for you first and foremost and you will truly find content. I used to be really bothered by cameras but so many people have them now I gave up, I figured if they bother to record me they must like what I’m doing, and if they record a mistake at the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world, lol My 2 cents worth!

  5. Lovely article thank you, my issue with performing is two fold, one it’s the new surroundings, everything feels different from my cosy practice room that I sit in day in day our for hours, even a different chair seems to affect my feel of my instrument
    Also when performing I see people, even if just playing for one person, but I see them in my peripheral vision which distracts me from task at hand, all thus combined with shaking and worry about mistakes and memory slips just makes performing extremely stressful, the relief to get through it is huge and makes me wonder is it worth it at all, I envy the super confident performer s

  6. Dear John Wunsch.
    I have only just discovered your helpful articles and intend to apply them hoping they will help overcome what I call porridge fingers. As the eldest sibling I was not given the benefit of piano and violin lesson that my younger sister and brother had. For years I kept feeling I should learn to read music and play an instrument, any instrument. It was not until my late forties and I heard John Williams play Cavatina that the fuse really lit and it came off my bucket list. My youngest son had a guitar that had just sat in a cupboard for years. I went and got some learn to play classical guitar books and started. I found that our town had a small guitar society which I joined. The society only lasted a few years though. At age eighty-four I can play reasonable well from the classical repertoire. I play mainly at home and mostly for my own enjoyment. I recently joined a new society which had just begun. They are all much younger and the problem is that I think they assume (from my grey hairs) that I should be able to play much better than I do (and I can) and I think this causes my fingers to feel as though they have just run a marathon when I try to play. I love to know what causes this and how I can overcome it.
    Best regards,

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