Performance Anxiety, Part 3: Reasonable Expectations “Taking the Long View”

Performance Anxiety, Part 2: Building the Bridge

Part 3: Reasonable Expectations - Taking the Long View

Part 3: Reasonable Expectations – Taking the Long View


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 3: Reasonable Expectations “Taking the Long View”
by John Wunsch
(Originally published in Mel Bay’s Guitar Sessions and edited by Stephen Rekas)

Student performances will invariably exhibit limitations or shortcomings that neither students nor teachers want to experience. If a student is able to continue despite a “mistake” and complete the performance, then he or she is building the essential ability to carry through; not all errors threaten to turn into a series of errors, or give rise to the relatively disastrous experience of simply not being able to complete a work onstage.

If students can enjoy the accomplishment of performing despite errors that may occur, they can approach each new performance as a chance to improve. Ideally the student comes through with an emotional memory trail clear of “failures” which could precipitate fear of recurrences of the same problems and a chronic anxiety response to performing.

In building an error-forgiving mindset, a critical question may be raised: Is this an inappropriate lowering of expectations? Make no mistake; I am not advocating lower expectations in terms of long-term results. The goal is to attain our personal best, creating a gift of live music and the ability to share it on a level that gives our listeners musical fulfillment, thereby making this a better world. There exists a line of reasoning which can help both the teacher and the student get comfortable with the idea of adopting this approach.

Let’s look at two more reasons to support this outlook.

1. The very best performers, those capable of doing their personal best, accept levels of flawed performance as part of the process of becoming and maintaining themselves as great artists.

This approach allows students to accept their performances with the appearance of some flaws, but is actually the beginning of a lifelong process of reducing the flaws to the point that they are only of concern or even noticed by the performers themselves or a by perhaps few very well informed individuals. These would be individuals who know exactly how good that performer and piece can be on the most subtle levels.

Accepting that our vision of perfection motivates us and gives us a long-term goal, but that success involves many steps with diminishing degrees of imperfection along the way- can allow developing players to relax into their current abilities and get the most from themselves. They can then become confident and effective performers much earlier in their musical lives.

Tales abound of fine artists exiting the stage to audience raves, but personally harboring criticisms of their own work that would surprise their listeners. One of the best examples I have heard was from an acquaintance who knew Isaac Stern personally. After one of many concerts my associate had heard the renowned virtuoso play, he was surprised to hear Stern expressing his disappointment with the performance. The man knew Stern well and was a well-respected musician in his own right. He knew Stern had delivered a performance which thrilled the audience. He was therefore moved to ask the virtuoso, “Maestro, how many concerts have you performed in your career that you felt were truly good and with which you were satisfied”? The answer was 2 or maybe 3!

2. Lives are touched in meaningful ways by performances that by some standard or another are “flawed.”

The joy and awe an audience experiences is no less real and has no less positive impact on their lives if the performance they saw were dissected by a critic to show how it was not on the highest level of artistry. We don’t even need to concern ourselves with the relative merit of such a comparison. The fact is- many developing players bring a true gift of live performance to their audiences of friends and relatives, other supporters or even strangers. This act of touching another human heart with music is very real, quite separately and distinctively from any objective analysis of execution.

Likewise, a nonprofessional musician performing in a nursing home or a regionally based professional on a community concert series can truly change an individual’s outlook, bringing a sparkle to the eye of someone who was deflated and discouraged. I have seen the look of unbridled joy on the faces of individuals who have heard a performance that I know was clearly flawed from the point of view of an objective analysis. This is a testament to the ability of musicians to make a palpable difference in this world, even when we have missed personal benchmarks that drive us.

If players come to performing for the joy it creates at each level of development, they can learn the relaxed and confident approach that leads to the very best performances where skills and experience reach their apex. Eventually the flaws can become something as detailed as, “Well yes, it really come off well, but I meant that crescendo to have a higher peak.”

On the other hand, if early performances are seen as failures with no inherent value because of mistakes, the stage is set for a pressured and rushed effort to attain perfection that often leads to an inability to perform in pubic. Or it may lead to emotionally void technical performances, limited by the performer’s overly careful approach.

We all aspire to present the best performances we can, but hopefully we also recognize that performances we regard as flawed in some way often provide great pleasure to our listeners. In realizing that such ironies exist, we may ourselves begin to take greater joy in performing than we might if only focused on our shortcomings. The fact is- our inner vision of perfection may drive us forward but, honestly speaking, most of our performances fall short of that goal. This does not need to be a bad thing, and in fact is quite human and likely the norm.

In these first three articles I’ve addressed ways of preparing ourselves for performance. In upcoming articles we’ll examine various means of preparing our repertoires for performance, again in ways that can lead to reduced anxiety.

Until then, best wishes,

John Wunsch

20 thoughts on “Performance Anxiety, Part 3: Reasonable Expectations “Taking the Long View”

  1. What a GREAT essay on a topic of great interest to many ‘non-virtuoso musicians! Thoughtful, analytical, insightful, logical, persuasive….. so helpful to students …. and hopefully to instructors. Great job, John Wunsch. Thank you!

  2. Boy did I ever need to read this inspiring message. Thank you ever so much. I’m eternally grateful. I recently performed for a small group of friends. I clearly crashed on a couple of songs and tripped and stumbled a couple times on others. They loved it anyway and praised my gutsiness! Now im eager to try again.

  3. Hi John
    I just read your 3 articles and I have all these issues. I been performing magic in our community for several years and feel comfortable for the most part doing magic. But I’ve been playing guitar for less then 3 years and performed for 150 people and I was very nervous to say the least. I started a guitar club in our community back in Oct. and it’s going well but Yesterday my anxiety seems to get the best of me. By starting the club, I am hoping to get better performing in front of others. Your articles are a big helping me understand what I can do to shut this down. Keep sending these articles, their very beneficial to us readers.

    Bruce Morehouse
    Buckeye , Arizona

    1. That’s just great to hear Bruce, You definitely made a great step by starting a club. The combination of support and knowledge will win the day! I have 4 more in the pipeline, so stay tuned.

  4. What performance is note perfect? A threshold of acceptability is reached that must and does allow for error. Once, while playing in a restaurant, my thumb nail somehow snagged the E bass string and when it let go you could hear the pop all through the room. Not a soul looked at me. They seemed to make a studied effort to pretend that nothing was heard but lovely guitar music. It confirmed what I already knew; that mostly all people hearing you are in complete and unreserved support of the players efforts. They intuitively know when a musician and especially a classical guitarist is sincere and that buys out, more than buys out any mistakes. I allow myself a 98 percent accuracy rate though I sometimes fall short. It depends on the piece. For me; the beauty and innate charm of the instrument is in melody and adagio.

  5. After a recent performance at an assisted care facility, our adult quartet (neophytes who enjoy learning the instrument and sharing what we learn) witnessed one of the residents, a 93 year old gentleman, being comforted by one of the staff. He was crying. The staff member shared with us that his were tears of joy because he was so taken with the beauty of the music which we had shared. Our performance was not our best by any measure. However, as John Wunsch astutely points out, “Lives …(can be) touched in meaningful ways by performances that by some standard or another are ‘flawed.'” We saw this first hand and is strengthened our resolve to keep on sharing our imperfect work. Thanks for the article, John.

  6. Hey Thomas, Yes I have seen that kind of wonderful result of performances many times, it definitely is a powerful inspiration for sharing the music. Thank you for sharing your music in meaningful ways. It makes the world a better place.

  7. It is so good to see essential thoughts and feelings in print! Thanks, John! This should be required reading for anyone who wants to play in public, whether in music festivals, universities or the local coffee shop. It is very easy to get diverted from the joy of producing beauty on a musical instrument by the fear of errors. The best performers always show that joy first and foremost. The goal of a mistake free performance is part of preparation, not an end in itself. As pointed out by another comment, about Isaac Stern, the times when all the elements of a performance are in line are very rare and to be cherished. Performance is not about ‘perfect’ it’s about communication and sharing.

  8. Thank you for this series, John. This measured approach to building confidence should help all of us share more of our music with others. When I studied Shakuhachi (Japanese end-blown flute), I mentioned my reluctance to inflict less-than-perfect attempts on hapless listeners to my teacher. He said that in Japan, it was considered selfish NOT to share one’s music with others, flawed though it might be. Your suggestions give us some tools to accomplish that.

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