Performance Anxiety, Part 1: Setting the Stage for Success

Performance Anxiety, Part 2: Building the Bridge

Setting the Stage for Success

Setting the Stage for Success

With colleges and universities convening nationwide, October seems the appropriate time to begin a new instructional series for the Strings By Mail Articles page. 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.

The purpose of this series of articles is to outline an approach to building stage skills and confidence that can help up-and-coming young performers reduce or avoid the problems incurred by excessive performance anxiety. This approach may also be helpful in reducing and controlling anxiety for more experienced players who have a chronic problem in this area, or who simply face an occasional bout with nerves.

The first article will present a general long-term practice tool that can lead to better management of performance anxiety. It will be followed by an article with a specific program for gradually developing performance skills and experience while minimizing anxiety problems. A third article will address overview and outlook issues and then we’ll explore specific ways to better prepare repertoire for successful performance. Finally, a bonus article on special music service opportunities and “Getting Outside of One’s Own Concerns” to serve a larger purpose will close the series.
Here we go…

Performance Anxiety, Part 1: Setting the Stage for Success
by John Wunsch
(Originally published in Mel Bay’s Guitar Sessions and edited by Stephen Rekas)

For years, theories, books and medical approaches using beta blockers or hypnosis have been available to treat extreme cases of performance anxiety. Often, however, a balanced outlook and a patient process can end the state of unreasonable fear that spoils the opportunity for many to enjoy sharing their music with a live audience.

Breath and Visualization: Practical tools for effective action and manageable emotions

Breathing has been long recognized as a key to the calm and centered mind. It has been part of meditations, anxiety therapy, and effective athletics for a very long time. Good breathing is not only an obvious part of the art of vocal and wind performance, but is often addressed to improve phrasing of guitarists, pianists and other instrumentalists. I teach my students to cultivate deep even breathing as a step toward successful performance for at least 4 reasons:

  • It gives the mind and body the essential oxygen they need to function on the highest level.
  • It increases metabolism, which is necessary to burn off adrenalin at a reasonable rate as it is created in a performance situations.
  • It keeps the muscles of the upper body in motion, helping to avoid the physical tension that can lead to technical limitations in the hands and arms.
  • It introduces an immediate calming effect and sets the stage for breathing to become a cue to the mind and its emotional systems during performance.

A pre-warm-up program involving breathing and visualization at the beginning of each day’s practice can allow the last component listed to have maximum value. There are many arguments for the value of visualization in life and other endeavors. By sitting with the guitar for a few moments each day, combining a program of maximizing technical positioning of the body with a clear effort to feel both physically and emotionally comfortable and confident with the instrument and our abilities, we begin to set the stage for good experience as a performer.

It is also very important to implement good smooth, relatively deep, steady breathing at this point in the practice session. This “exercise” begins without playing anything at all, but simply sitting with the guitar, allowing time to combine physical comfort with the instrument, positive expectations in the mind’s eye, and good steady deep breathing.

You might find it helpful to conjure an image of what you expect it would be like to be on the highest level of virtuosity right now. The exercise can then be applied to the simplest of motions, such as plucking one note on an open string, or touching a finger of the left hand to a string- all while maintaining the most perfect relationship to the instrument possible.

Finally, to the best of our ability, the concept can be applied to an “extremely” easy and manageable short piece. I usually tell my students, this will almost certainly be a piece that you regard as being in some way “beneath” your current ability. Be sure that this type of breathing as well as physical and emotional comfort are maintained as you play this easy piece.

Not only is breathing an important technical and expressive aspect of musicianship, the thought and action of taking a breath can later be an instant cue to reinstate this confident, relaxed, and comfortable experience -especially when cultivated on a daily basis.

With appropriate training, as a performer becomes aware of impending or unfolding anxiety, he or she takes a deep breath, then continues the breathing cycle, activating a positive response on multiple levels and bringing a more calm and effective experience into the midst of what could otherwise become a moment of panic.

Next month we’ll continue this series on performance anxiety by examining “Reasonable Expectations and Taking the Long View.”

Until then – Best wishes,
John Wunsch

Continue this series with Performance Anxiety, Part 2: Building the Bridge, published in November 2017.

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

12 thoughts on “Performance Anxiety, Part 1: Setting the Stage for Success

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to talk about this very important subject. I’ve been playing guitar for over ten years and I have always struggled with this issue of performance anxiety. I look forward to the rest to the series and hope to get a new perspective on this topic.

    Thank you again,


  2. Thank you for this article. I am a beginner guitar player but this morning I was very anxious about a work project and reading this helped me!

  3. Pingback: Performance Anxiety, Part 3: Reasonable Expectations "Taking the Long View" ← SBM Articles

  4. Pingback: Performance Anxiety, Part 4: Reducing the Likelihood of Anxiety ← SBM Articles

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