The nerves are always worse right before stepping on the stage. Once we start playing or singing, it usually gets better.
But what we do during the anticipation part can determine the success of a performance.
Here are some of my best tips for preparing yourself mentally and physically for an audition or a high-stakes performance.
Let's dive in!
Understanding Your Nerves
Also known as stage fright, performance anxiety is a common issue that affects many musicians — 60% are estimated to experience it before and during performances. It can cause a range of physical and emotional symptoms, making concerts, recitals and auditions a challenging experience for musicians.
At its core, performance anxiety arises from the fear of being judged and the pressure to meet high expectations. This leads to numerous reactions in the body, such as increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, negative self-talk, self-doubt and a fear of making mistakes. These symptoms are often overwhelming and may significantly impact a musician's ability to deliver their best performance — making it difficult to play or sing on stage as well as they did in the practice room.
But performance anxiety can also manifest in more subtle ways, such as avoiding eye contact with the audience, maintaining distance or suppressing expressive gestures for the fear of being labelled by the audience as ‘ridiculous’. But these self-imposed restrictions can limit artistic expression and hinder the connection with the audience, reducing the impact of our music.
Additionally, performance anxiety can also have life-changing consequences beyond the stage. It might force musicians to avoid performances altogether, convincing themselves that they're not yet ready… or sometimes, even deciding to abandon their music career entirely.
Clearly, the impact of performance anxiety is important not just during performances but also in shaping our artistic journey. By understanding their own reactions, musicians can develop effective strategies to manage these difficult situations.
Let’s explore various approaches and techniques to help manage performance anxiety, empowering musicians to regain confidence, artistic freedom and enjoyment in their craft.
Regular practice is undeniably essential, but there's another piece of the puzzle that often gets overlooked. I call this “strategic practice” — and it's a game-changer when it comes to minimising performance anxiety and optimising your overall performance.
Because mastering the piece itself is only one aspect of audition or performance preparation. To truly excel, we need to go beyond simply playing the notes and delve into the intricacies of the entire experience.
How do we do that?
We break it down into smaller, manageable steps. Each step becomes its own mini-challenge that we tackle individually. By dedicating time to practise each one, we gain a comprehensive understanding and master the entire process. It's like building a strong foundation, brick by brick.
This strategic approach allows us to address potential sources of anxiety and build confidence in specific areas.
When we break things down like this, we have a unique opportunity to address potential anxiety triggers head-on. By focusing on specific steps that make our hearts race, we can build confidence and diminish those nerves. This way, we can also reduce the impact of unexpected changes and uncertainty.
So here are a few strategies to consider incorporating into your practice routine that will help you stay focused and shine even under the most intense pressure:
Familiarise Yourself with the Venue: Whenever possible, pay a visit to the performance venue beforehand. Take a walk around, explore the space, acquaint yourself with the layout. Becoming familiar with the environment can help alleviate any potential surprises or uncertainties on the day of the performance.
Visualise the Venue and Stage: If experiencing the place in person is not an option, try taking time to vividly imagine yourself in the performance space. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in that audition room or on that stage. Visualise the entire environment — lights, people, atmosphere. Allow yourself to feel the energy and see yourself performing with confidence and poise.
Perform Dress Rehearsals: Put on your performance attire, ensuring you can move comfortably — it's time to practise your piece while feeling the part. This helps you get accustomed to the physical sensations and ensures that your performance attire won't hinder your freedom on stage. By rehearsing in full dress, you can also make any necessary adjustments to ensure comfort and freedom of movement.
Prepare Your Speech or Introductions: If you have a speaking role or need to deliver an introduction, it's best not to wing it. Take the time to prepare your words in advance. Craft your speech or introductions thoughtfully, ensuring they accurately convey your message and set the tone for your performance.
Through repeatedly rehearsing these individual steps, like entering the stage, bowing or starting a piece, something incredible happens. You begin to cultivate a sense of familiarity and confidence that becomes your secret weapon when the spotlight is on you.
Take Care of Your Physical and Mental Well-being
Okay, okay, I know you probably already know these, but taking care of yourself is worth a friendly reminder…right?
Alcohol: I totally get it — for most musicians, it may seem tempting to calm those pre-performance jitters with a drink. But you’ve probably also heard that it's best to avoid alcohol before your performance. That’s because alcohol can mess with your coordination, judgement and overall performance. In the moment, we might feel freer and less anxious, so it feels like our performance has improved. But studies show that even if you feel like your performance is better, your audience would see a decline in your musicality and technical control. We want you to be at your absolute best, and alcohol just doesn't mix well with that goal.
Nutrition: Now, obviously I'm not here to tell you what to eat, but I do have a few suggestions — opt for a balanced meal before your performance. I know it might require a bit of planning and prepping, but trust me, it's worth it. Too many carbs, which is basically the majority of fast foods, raise our blood sugar too quickly. This results in an insulin surge to bring it down, but it often overshoots, causing a too low blood sugar. That’s why we get sugar crashes after eating starchy or sugary foods. And this is also why we get even more anxious, because the body perceived low blood sugar as stress. So I’d suggest aiming for a meal that includes a good balance of protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates. This will provide you with sustained energy and prevent those dreaded sugar crashes.
Sleep: I know it can be challenging to get a good night's rest when you're filled with anticipation (or dread). But here's the thing: a regular sleep routine works wonders in reducing anxiety. Our bodies perceive irregular sleep patterns or lack of sleep as stressors, which can increase our overall anxiety levels. This is why I recommend trying your best to establish a consistent sleep schedule. Set a bedtime and stick to it as much as possible. Your body, mind and music will thank you for it.
When you put it all together — skipping the alcohol, nourishing yourself with a balanced meal and getting some quality sleep — you're giving yourself the best shot at managing pre-show anxiety effectively.
Practice Mindfulness to Stay Present and Open
I find that mindfulness is truly transformative when it comes to managing performance anxiety. That’s because mindfulness is all about being fully present in the moment, without judgment or attachment to external outcomes. And let me tell you, it's especially crucial when those nerves start to creep in.
You see, anxiety has a sneaky way of pulling us away from the present. Our minds become consumed with worries about the future or dwelling on past experiences. In that state, we're not giving our performance the attention it deserves. It's like we're playing on autopilot, without truly connecting with the music or embracing the joy it brings.
By incorporating simple mindfulness techniques into our pre-show routine, we can reach a new level of presence and clarity. And it's simply about finding those mindful moments that ground you and bring you back to the here and now.
Imagine taking a mindful walk before your performance. As you stroll, let your senses soak in the world around you. Feel the ground beneath your feet, listen to the sounds of nature or the bustling city, notice the play of light and shadows. Allow yourself to fully experience the present moment, free from worries and distractions.
If a walk isn’t really for you, here's another idea for a mindful moment: Just focus on your breath. Take a few minutes to sit quietly, close your eyes if it feels comfortable and simply observe your breath as it flows in and out. Notice the sensation of the breath entering your body and then leaving. You will notice your mind wandering — that’s totally fine. As thoughts come and go, gently bring your attention back to the breath. This simple act of centering yourself in the present moment can work wonders in calming your nerves, boosting self-awareness and cultivating a positive mindset — it's like a reset button for your mind and soul.
Develop a Pre-Performance Routine
Let's talk about a game-changing element in managing performance anxiety: your very own pre-performance routine.
Think of it as your personalised toolkit, carefully crafted to set the stage for success before you step into the spotlight.
Let's explore some ideas to make your routine truly work for you:
Stretching exercises: We often tense up when under pressure and this might impact our music performance negatively. Because most musicians actually need agility and suppleness instead of stiffness in muscles to sing or play technically well. We might even notice our muscles tensing and then start to worry about how it will make playing more difficult. So the pre-performance routine is the perfect time to give those muscles a gentle stretch and let go of any lingering tension. You'll feel more at ease as you prepare to take the stage after a few simple exercises.
Breathing exercises: This also ties into one of the mindfulness exercises I mentioned before. When we are under stress, our breathing becomes quicker and more shallow. So taking a moment to practise deep, diaphragmatic breathing can bring us back to the moment. Feel the air flowing in, filling your lungs with fresh oxygen, and then releasing it slowly. With each breath, let your body and mind find a sense of calm and tranquillity. It's like a soothing wave washing over you, preparing you for a confident performance.
Visualisation techniques: This is one of my favourites and it is based in a lot of research. Our minds are so powerful that we cannot tell the difference between something that’s happening right now and something we are just imagining. This means that imagining yourself in a calm, composed and confident state can work wonders. Give this a try — close your eyes and imagine yourself performing flawlessly. See yourself standing tall, feeling confident and deeply connected to the music. Truly see the audience's joyful faces, the harmonies resonating within you and the pure magic unfolding on that stage. Try this visualisation as a powerful tool every time you need a quick boost to your confidence.
Self-compassion: Here’s a gentle reminder we all need... As you prepare for the important performance, remember to be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that mistakes happen — it's just part of being human. Remind yourself of your immense talent and the hard work you've put into your craft. While you’re at it, also remind yourself that not how well you perform or audition does not determine your suitability to be a musician or your worth as a human being.
Embrace fun: When studying or performing music professionally, it's easy to get caught up in the seriousness of it all. But…music is meant to bring joy. Isn’t it why you took it up in the first place? So why not find activities that make you smile and help you relax before taking the stage? This might look like engaging in light-hearted conversations with fellow musicians, listening to uplifting music that uplifts your mood or indulging in a creative hobby that brings out your playful side. It's all about finding those moments of pure enjoyment.
These are some of my top tips whenever a brilliant but stressed musician signs up for an Audition Saver coaching session.
Because I know how auditions are a big deal, and it's easy to feel like a failure under close scrutiny. But by understanding your nerves and implementing pre-show strategies, it is possible to effectively manage performance anxiety and enhance your overall performance as a musician — while having more fun and satisfaction in the first place.
This is what I want for you, dear musician.
I want you to become the confident and joyful performer you want — or need — to be.
If you’d like to discuss having more fun on stage, overcoming a negative inner voice, or… you know, building your confidence, I’d love to invite you to my virtual studio for my Colour & Connect Hour. It is a small group call where we can talk about music, brainstorm ideas for your performances and get creative. It’s free and casual, but if you can’t make the time slot, we can always arrange a tea date instead.