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What Is Music Performance Anxiety? A Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright

The goal of every musician is to perform with confidence and share their music with the world.

But with performance anxiety (stage fright), it can be hard to feel comfortable and focused on stage so you can truly connect with your audience and deliver your best performance.

Oftentimes, it just comes down to misguided strategies.

Maybe you were told to "fake it till you make it", and now feel like you're fooling everyone.

Maybe you've tried "thinking positively", and it didn't work.

Or maybe you've been trying to overcome stage fright by simply performing more often and wondering why it's not working.

It can make you feel discouraged and frustrated.

If that sounds familiar, you're in luck!

I'm going to share what stage fright is, as well as an evidence-based approach that will help you feel grounded and present on stage, separate from negative self-talk, reconnect with your passion for music, and take purposeful actions to overcome performance anxiety, all without spending hours (or months... or years...) on ineffective techniques.

I'll cover this approach, how it works, and how you can get started.

Keep reading for more details on how to finally conquer stage fright and perform with confidence!

What is Music Performance Anxiety?

Performance anxiety, also known as stage fright, is a natural physiological response triggered by our fear of social judgment.

Essentially, it is the same fight-or-flight response we'd have if a hangry lion was chasing us.

It manifests as a combination of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms that can significantly hinder a musician's ability to perform at their best.

Here's a breakdown of the common symptoms:

Physical Symptoms:

  • Increased heart rate and respiration

  • Sweating

  • Muscle tension

  • Upset stomach or nausea

  • Dry mouth

  • Tremors in hands or voice

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

Mental Symptoms:

  • Negative self-talk and self-doubt (e.g., "I'm not good enough," "I'm going to mess up")

  • Difficulty concentrating and focusing on the performance

  • Racing thoughts and mental fog — or a mind going completely blank

  • Fear of judgment and criticism from the audience

  • Intrusive thoughts about potential mistakes

Emotional Symptoms:

  • Anxiety and nervousness

  • Panic attacks in severe cases

  • Fear of failure and embarrassment

  • Feeling overwhelmed and discouraged

  • Loss of motivation and enjoyment in performing

Behavioural Symptoms:

  • Avoiding performance opportunities

  • Procrastinating practice or postponing performances

  • Cancelling gigs or rehearsals at the last minute

  • Difficulty making eye contact with the audience

  • Fidgeting or nervous movements on stage (e.g., tapping feet, pacing)

  • Increased isolation and withdrawal from musical experiences

Why is a Strategic, Evidence-Based Approach Essential for Overcoming Performance Anxiety?

Studies by researchers suggest that a staggering 95% of musicians experience performance anxiety to some degree (Lledó-Valor, 2022). This means that nearly all musicians grapple with stage fright at some point in their careers.

What does this statistic mean?  Imagine the countless talented musicians who might be holding back from sharing their music due to performance anxiety. This not only hinders their career growth but also limits the richness and diversity in the music world — which is a huge shame.

The problem: Traditional methods for overcoming performance anxiety often fall short. These might include...

  • Simply performing more often: While valuable for developing stage experience, this approach doesn't address the underlying anxieties that fuel stage fright. Musicians might still experience the same fear and physical symptoms despite performing more frequently.

  • Positive self-talk: Repeating positive affirmations can be helpful in some situations, but for performance anxiety, it can feel inauthentic or ineffective in the heat of the moment.

  • Breathing exercises: While relaxation techniques are important, relying solely on breathing exercises is not enough to manage the complex emotions and physical symptoms of stage fright.

These traditional methods often leave musicians feeling frustrated and disappointed, wondering why they still experience performance anxiety despite their efforts.

What we really need instead to overcome performance anxiety is a strategic, evidence-based approach that will allow you to:

  • Stay present in the moment: Mindfulness techniques help you focus on the music and the present experience, free from the chatter of negative self-talk and anxieties.

  • Perform with laser focus: Strategies like ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Training — the modality I used in my MA project to coach professional singers with outstanding results) and visualisation can help you manage distractions and anxieties, allowing you to fully engage with the music and deliver a powerful performance.

  • Maintain focus on your goals: By addressing the root causes of performance anxiety, you can stay connected to your passion for music and your musical aspirations, regardless of external circumstances. You'll also cultivate self-kindness, recognizing that performance anxiety is a common experience for musicians, and treating yourself with compassion as you work to overcome it.

This means you won't have to:

  • Experience the disappointment of a performance hindered by stage fright.

  • Let negative self-doubt hold you back from sharing your musical talent with the world.

  • Spend countless hours trying ineffective methods that offer little relief.

Understanding ACT: A Powerful Tool for Overcoming Performance Anxiety

If the words Acceptance and Commitment sound confusing, you're not alone.

The idea of accepting anxiety might seem counterintuitive, especially for musicians who struggle with performance anxiety.

Here's why ACT might seem confusing at first: 

Traditional methods often focus on eliminating anxiety altogether. This is not actually helpful... we are not in control of our anxious thoughts or feelings, let alone our physical symptoms. That's why trying to eliminate anxiety doesn't work — the harder you fight it, the more intense it can become because your sole focus is on the unwanted thoughts and feelings. This constant battle fuels the very thing you're trying to control.

ACT, however, takes a different approach, helping musicians develop a healthier relationship with their thoughts and feelings. This shift in perspective can be challenging at first, but it can ultimately lead to a more fulfilling and anxiety-free musical experience (and dare I say, life in general).

So, I put together some steps to break down ACT and show you how it can help you overcome performance anxiety:

Step 1 - Accepting Stage Fright

This is simply recognising that performance anxiety is a normal experience for musicians. It's the body's natural response to a high-pressure situation.

And although this may seem like just giving up on overcoming your anxieties, it's actually the first step towards managing them effectively.

By accepting that performance anxiety is normal, you take away its power to control you.

Plus, when you accept your anxieties, you can start to focus on developing strategies to manage them, rather than wasting energy fighting against them.

That means you can approach performance with a sense of self-compassion, understanding that these anxieties are a natural part of the process, and focus on delivering your best performance despite them.

Step 2 - Defusing from Negative Thoughts

Defusing sounds fancy, but it is a really simple principle. It is learning to detach from unhelpful thoughts that fuel performance anxiety. These might be thoughts like "I'm going to mess up" or "Everyone will judge me."

Make no mistake, it doesn't mean ignoring your anxieties. It's actually a technique to observe these thoughts without getting caught up in them. Think of them like passing clouds in the sky.

By detaching from these negative thoughts, you can prevent them from spiralling out of control and interfering with your performance.

For example: Imagine the thought "I'm going to mess up" pops into your head. Instead of believing this thought, you can acknowledge it as just a thought, not a prediction of the future.

The best way to implement this is through mindfulness exercises that help you become aware of your thoughts and emotions without judgment.

Step 3 - Committing to Your Values

This means identifying what truly matters to you as a musician. Is it expressing your passion for music? Connecting with your audience?

Values are not a fluffy, New Age-y concept — they're actually powerful motivators. By connecting with your core values, you can find the courage to perform even in the face of anxiety.

Plus, when you commit to your values, you can use them as a guiding light during moments of performance anxiety. Ask yourself, "What would the musician I want to be do in this situation?"

For example: If your core value is connecting with your audience, you might focus on making eye contact and sharing your passion for the music, even if you feel anxious.

Want to Start Overcoming Nerves Today?

I hope this guide has been helpful. If you take anything away from this, remember that a strategic approach empowers you to develop effective coping mechanisms and build the confidence you need to perform at your best.

The best way to overcome performance anxiety is to take action.

Start by personalising your approach, cultivate self-compassion, and embrace authenticity.

And if you need help structuring your practice sessions so that you can perform without performance nerves, my free Confidence-Building Practice Planner will help you:

  • Design purposeful practice routines with clear micro-goals

  • Track your progress and celebrate your accomplishments

  • Inject fun and variety into your practice to stay motivated

This planner will help you transform your practice sessions from aimless to awesome, leading to increased confidence and the ability to reach your musical dreams.


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