Category Archives: Performing

Stage Fright and Performace Anxiety: A Guide for Teachers and Parents

Sweaty palms, shaking hands, nervous stomachs. Years after the first violin or piano recital, former music students can still remember the symptoms of anxiety. But the children’s music recital is a rite of passage: How do we make it easier for them?

Performance anxiety is a fact of life, and it isn’t limited to kids. Adults, including both recreational, and professional musicians, can both freeze from nerves on stage. Indeed, stage fright, is one of the most common social phobias, closely related to the fear of public speaking. At its most basic, stage fright is a fear of looking foolish in front of others, or failing at a task in a public setting. But music teachers and parents can help their students and children deal with this common phobia.

Symptoms and Effects of Performance Anxiety

Some amount of anxiety is normal before a performance, and indeed, professional musicians learn to channel the adrenaline of stage fright into their recitals. In most cases, young performers learn to cope with stage fright simply by gaining a bit of experience.

But sometimes the problem is more serious, and in severe cases, stage fright can completely undermine the benefits of giving a performance. Sometimes, stage nerves make a performance impossible. A student’s hands or legs may shake so much that it is impossible to play a note or push a pedal on a piano or an organ. Or a memory lapse may take place, a frightening occurrence performers describe as awakening from the dream-state of a performance only to find that they have no idea where they are in a piece of music, or even, what piece of music they are playing. At its most severe, stage fright can blossom into a full-fledged panic attack or anxiety attack.

Preventing and Overcoming Stage Fright

In most cases, treating stage fright is a matter of prevention. Acclimating, or getting used to the performance process, is the first step. Teachers can help beginning performers by scheduling no-stress or low-stress performances that take place in non-threatening environments such as a teacher’s living room, a class-room, or even a friendly local coffee shop (serving cookies also helps). These practice performances can be as low key as asking a student to stay three minutes longer to play his piece for the next student family that walks in the door. Or (even) play for the dog or the cat. 

In a very real sense, stage fright is a matter of conscience. Students know how well prepared they are, and whether or not they have practiced effectively. In most cases, the more confident a student is in the ability to perform a piece of music, the less severe stage fright will be. For a student’s first few performances, teachers should choose easier works that the student likes and feels secure about performing. Virtually every instrument has a literature of student performances, and many composers who write for students create works that sound more impressively difficult than they really are. These pieces are often fun to play, and they boost a student’s confidence.

Ways to Boost Confidence

When I’m sure the student can do it, I ask the student to play a piece, or a section of the piece, with his or her eyes closed. Assuming there aren’t any huge jumps, it’s amazing how  many students are able to accomplish this. practicing with your eyes closed is another way to convince yourself that you really do know the piece inside outside and backwards.

And we play the “interruption game,” in which the student’s job is to keep playing — no matter what. “No matter what” can include me turning the lights on and off, yelping suddenly in the middle of the piece, slamming a door, waving my hands in front of the students music, juggling, making funny faces, or jumping up and down. This is a really fun game with a group of kids, although for sanity’s sake, give some ground rules: No touching the performer and taking turns being the interruptor are two good ones that keep things from getting out of control.  This game is so successful that students beg to play it.  

Familiarity with the performance process helps relieve anxiety. Some teachers have full-fledged recital rehearsals where students practice walking up to the stage, performing for each other, and bowing,

One of the most common causes of stage fright in music recitals is the performance anxiety associated with playing from memory. Unless the student is truly on a path to being college music major or a concert artist, playing from memory is something that can be introduced very slowly or avoided all together. Of course, a student who has memorized a piece is better prepared to perform it, but there’s no reason not to let a child or an adult recreational player have the security of sheet music if they want it.

Adults, too, are susceptible to stage fright. Some use prescription drugs such as beta-blockers under the close supervision of a medical doctor. Others undergo hypnotherapy for their performance anxiety. Meditating and visualizing a successful performance are other common techniques.

With a combination of reasonable expectations and repertoire, a friendly, non-threatening environment, adequate practice, and a bit of experience, the process of performing music can become what it is meant to be: an opportunity to share a musician’s art, rather than an anxiety-packed ordeal.

The 12th Annual Riverside Jam

Riverside Jam 2011 is now in the rear-view mirror, and I thought it would be fun to share some of the highlights of this years event, if only because it really does embody the spirit of sharing music.

A brief bit of background: RSJ started just over a decade ago when a bunch of college friends reconvened at an old band-mate’s wedding. Some genius in the group figured out that they didn’t have to wait decades — or till someone else got married — to play together again, and they organized another get-together, which became an annual event. Over the next few years, long-lost bandmates and college friends found their way “home” to the newly reunited group, and new friends and students joined in.

Every year, someone different hosts: So far, we’ve been in Connecticut, New Jersey (twice), Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois (three times), Indiana, and Massachusetts (twice). My partner, David, has been involved in hosting four of the jams; I’ve co-hosted two here in the Berkshires, and  David is just about always the music director. Each event has its own venues, its own highlights, the occasional drama, hundreds of songs, and a lot of laughs. We’ve played at public parks, bars, schools, coffee houses, community centers, a blues joint, and this year — an alpaca farm (Think “Woolstock” complete with a little rain and mud.)  And our repertoire has gone from Elvis to Elvis, from jazz standards to three chord rock to progressive to R&B to metal and punk and every combination thereof.   

Here are some highlights of RSJ 2011, which involved about 25 musicians. Thanks again to Jeff and Helena for hosting and to Lily and John for the use of their alpaca farm! And thanks to John Reichert for the pictures.


Our rehearsal set-up.

RSJ is a chance to get to know new musicians. Greg’s musical partner Suzannah was new to the group this year, AND it was her first time playing with a full band, but she did a great job, especially on Pink Martini’s “Hey Eugene.” 


We didn’t have a huge audience, so we appreciated everyone who was listening. These guys were among the most attentive.

Rock and roll and go-carts… what more could a kid want? 

The young’uns joined in, too. Eric Brownstein did some great solos, and the guys contributed back-up animal sounds for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” 

Michelle on cello, me on piano: Two classically trained gals, but you wouldn’t believe the soundtrack: We’re attempting to play along with Derek, Paul, and Ruben (the Space Jammers) (and Greg, too) on a heavy metal/progressive/rock original. 

Viewing the set-up from behind the stage. Jeff, Dan, Kyle, and Greg were the sound dudes who had to figure out how to connect all this stuff together and make it sound good. 

The treehouse: This was my vote for where to put the keyboard, but I was over-ruled. 

How many engineers does it take to put up a tarp? The rain wasn’t going to stop us, except for the hour or so it took to get everything protected and re-wired.

I always tell my students to get used to lousy pianos because you never know what you’ll have to play. This was at the impromptu jam in the hotel lobby — and this is what I had on hand.  We started with variations on the chords to Pachebel’s Canon, transposed to C because, man, those black notes are hard on an iPad!

Jamming in the hotel. What you DON’T see is a group of wedding guests, who came down to play cards and stayed to sing along. They ended THEIR part of the evening by walking out to the elevator singing the Sound of Music’s “Farewell, Goodbye, Auf Wiedersehn, Goodnight.” 

A little rain didn’t stop Woodstock, and it didn’t stop Woolstock, either.

Music Al Fresco: Tips for Performing Music Outdoors

Summer is the time for music al fresco. Block parties, outdoor cafes, busking, festivals, parks, farmer’s markets, campfires… Sometimes it seems all you have to do is think of a place and you’ll find musicians there.

But playing oudoors isn’t all roses and sunshine.

The following tips will help ensure your outdoor performances (or those of your students) shine like the sun.

  • Amplify the vocals: No, you can’t sing loud enough to be heard in open air without amplification. And acoustic guitars only project so far. (Be aware, though, that amplification is not permitted or possible in some venues, in which case you may have to settle for only being heard by those nearest to you.
  • Extention cords! Often outdoor venues are located far from outlets. If you’re using someone else’s sound system, bring extra cables, mikes, and a mult-box for cords.
  • Gimme shelter! The sun can be brutal (and shade from a tree moves throughout an afternoon). Ask about shelter, and consider investing in a portable pop-up tent to protect you and your instruments from sun — and showers. 
  • Electronics and water don’t mix: If you don’t have shelter, have an evacuation plan: a car parked nearby, a shelter you can retreat to, or a completely waterproof tarp big enough to cover everything if it starts to rain. 
  • Bring bug repellent: it’s hard to play when you’re swatting at mosquitoes.
  • But be careful with the repellent, because it can strip the finish off instruments.  Bug-repellent infused clothing can help, as does a wide-brimmed hat. If you put on bug repellent, put it on half and hour or more before the gig, and avoid putting it directly on your hands or parts of your arms that directly touch the instrument.
  • Wear sunscreen (or sunscreen with bug repellent mixed into its formula).
  • For night gigs, if you use sheet music or chord charts, you’ll need a battery powered music light (Available from music stores). 
  • Bring your own music stand, and clips to hold the music in place if it’s windy. 
  • Layered clothing will keep you comfortable if the weather changes suddenly.
  • Bring a towel for wiping off sweat. 
  • Have plenty of water on hand. Musicians Friend (a music supply company) sells bottle holders that can clip to a music stand.

And have fun!