It’s all in the head

Having intellectual knowledge discussed here at is an important start. However, head-knowledge will be useless if it can’t be applied when you are performing music.  Performance situations can become very stressful unless you are confident in your abilities.

When you are talking to a close friend, you’ll be unaware of all the technical aspects of producing coherent sentences.  For instance, you won’t be aware of

  • how and when to breath in between words or
  • the pitch or volume of your words needed to convey the desired expression or
  • how you should move your tongue to produce each syllable needed for each word or
  • how to pace each word for the optimal effect. 

Instead, you’ll be focused on the ideas you want to convey and you’ll unconsciously rely on your brain to automatically take care of the detailed tasks needed to participate in a conversation.  You’ll even have enough processing power left over to assess how you friend is reacting to what you’re saying and, in response, adjust what you say next – on the fly!

Keeping your head when performing music

Now, transport yourself into a large auditorium filled with people – all staring at you, waiting to see what you’ll say next. 

performing music

If you are like most people, your stress levels will rise, you’ll become nervous. Many of the tasks needed to produce coherent speech that your unconscious mind previously took care of for you, unexpectedly now require processing by your conscience mind.  Suddenly, your brain needs to take care of these additional elementary tasks in addition to keeping track of the big ideas you want to convey. 

This feeling can become overwhelming which can then trigger new adrenalin-induced responses such as a dry mouth, a quivering tone, lack of projection, physical shaking and the inability to ‘be in the moment’.  You may forget to breathe.  Negative self-talk can consume your already constrained mind space.  You’ll then be unable to express yourself freely and your delivery will lack the confidence and emotion needed to convey your message convincingly.  You may even forget your message entirely. The focus of your audience will shift from listening to your message to watching you squirm with everyone in the room, including you, wishing it would just end now.

The same scenario can apply when performing music.  If you are focused on the technical fundamentals of playing your instrument, it will almost certainly detract from your musical performance.

Nerves when performing music

“Use nerves for good rather than for evil.”

To beat nerves, be confident in your abilities.  Uncontrolled nerves can have a devastating effect on your abilities in that moment.  To gain confidence, prepare well. Practicing your technical skills so they become second nature – so they are deeply embedded in the unconscious mind.  But this alone won’t be enough. A level of “match fitness” needs to be maintained so your body can execute what the unconscious mind is telling it to do.  This is the purpose of practice – to develop;

  1. Skills – training the brain,
  2. Strength – training the body.

A lack of anxiety can be nearly as bad as being too nervous.  Well channeled anxiety can fuel a sizzling performance.  A lack of anxiety or excitement can result in an uninspired, even a boring presentation.

“Perform like you’re practicing.  Practice like you’re performing music.”

When practicing, play like you have an audience. This rehearses the feeling of playing in front of people and gives you the opportunity to practice your performance in a safe environment.  You’ll play at your best without the intrusion of stage-fright.  However, when performing music, contain nerves by imagining yourself back in the practice room. Remember when you were playing in your most relaxed state and bring it to front of mind.

Being relaxed on stage may make you feel more comfortable, however it may not produce a better performance.  We need to learn to channel our nerves into our performance to make it memorable – for all the right reasons.

confidence in ability graph

In Summary

  • Prepare well by practicing the right things the right way so you become confident in your ability to play what’s required.
  • Create low-key performance opportunities to become comfortable in front of an audience.
  • Expect yourself to be nervous and deliberately direct that energy into your performance.
  • Play confidently and recover from any mistakes quickly.  Expect to make some mistakes. Take some risks to keep it exciting.  Worrying about making mistakes will result in a tentative, uninspiring performance.  A wrong note played confidently can sound better than a right note played tentatively.  Think: “if I play like I am frightened, every note will sound like a mistake.”
  • Keep in the moment by focusing your mind on expressively making music. Look past the intrusive thoughts and calmly concentrate on the music you want your audience to hear.  Take some deep breaths and slow down your mind to allow it to focus.
  • Remember how you played in your practice room – how good it sounded – how you wished the world could hear it.  Reproduce that performance.
  • Let your audience feel how much you enjoy playing your instrument.
“Performing music needs preparation – it’s your choice whether you do it in your practice room or in front of your audience.”

Leave a Comment