How to overcome performance anxiety?

One of the best things to test whether you can REALLY play your instrument is to..? it in front of strangers. Why? You’ll be amazed how many people can play ‘very well’ in the comfort of their homes, bedrooms (some even get to wear earphones while playing their digital pianos so that no one can hear them), but the moment they step out of that comfort zone, everything falls into pieces. Fingers shake, knees shake, heart pounds, brain freezes.  I have seen some melted under the anxiety of playing for others. They sound good in their practice. But once they are out there, the near 100% perfection falls to 50%. That’s a lot of anxiety!

We can’t just be playing the piano at home and in front of our piano teacher can we?

And no, you don’t have to wait till the graded piano exams to play in front of a music examiner, neither do you have to wait for an annual piano recital(for many, that might be once a year). You just take every other opportunity to play in front of others!

Music learning can be an isolatory exercise. You go for lessons, you come home, you practise by yourself. Repeat this process and at some point, meet your examiner. This would be the only time you play in front of a stranger. Not a very wise move isn’t it?

I encourage students to take every opportunity to play for someone else. You can always start with family members, extended family, then graduate to friends, classmates, then move to the friends of your friends, then to people you have never seen before. If not, find a piano at your school and jam on it during recess. For working adults, go for jamming sessions if you are ready. What other things can you do to develop your confidence in playing?

Take the courage to do the following:

Go to a community club with a piano and play on it. Go to a street piano (think you can still find them along selected places in Singapore), sit there and play a song.

Get your friends to come over and have dinner, then play and entertain them with one song. Going to your friends’ house which happen to have a piano? Kindly ask for permission to play one song. They will be delighted.

Go join a band, orchestra, a competition, a festival, a whatever-event that gets you out of playing exam pieces into playing other songs that excite you!

Why do we do all of this? To train your nerves. To make you become steadier as a performer. To nurture your self-confidence. To thicken your skin in case you make mistakes. To blank out the ‘noise’ (“oh no, I am going to make a mess, oh no, I am going to fail, oh no, people are watching me, oh no..”) and focus on just expressing yourself.

The benefits of performing music other than in your own home is tremendous. Authentic musicianship is built not upon just achieving grades in music exams. Examinations gives you a foundation. But you need to work on, build on and extend on that foundation until performing for someone is no longer such a nerve-wrecking experience!

So the next time you come across a street piano, instead of walking off, play on it!