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Connecticut Shoreline Studio for Music Lessons
in Voice, Piano, Guitar & the Fundamentals of Music

Clef Notes

Update to “My Journey Through Music Performance Anxiety”

Stage Fright Conquered

Go Big or Go Home

I’d like to share my experience preparing for, and getting through, a recent performance (my fifth playing in public) after having worked for several months on various anxiety coping strategies. This performance was for another student recital at Crescendo Music Loft where I take lessons, so the venue was familiar and many in the audience were classmates and their family and friends. But it was no less stressful for me than previous public performances.

When I started lessons three and a half years ago, if there was one song that was more responsible for me wanting to play piano than any other, it was “Bohemian Rhapsody.“ I brought to my very first lesson a simple, crude, version of the melody I had written for the ballad section of BoRhap and told my teacher that I wanted to learn to play that song more than anything.  It was three years before I felt ready to start, and last summer I decided I would learn BoRhap and play it at the December recital. My teacher plays guitar and we decided to perform the song as a duet. [I think he really wanted to play the guitar solo that comes after the ballad section!] Just before the concert, one of my classmates asked me what I was performing and when I told her, she replied, “Go Big or Go Home.

You Can’t Prepare TOO Much

BoRhap wasn’t the only thing covered at my lessons for four months, but it dominated the agenda leading up to the concert. One of the strategies, a very important one, for managing MPA is to over-prepare and specifically to prepare for the performance itself. I usually practice for at least seven hours a week and much of that time was spent working out an arrangement I felt was manageable, learning to play the song, and practicing, and practicing, and practicing. That amount of preparation really built my self-confidence. By the time of the recital, I had no doubts about my ability to play the song, but could I play it for an audience?

Exposure Therapy

In addition to my weekly practice, beginning about six weeks before the concert, the first thing I did at every lesson was to play at least one run-through of the song with my teacher. So, the beginning of each lesson was a “dress“ rehearsal for the concert.  I also occasionally recorded myself at home playing the song and shared those recordings with multiple friends and family (yes, I’m sure they got tired of receiving the recordings but each of those recordings was a simulated performance that induced anxiety and therefore offered me an opportunity to challenge my anxiety). I also bribed my wife into watching and listening to me at least once a week. I took advantage of every opportunity to experience the anxiety that comes along with performing for an audience and that helped me get used to managing the nervousness.

Making It Performance-Worthy

Once we had worked out an arrangement and I had learned it, I practiced playing the song throughout, but with an important difference from other songs I’ve learned. My goal each time I practiced was for my playing to be performance-worthy, not perfect.  It was challenging for me to make a mistake and tell myself that that was OK as long as I got back in and stayed on tempo. My first piano teacher once told me that if I made a mistake while playing a song but got back in, I got bonus points! I repeatedly told myself that few if any in the audience would notice a minor mistake or two and that that was still performance-worthy.  As a self-confessed perfectionist, I can’t tell you how liberating that was!

The Breath of Life

As I wrote in the original posting above, for several months I had been practicing breathing techniques intended to reduce the physiological symptoms associated with MPA. I made those a strict part of my daily routine – at least five minutes a day doing abdominal breathing exercises (slowly inhale to a count of four, pause, then slowly exhale) and five minutes of calming breath exercises, aka the 4 – 7 – 8 breathing technique (inhale to a count of four, hold for a count of seven, exhale for a count of eight). A more detailed explanation can be found in the Bourne book reference later in this post. Let me emphasize something here. Breathing exercises are easily dismissed and skipped because it might be hard to imagine how they can really help with anxiety – THEY DO.  Honestly, I believe that the most important thing I’ve done to manage my anxiety is the simple daily breathing exercises, especially abdominal breathing. It increases oxygen to the brain, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system promoting calmness, quiets your mind and improves concentration. It is especially important to do abdominal breathing just before a performance. A related requirement for managing anxiety is getting regular exercise. I know, I sound like your family physician, but it is true and it should be part of any strategy for managing MPA. I went from being a desk hugging professor, to now walking five to seven miles a week.

Time to Talk About Drugs

I had tried using both diazepam and propranolol before. I wasn’t sure either did much for me and both caused a severe headache. However, I experimented more with propranolol at home making sure I took it with food and two Tylenol (!) about an hour before I expected to play for someone. It did seem to help, although with the abdominal breathing and other strategies I was using, it is hard to isolate any one factor and know its effectiveness. I also used caffeine to help with my concentration. I don’t usually drink caffeinated coffee, so a single cup of strong java is a good jolt for me. Caffeine has a positive effect on cognitive functioning including attention and working memory. At high doses, of course, caffeine can actually increase anxiety, but I found that a cup of strong coffee an hour before I performed noticeably improved my concentration. This does not surprise me as the most common medications for ADHD are stimulants. They work by increasing levels of certain chemicals in your brain called dopamine and norepinephrine.

Leaving No Stone Unturned

Finally, I did also see a counsellor a couple of months ago for additional advice about managing my anxiety. We discussed my history with MPA, my personality and how it contributes to my MPA, and she offered advice about breathing (reinforcing what I already knew), goals (again, reinforcing knowledge), and “self-talk” – the negative things I had been telling myself about my ability to perform and how that exacerbates anxiety and contributes to low self-esteem. I wrote out some of my negative thoughts along with positive affirmations to counter them and kept that on my piano at home for weeks – a daily reminder that I could, indeed, cope with the anxiety of performing in public. My counsellor also recommended reading Edmund Bourne’s, The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook (2020), which I did, and I’ll echo that recommendation here.

Brian Plays Bohemian Rhapsody

So, on Saturday December 8, I played Bohemian Rhapsody at our Christmas concert. I was anxious, but not uncomfortably so. Unlike past public performances, I made it through the entire song without stopping, without any serious errors, and with reasonable confidence. My teacher said afterward that I “nailed it,” but we all know that our teachers are biased in our favor. I know where I made a couple of small mistakes, but few if any people in the audience would have noticed.  Mostly, I felt … confident, and glad that I hadn’t given up on performing in public. All things considered, I think it was a success, certainly from an anxiety management perspective. I haven’t conquered my MPA, but this experience has convinced me that I’m on the right track.


I wrote this blog entry for Crescendo’s Clef Notes to share my journey through MPA. I guess it’s like any other situation where folks share their experience with challenges in their lives – so that others can learn from the experience and hopefully be convinced that there are lots of things you can do to manage and improve your condition.

If you’re experiencing Music Performance Anxiety, there ARE lots of strategies to make it more manageable.  I hope some of what I’ve shared here is useful. 

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