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The Serious Musician

Five Ways to Turn Performance Anxiety Into
Performance Excitement

For most performers, “stage fright”, “nerves” or “performance anxiety” is the thing we dread most about going onstage. Trying not to feel nervous is impossible—it’s like trying not to feel tired when you’ve only gotten an hour of sleep, or trying not to feel hungry when you haven’t had a meal all day. Instead, the goal is to turn that nervous energy into a resource that works to your advantage. For high-caliber athletes, this is called a “Peak State.” So how is this to be done?

1) Be as prepared as you can

Preparation is essential. Make sure you know the piece you are performing as well as you possibly can. Set realistic goals. Have a deadline for learning all the notes and rhythms, the style, the phrasing, etc. That should be at least two to three weeks before the performance, no later. Know if you’ll be using a music stand or not, standing or sitting while performing. Be clear if you are performing from memory or not.

2) Practice Performing

Most people take for granted that whatever they practice will hold up on stage, but they don’t actually practice performing! Know the performing space you will be performing in. Is it a hall, a church or a living room? Get a sense of the size and space of the venue. I recommend knowing in advance what you will be wearing, so you know how the clothing feels. (Women, be aware that wearing high heels changes your posture.) The week before the performance, practice performing. Really use your imagination: Imagine the hall and the stage you will be performing on. See the audience – your teacher, friends, family, or make it up as you go. Each day before the concert, do a mock performance even if just for one person. Practice your stage presence, walking on and offstage, bowing, cueing, performing straight through with stopping, talking, etc. If you make a mistake just keep going!

3) Expect to get nervous!

I suggest you reframe your mindset from feeling nervous into feeling EXCITED! Feeling excitement means that you care about your performance and that you are invested in the outcome. The trick is how you use the energy you are now calling excitement. Practice getting nervous in your mock performances. Know your style: do you get the shakes or do you get cold? Dry or sweaty hands? Do you feel faint or nauseous?

4) Be aware of your body

Especially if your tendency is to get into your head and think scary thoughts, feel your feet on the floor. Breathe in your nose and out your mouth. Physically connect to your instrument.

5) Set a realistic outcome

Expect to make mistakes. Mistakes happen; it’s how you recover from a mistake that is essential. The goal is to do the best you possibly can. This does not mean sounding exactly like the CD you’ve been listening to, but doing the best you are able to at this time. Remember why you love what you’re doing and have fun!

Dana Fonteneau holds a M.M. in Chamber Music from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a M.A. in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in Somatics from the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is the creator of The Psychology of Performance and has a private counseling practice specializing in performing artists in both San Francisco and Berkeley.

Working with an Audition Pianist

Photo courtesy of Missouri State UniversityWhether auditioning for opera or musical theater, it's essential for singers to understand the role of the audition pianist and how they can contribute to an audition. Think of it as a partnership: Both people involved wish to present you in the best possible light. “It’s a collaboration, and we want you to do well,” says Yvonne Wormer, collaborative pianist at Sonoma State University. Here are some tips she offers to help the pianist help you at your next audition.

  • Make it easy: When choosing a song, consider the arrangement. Certain composers are almost impossible to sight-read. If you want to do something difficult — like Sondheim — bring your own pianist to the audition.
  • Stay organized: Music more than three pages long should be taped back-to-back and arranged in a binder like a book. Fewer than three pages should be taped side-to-side, accordion style. Don't use plastic sheet covers, as they can create a blinding glare. Don't bring wrinkled or torn paper. If you must make cuts, mark them in red ink.
  • Prepare: Make sure you’ve taken your music to a pianist and that they can play it. Be familiar with how the piece sounds. If you’ve been listening to a recording it might not be in the same key as the sheet music, so make sure you have the music in the key you are prepared to sing.
  • Never blame the pianist: Sight-reading is difficult even for the best musicians. Be prepared for mistakes but don't let them derail your performance. Whatever happens, be sure to thank the pianist afterwards as s/he maybe the show's music director or conductor and have significant influence on casting.
  • Choose your tempo: It's crucial that you give the pianist an accurate tempo. To do this, simply sing the first few bars of the piece. Don't ever clap, snap, or conduct at the pianist, as it can be considered rude. Metronome markings are also helpful.

Rehearsal accompanists are some of the most talented, under-appreciated musicians in theater. Many have advanced degrees, studied their entire lives, and are sorely underpaid. Be nice to them and they will help you shine.

Sarah Sloan is a classical singer and voice teacher in the East Bay. You can find her blog at

Five Tips on How to Prevent Injury

Courtesy of Massachusetts General HospitalPlaying-related injuries are more common than you’d think, and differ among instrument groups.

Musicians sometimes have problems with upper extremities (hands and arms) such as: nerve compression (carpal tunnel syndrome); strains and sprains; inflammatory conditions (tendonitis); and other neurological conditions, such as focal dystonia. Temperomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) can affect the jaw and skull of wind and brass players, and some develop skin disorders like violinist’s neck. Back and neck problems can develop due to incorrect posture, sitting or standing.

What causes injury? Too much practice! The use of repetitive movements for too much time. Awkward body positions to accommodate an instrument, and of course holding that instrument incorrectly can hurt young bodies. Some other risk factors may be genetic: Women are more prone to injury than are men; people with higher body mass and age are at an increased risk; and being double-jointed may also contribute to injury.

How can you prevent an injury? Here are five general tips:

  • Warm Up: Do a gentle physical warm-up as well as your musical warm-up. Although the evidence for [the positive effects of] stretching is inconclusive, warming up large muscle groups, deep breathing and practicing in a warm space are advised, along with the musical exercises of long-tones and slow scales.
  • Take Breaks: Take a 5 minute break for every 30 minutes of playing to change position and relax. You can still practice mentally during this time. Take micro-breaks to rest your lips and count rests.
  • Proper Posture: Teachers, parents and students should be aware of proper posture, both sitting and standing. Don’t strain the natural curve of your spine while sitting, and don’t lock your knees when standing up. Review posture and its pitfalls with your teacher for your specific instrument and body type.
  • Relaxed Technique: Strive to eliminate tension from your technique and don’t push to expand it too quickly.
  • Pacing and Efficiency: Practice efficiently so that you are not wasting your physical time without mental awareness of what you’re doing. Don’t try to ‘cram’ before a performance, lesson, or exam. Shorter but regular doses of practice time are best.

Excerpted with permission from Sage Press. “Injury Prevention, What Music Teachers Can Do”, by Christine Guptill and Christine Zaza, Music Educators Journal, June, 2010, pp. 28-34.