Managing Recital Anxiety
A Music School’s Guide to Keeping Your Cool on Performance Day
Performing on an instrument in front of an audience of family members, friends and strangers can be an anxiety-inducing experience for some students. Fortunately there are some clear steps students, parents, and teachers can take to help students manage their nerves and stay calm leading up to and during their performance!
We’ve split this blog article into three sections: pre-recital, during recital, and post-recital, so feel free to jump to the section that is most applicable to you!
There are four key strategies we advise students to follow leading up to a music recital.
Practice, practice, practice. We know a music piece is “Recital Ready” when the student can play it 2-3 times at a steady tempo and generally error-free. The gold standard is going this without sheet music. Lots and lots of practice is one of the best ways to manage nervousness leading up to a recital!
Students should also practice “playing through” their mistakes as well. When we first learn songs on the piano, guitar, drums or vocals, we often go back to the start of a section -- or the start of the song -- when a mistake happens. But now, leading up to the recital, students should practice playing through their mistakes!
Imagine Success! Many times, in the days and weeks leading up to a recital, students can tend to imagine the worst-case scenario (e.g., I forgot to bring my music! I blanked on an entire section of the song! I tripped on the way up to the stage! I had an epic fail!).
We tell students to call these types of scenarios “Disaster Stories” and we ask them to recognize when they start telling themselves these types of stories. When they become aware that they’re telling themselves these kinds of stories, we then ask them to start telling themselves a different story: Why tell a “Disaster Story” of recital day, when you could just as easily tell a “Success Story”?
If the student has practiced and is ready to perform, the story they tell themselves could just as easily be this one: “I practiced this song a million times, and can play it start-to-finish without a single mistake. I’m going to get up there and rock out, and everyone is going to love my song and have a really good time listening to it!”
Now that’s an awesome story!
Come Prepared. Even with all the practice and positive thoughts in the world, it’s possible that performance mistakes will still happen. How do we prepare in advance for these, so that a small mistake like missing a note, doesn’t become a larger mistake like losing your place in the music, or getting stuck and not knowing what to do next?
We like to tell students the difference between a little mistake and a big mistake is preparation. Aside from practice, the best way to prepare for performance day is to number or color a few different sections of the music, and to practice starting at each of these sections in the weeks leading up to the performance. This way, if a student makes a mistake and gets stuck, he or she can always go to the the closest section to start again.
This is a “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best” strategy. It doesn’t mean that we as teachers or as parents are expecting something bad will happen. Instead, we’re telling students to have a back-up plan just in case of the unlikely situation of “getting stuck”.
Don’t Ignore Your Nervousness! A lot of times we think the best way to deal with being nervous is to just ignore it, or to “stuff it down” and pretend it’s not there. We ask students to avoid doing this, and instead pay attention to how they feel and what they’re thinking.
If they’re telling themselves a negative story, replace it with a positive one! If they think they’re not ready, practice a little more, remembering that two or three times through the song at a steady beat and with generally no errors is a good marker that the song is ready!
If the student is still feeling anxious, try some of the breathing exercises discussed in the next section to get calm again.
During the Recital
Ok, it’s recital day! Here are three key strategies we advise students to follow leading up to a music recital.
Take Your Time. A lot of times, students will move quickly during their recital because they are anxious. This means walking quickly onto the stage, starting the song quickly, playing the song quickly, and then getting off the stage as fast as possible.
Our first and foremost recommendation to students is to take their time at the recital. Walk slowly to the stage, take 5-7 seconds after sitting down with the instrument (or standing up) before playing, and “listen” to the song just before playing so it’s played at the right tempo.
This is the #1 byproduct of recital nervousness -- moving too fast. It’s also the #1 cause of recital errors!
Practice Breathing Techniques. There are lots of breathing techniques out there, so you can choose any one you’d like. But focusing on breathing helps calm out-of-control thoughts and re-center our perspective.
One of the techniques we really like at Arts & Minds Academy is to go to a quiet place alone and where there won’t be a distraction. Set a timer on a phone or watch for 2 minutes, close your eyes, and just focus on your own breathing.
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth in a slow but steady rhythm. Focus all your attention on your breathing: the sound of the inhale; the movement of your chest as it takes in air; the collapse of your chest and belly as you exhale; and the sound of your breath as it leaves your lips.
Remember: It’s OK to Make Mistakes. We already covered this in the first section, but students should remember to play through their mistakes as much as possible! We are lucky to be a part of a very supportive environment of people that are excited to see students perform and who will be accepting no matter what happens. If something unexpected happens during your song, just keep going -- no need to go all the way back to the beginning and start over!
Don’t Forget: Everyone Gets Nervous! It helps to remind students that everyone gets nervous before a recital, so they are not alone in feeling the way that they do. Since everyone gets nervous, it’s just a matter of managing their nerves using some of the techniques listed here!
After the Recital
Whew! What a relief -- your performance is finished! Here are two things to remember when you’re done!
Celebrate! Now’s the time for a fancy dinner, or an ice cream Sundae! Everyone deserves it!
Be Gracious With Yourself. Immediately after the recital it’s easy for students to get caught up in the things that could have gone better, especially if they made a mistake.
Help students be gracious to themselves by reminding them that even just getting on stage and playing was brave, and that you’re proud of them for doing something that most kids (and adults) wouldn’t do!
If they do get “stuck” in being overly critical of themselves, help them process what could have gone better and how they might prevent that from happening the next time. Once all that information has been processed, tell them to focus on making the next recital better by starting to work on their music now!
Do you have any good suggestions for managing nerves leading up to (or during) a recital? If so, leave them in the comments so we can all benefit from your wisdom!