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Conquering performance nerves: how do I control my fear of failure?

Brian Hodges and Diana Allan answer student questions on coping with stage fright

April 6, 2016

The dilemma Is there a way that I can feel confident about my ability during a performance and enjoy performing instead of dying with fear?  Also I just want to perform as if I am alone. I have a great desire to be a great performer, but my fear of failure and doubt over my ability ruins my performance.

The fear of failure is an exceptionally strong one. I believe that most of us have this fear within us where it rears its ugly head more than we’d like to admit. The key to pushing forward is to think rationally about this fear. In your performance, what are you really failing at? Who is judging you? In my student days, I assumed everyone in my studio was keeping a running tally of all the mistakes I was making—a perverse kind of score keeping. Once I realised that, in fact, that was not what everyone was doing, it was amazing how my confidence began to grow. Think about when you go to a concert. Are you there to catch the performer’s every mistake? Most people go to a concert to be entertained, moved, and inspired, not to keep a grudge list against the performer.

Before the actual performance, perform for your friends and family. Perform for people whom you know support and encourage you. They want nothing but the best for you. Other great places to perform are schools and retirement centers. The appreciation and enthusiasm from these audiences can bolster your confidence.

It’s at this point you might be thinking, but my family and friends know nothing about music. They think everything sounds good. It’s the audiences filled with musicians who know my pieces or the correct technique that I’m worried about.  So what would be different in front of this type of audience?  You’re the same performer.  You are performing the same music.  So what’s different?  It’s your thinking —your attitude about what is expected of you or added pressure that you’re placing on yourself.  Performing for a variety of audiences can build the confidence you need to perform your best even when it matters most.

Tip: When walking out on stage, unfocus your eyes so that you’re not really looking at a single person. You can also look just above their heads, so you don’t fixate on specifically who is in the audience. One time, I even resorted to taking out my contacts just before I walked out on stage. I could see just well enough to get to my spot and the conductor, but the audience was completely blurry. It helped tremendously.

Do you have a burning question about stage fright? Email us at thestrad@thestrad.com and we’ll put your question to experts Brian Hodges and Diana Allan.

Read: Release the Fear Monster: how to conquer anxiety and perform at your best

Brian Hodges is an active soloist, chamber musician and teacher. He is associate professor of cello and coordinator of chamber music at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho. He is the principal cellist of the Boise Baroque Orchestra and performs regularly with Classical Revolution: Boise, which has been featured at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and live on the radio at Radio Boise. He can be reached at www.brianhodgescello.com.

Dr Diana Allan is associate professor of voice at The University of Texas at San Antonio as well as a certified peak performance coach.   She works one-on-one with musicians to help them assess both their strengths and challenges and teaches them how to cultivate the mental skills that will enable them to break through the barriers that prevent them from achieving optimal performance. Her website, Peak Performance for Musicians has a readership from 170 countries. 

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