The violinist gives tips on how to build your confidence on stage through her own experiences and examples from literature

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Violinist Aija Reke © Agnese Taurina

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When I was 13 years old I returned to my little hometown Tukums in Latvia to perform at my childhood music school. I was performing Partita no.3 for solo violin by Bach. At the time I was studying at the elite boarding school in Riga, capital of Latvia, which was for musically gifted children, so I felt extreme pressure to show off what I had learnt in the programme to my former teachers. 

I remember the moment I entered the stage my posture shrank. I started playing faster and faster and rushed through the performance just to get it over and done with. At that moment I didn’t know that playing a piece by solo Bach would expose all the smallest imperfections of the sound, intonation, and rhythm more than any other piece. I didn’t have any practical tools to cope with the stage fright. 

Further analysing this experience, I realised that I was also sensitive to whom and how I spoke before my performance and how some unintentionally unthoughtful words affected my performance on stage. I remember that just before the performance someone told me ’It’s the most stressful and frightening situation to perform for your former teachers.’ These words resonated in my mind throughout my performance.

I had to learn to set boundaries to who I would talk to before the performance and would feel no guilt about asking for complete solitude in the precious hour before the performance in the future. I also learnt not to be affected by negative and stressful energy and not let any words affect the strength of my performance or feeling of self-confidence. 

At the moment of stage fright focus on the things you can control: 

1. Your breath

2. Posture

3. Mindset 

The easiest way to calm down the nervous system is through controlled breathing. Box breathing helps to refocus, recalibrate, and slow down the racing heartbeat. Inhale for four beats, hold your breath for four beats, exhale like a balloon letting out air, release all your stress for four beats, and then hold your breath for four beats. Repeat as many times as necessary.

A thoughtful power move, especially combined with positive affirmations can be very helpful before stepping on the stage or entering the audition room. My favourite power move is a tap on my shoulder and saying to myself - ’I can do it!’

Bouncing in place is especially effective when nerves have taken over completely. Shaking out hands and feet can shake off some of the anxiety especially if it’s done together with breath work. Try moving more and taking steps on the stage while performing if you feel that you are starting to get frozen in your posture and gripping your instrument.

How to deal with bow shakes 

When I lived and studied in the Netherlands I was invited to be a concertmaster for Górecki’s Symphony no.3 ’Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ which consists of many long sustained notes. This was my first experience leading an orchestra; I was very nervous even in rehearsals and as a result, my bow started to shake. I studied at the Rotterdam Conservatory with professor Benzion Shamir at that time and for the whole week, we worked on long notes. He taught me a following bow relaxation concept called ’wavy bow.’ 

- Focus on your armpit

- The feeling is the same as string crossing but the bow stays on one string

- Start with string crossings on D and A strings in a slow semiquaver-note pattern

- Gradually make the string crossing movement smaller until you stay just on A string

- Continue the wavy motion coming from your armpit, arm, and wrist with the same feeling as the string crossing 

Use this technique for the long notes in your performance, especially for the soft dynamics when you know that your bow might start to shake. Support your relaxed bowing with deep breathing and especially slow exhales balancing your weight on both feet and unlocking your knees.

Other approaches to performance anxiety

During the pandemic, I joined several personal development programmes and as a result, I read about 300 books about various topics such as growth mindset, health, wellness, and psychology. It helped me to see a much healthier and holistic approach to performance, its related anxiety and overcoming it.

One of the great tools I learned from author and coach Mel Robbins is the ’Five Second Rule’. You count down like a rocket ship takeoff before challenging tasks: 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1- takeoff! Do that before entering the stage to set yourself in a focused mindset. It will snap you out of a fear-based mindset and will refocus your attention. 

What also can help is creating your pre-performance ritual to set you up for success. 

- Focus on your breathing and do a breathing exercise

- Practise your confident posture

- Create positive affirmations

- Close your eyes and think about three things for which you are grateful

- Remember the reason for sharing the beauty of music

- Remember, this is not the only chance you will be performing

- Imagine that you have already finished your performance

- Wear your favourite necklace, bracelet, or lucky ’amulet’

- Avoid talking to other nervous performers 

Remember that it is a tremendous gift to perform for a live audience, especially after the pandemic lockdown. It doesn’t matter if you are playing at Carnegie Hall or in the backyard for three people: always give your best and serve the ultimate purpose of sharing the music, which is the gift to all of us. Your performance will take another level than just worrying about the notes and passages. If you take this approach in your performance practice, your playing will become more consistent and you will also play better for larger audiences as you will not differentiate the importance of giving your best to an audience of any size. 

How to help students overcome performance anxiety 

One unthoughtful or unintentionally mean comment of a teacher or mentor can leave an everlasting detrimental effect on a student, sometimes for the duration of the whole career and lifetime. Try only to give constructive criticism. Never put down your students’ performances, but find the right words and strategies to improve students’ playing without hurting their feelings. It is crucial in the lessons to have a supportive atmosphere and openly discuss the topic of stage fright.

Make the student feel that any outcome of their performance will be sufficient, as long as they practice and try their best. The more confidence you build in your student, the better will be the outcome of the performance.

Listen to your students carefully, with empathy and understanding, and try to be emotionally present. Don’t compare your students with each other. Be careful with your comments about the performance of the student as it can reflect in their feelings of overall confidence and feelings of self-worth. Create an emotionally safe, welcoming, and present environment in your teaching studio. 

Overcoming performance anxiety is more than executing all passages perfectly. We have to learn how to work with our nervous system and stress response on the stage, we have to work on our mindset, stamina, and overall wellness.  

Importance of a positive environment oriented on a growth mindset 

Surround yourself with motivated and supportive peer groups and mentors who cheer you up and encourage you through good and bad days. Success is taking steps forward and getting up and trying again after performances and auditions that didn’t go that well. It doesn’t matter how many times we fail as long as we get up and are willing to try again. Don’t beat yourself up after a nervous performance. Instead, think about what went well and be grateful for the opportunity to play for an audience. Then journal and reflect on, what could have helped to perform better. Take it as a learning experience. 

Here are some quotes from Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, that inspire me and you might find helpful:

’Consistency was another way to tamp down terror’ - Frank Shorter (US Olympic Gold medalist) 

’On good days and bad days, you always show up’ -  Alexi Pappas (film maker) 

Recommended books for further reading 

- Stage Fright by Kato Havas 

- Performance Anxiety Strategies: A Musician’s Guide to Managing Stage Fright by Casey McGrath, Karin S. Hendricks, Tawnya D. Smith 

- The Karen Tuttle Legacy. A Resource and Guide for Viola Students, Teachers and Performers by Jeffrey Irvine, Kim Kashkashian, Michelle LaCourse, Lynne Ramsey, Karen Ritscher, Carol Rodland 

- Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness 

- High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard 

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