On Performance Anxiety During Lessons

Does this sound familiar? You can play a piece perfectly well at home, but as soon as you play for your instructor it falls apart.

Every private lesson instructor has heard their students complain of this issue and it usually leads to the next question: What can I do about nervousness?

It’s understandable. Nervousness can be a frustrating part of private lessons. 

Instructors and more experienced players know that several factors are involved in playing errors and they’re not all related to performance anxiety

This is what happens: 

When students practice at home they may allow lots of small errors to slip by without fixing them. In the microscopically-intense environment of a lesson those errors are illuminated, making the student become self-conscious of every minor glitch or thunk and their performance falters. And sometimes it snowballs! — but that’s okay! This is part of the process of learning an instrument and learning how to practice better. 

Part of the issue is learning how to practice more effectively. I often observe that the student has not been been working on the technical exercises, and it is the lack of technical accuracy that really lets them down in a performance situation. In this case, it’s a good thing that the student makes mistakes in a lesson, because then the instructor can help correct them.

In fact, one of my wisest, early instructors said, “Your lesson is the best place to make mistakes!”

This is not to say that performance anxiety is not a contributing factor as well. Almost every musician, including professionals, has experienced performance anxiety, and it can often be severe. The one truth is that the more you perform, the less that anxiety will negatively affect your playing. A performance does not have to be a a major recital. Any situation where eyes are upon you will do: play for friends, family, masterclasses, guitar societies, nursing homes, schools, etc. Some people can lessen their anxiety after just a few performances, but others may require many performances. 

Remedy: seek out opportunities to play for people often.

Additionally, I found the following books quite helpful. Each one has something different to offer and they are all quite illuminating. 

A Soprano on Her Head: Right-Side-Up Reflections on Life and Other Performances by Eloise Ristad. Ristad offers many excellent ideas to alleviate performance anxiety and especially conquering all those nasty, little, inner judges. We all have them. Get to know them, so you can send them packing! (Or at least diminish their power).

The Performer Prepares by Robert Caldwell. I found this book extremely useful. It’s set up as a workbook and leads you through many exercises which help you discover what type of performer you’d like to be. You may have never even thought about this and that’s the point. Caldwell makes you think about yourself in unexpected ways and, trust me, it can be quite an enjoyable process.

An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski. My undergraduate guitar professor, Phillip de Fremery (Mt. Holyoke College), required that his summer masterclass students read this book. Although it’s aimed at actors, the ideas about how to approach the stage applies to any performer. And it’s a classic!

For ideas on Practicing:

The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser. A student brought this book to my attention. There are many suggestions to help get the most out of your practice time (and to enjoy that practice time, as well).

And finally:

Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.  My first important guitar teacher, Deb Fox (now lutenist and director of the award-winning, oft-accoladed, early music ensemble, Pegasus), recommended this exquisite book to me when I was in high school. I try to read it once a year. It illustrates the importance of approaching any art with patience and precision by not skipping steps or taking short cuts. And most importantly, to breathe! The introduction by D.T. Suzuki is sheer poetry. Another classic!





Classical Guitar Lessons, Fort Collins, Northern Colorado