Raise your hand if you’ve had a memory slip, a distraction, or a moment of fear or doubt in performance. If we were sitting in an assembly right now, it would be one of those magical moments where everyone looks around and a feeling of understanding, frustration, and relief abounds. The truth is performance anxiety is ubiquitous. We all experience it on some level, whether we have physical symptoms (increased heart rate, shaking, tension, etc.) or more psychological manifestations (negative self-talk, difficulty concentrating, or straight up panic-at-the-disco). Performance anxiety is a natural and instinctive response from the brain, triggered by the stress and “perceived danger” of performance. (Thanks, amygdala!) Even as a full-time professional harpist, I encounter performance anxiety on a regular basis. A sudden knock at the door, and there she is: Doomsday Debbie, right on time, accompanied by the ominous opening of Beethoven 5.

What helps me isn’t telling the voice to go away, commanding myself to relax, or pushing through the tension and stress. It’s the process of accepting the anxiety and debunking its alluring myths through performance practice: a holistic, experience-based approach targeting anxiety symptoms through performance-like simulations. For this article, I joined forces with two of the brightest minds in performance psychology to create a harpist’s guide to performance anxiety. Using anecdotes from harpists of all levels, we’ve laid out some strategies to respond to common scenarios musicians encounter. Let’s get started! 

Anecdote #1: Distractions/Lack of Focus

“I just seem to lose my place along the strings…I totally doubt myself in the moment and end up playing so many wrong notes, even in super simple passages!”

Why is it that we sound fabulous in our living rooms and then become a different player in performance, second-guessing ourselves and missing even the simplest passages? Noa Kageyama explains the root of this—what he calls “choking”—as a surge of dialogue from the left brain. “[The left brain is] over-monitoring or being too consciously aware of things you don’t really need to pay attention to anymore,” he explains. Albeit counter-intuitive, your left brain (the analytical/logical/instructional voice) shouldn’t be nearly as active during performance as it is when you’re learning or rehearsing a piece. In fact, it is your right brain (the artistic/feeling/creative force) that’s singularly capable of drowning out the noise of the left brain and transitioning to a place of quiet focus and flow where peak performance is possible. So how do you harness the power of the right “alpha” brain while battling “beta” left brain activity?

Centering

Originally developed in the Japanese martial art of Aikido, the practice of centering was first adapted for sports psychology in the 1970s and quickly made its way into the practice room thanks to Don Greene, an Olympic diving coach turned Ph.D. performance psychologist. This technique helps you switch off the noisy left brain to transition to the right brain “flow” space, and it can be used before a practice session, performance, or any situation in which you need to focus. 

Try this at home: First, sit down on your harp bench and take a moment to breathe, be still, and identify your intention. For example, “I will play a beautiful Waltz of the Flowers” (or whatever you’re working on). Then, take a moment to be in your body. Close your eyes, focus your attention at your center, continue to breathe deeply, and release any unnecessary tension. Now imagine the piece you’re about to perform: hear it in your head as clear as day, embodying the pulse and character—what we call a “process cue”. When you’re ready, open your eyes; imagine the music shooting out of your eyes into the strings, towards the column, or all the way to the back row; and “go for it”! This process takes a couple of weeks to learn and internalize, but it’s an essential skill for artists and athletes of any kind, one that you can keep in your back pocket for any stressful event or performance. 

Learning to surf

So what happens when you get distracted again? This is what Kageyama calls “learning to surf.” It is finding a way to navigate away from left brain interruptions and get back to right brain space. For this, Kageyama recommends developing a mental script—a clear timeline of attentional cues for every part of the piece—by asking yourself, “What is the most important thing for me to be thinking about right now? What is too specific? What am I going to think about from moment to moment?” When distracting thoughts come up, rather than engaging with them, you can return to your process cue. This could be listening to the left-hand bass line, focusing on a particular kinesthetic pattern, or following simple verbal cues along the way to help you stay present, like “breathe” or “release tension.” Once, one of my college students was performing a tricky passage involving an ascending one-handed arpeggio. She kept getting tense at the top and rushing, despite being able to play it perfectly in the practice room. In the end, a simple reminder to “inhale” on the way up, and “exhale” on the way down helped to not only ground her, but also to release tension, allowing her to play the passage even better than before. Experiment and see what works for you!

Anecdote #2: Negative Self-Talk

“In the days leading up to the day of the performance, my internal monologue is so stressful that I can hardly enjoy the performance. It seems ridiculous that I have to battle with myself like this.”

It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for…you’re all warmed up backstage ready to go, and there she is: Negative Nancy, here to ruin the party with her insatiable worrying. Whatever you call your inner critic, it’s important to first identify that voice—the doubts, fears, second-guessing—as separate from your own. As convincing and alarmist as these doomsday prophecies may be, they are, quite simply, just thoughts. So how do you stop them, or at least learn to ignore them?

Simulations

For Rob Knopper, his anxiety would kick in the moment before he walked on stage for his audition. No matter how he prepared, the voice would always appear saying, “Oh my goodness—this is the moment. I can’t believe it’s here. The same thing’s gonna happen as always…another failure…” and the downward spiral continues. So before taking his final auditions, Knopper performed scores of mock auditions, simulated run-throughs, for anyone who would listen. Just before each one, he would sit alone in the warm-up room, stare at his music, and say the words of the anxious voice out loud. “The first week or two of mocks was terrible,” Knopper recalls,“but then you start getting used to the extent of the nerves that you’ll feel, the shaking, et cetera, and you have the comfort of experimenting a little.” After about four weeks, the voice was still there—but it no longer bothered him. When the audition rolled around, sure enough, the moment of panic arrived. But this time, he just laughed it off. “Whatever you force yourself to experience repeatedly, you’ll get used to,” he says.

Adversity training

Along the same lines, Kageyama shares that the best way to prepare yourself for performance anxiety—whether it’s physical or mental symptoms—is by practicing with those distractions in advance. “[We] prove to ourselves that we can be successful by adding ‘weights,’ or simulated distractions, so it’s not just exposure, but an opportunity to experiment with new thought processes, or a cool new thing we’re working on.” Indeed, it can be cool to experiment with distractions, even fun! When I first started taking auditions, I would often struggle with physical and mental distractions. “Is my bench weird? My fingers feel sticky. What is that scribbling sound? Have the judges already determined my fate?!” In response, I had a ball creating absurd scenarios for myself: playing in bulky rain boots, clunky earrings, and an enormous parka; doing a run through in the middle of the night after running up and down the stairs; or asking my friends to distract me with physical antics or even the occasional (staged) verbal jab at my playing… “You call that Mozart? More like Faux-art! Mua-ha-ha…” 

Compassion and logic

While these scenarios would never happen in real life, they are tremendously helpful in recreating similar stresses—physical, mental, and emotional distractions—that you can learn to ignore, and maybe even laugh at. The most important thing about dealing with anxiety is learning to be compassionate with yourself. Remember that your inner critic was born out of your well-intentioned amygdala (emotional center of the brain) which senses your stress level and tells you to run away so you don’t get eaten by a bear. What poor Doomsday Debbie doesn’t realize is that we aren’t actually in any real danger, it’s just the evolutionary “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Rather than telling her to shut up and go away, we must speak kindly to that voice and respond with love and understanding—anxiety’s kryptonite! “Dear Debbie, thank you for your concern. As much as I appreciate your well-intended efforts to protect me, I played six mocks, recorded myself, and did an entire run-through with the TV on. If I can do that, I can do this.” At first, you may not totally believe yourself, but your subconscious does; it’s always listening, absorbing your inner dialogue and processing it to form your core beliefs. Data and reasoning, backed by sound preparation, are crucial in countering anxious thoughts. They won’t go away, but they’ll lose their power. 

Anecdote #3: Memory Slips 

“I won’t be able to get through the piece by memory. I tend to be tense, and that tension is reflected in the sound of the music due to stiff fingers.”

Whether you’re learning a simple tune by heart or performing an entire concerto without the score, memorizing music (and retrieving it under pressure) is a skill unto itself. Here, Kageyama, Knopper, and I each provide a unique approach to internalizing your music on a deeper level for maximum results. Try all three to see which works best for you.

Developing a strategy

In the early days, I used to play through my pieces over and over until I felt relatively confident that I could do it from memory. “We assume that’s how memory works, “ Kageyama explains. “It’s a mystical [process] that works pretty well…until it doesn’t.” As a result, many of us may not have an actual strategy in regard to memorizing music. We just do it a bunch of times and hope it works out. Rather than relying on osmosis, Kageyama outlines three components to memorizing:

1. Encoding—getting the notes into your
                        brain 

2. Embedding—remembering the notes 

3. Retrieval —playing back the notes  

                        successfully

When you’re first learning a piece, he suggests associating an “anchor” or “label” with each section. “Whether it’s narrative-based and you have a story you’re telling, using your understanding of music theory, or breaking it down so you can see structurally what the meaningful chunks of the piece are, having a contextual backdrop for your note-learning will make it more retrievable, so you’re not having to pull notes out of thin air. 

Deepening muscle memory

In playing instruments like harp and percussion, we share the unique challenge of having to look at both the instrument and the music without getting lost or losing our place—something that Knopper struggled with for years: “I knew that I needed a solution that was not reliant on my brain, because my brain is not trustworthy [in performance]… if you’re relying on your brain and your processor turns off, there’s nothing left.” So what’s his solution? ROAM—a brilliant note-learning strategy he devised for engraving all the details of his music (character, tone, articulation, etc.) into his muscle memory, one note at a time. “It’s an exhaustive process of learning notes—not everyone takes to it—but about half of my students learn about this and a light bulb goes on.” So how does it work?

R is for REPETITION. “Repetition is the only thing that builds in muscle memory,” Knopper explains, “and also allows me to deeply explore the variety of characteristics of each note.” 

O is for ONE NOTE AT A TIME. In Knopper’s early run-throughs, he says he would have a zillion thoughts along the way about things that should be fixed, but by the end of the passage, he could only remember a handful of items. Rather than mindlessly plowing through the repetitions, he would “work on the smallest amount of music at one time—one note repetitively—shaping it, making it precisely how I want it to be.” And once you have one note? You add another, and another, cutting off bit by bit, slowly working your way backwards. 

A is for AT TEMPO. In Knopper’s opinion, “[slow practice] is boring.” Someone call the practice police! In all seriousness, he makes the great point that practicing under tempo is a different physical and mental process than playing at performance tempo, making it difficult for your long-term muscle memory when your mental processor has gone haywire. 

M is for METRONOME. Because all of this is physically time-sensitive, your repetitions need to be consistently in rhythm for your muscle memory to kick in. Besides, where would we be without the original tick-tocker? 

Visualization

Whenever the topic of visualization or mental practice comes up, I have to share the story of the injured professional diver who spent a month bed-ridden before the Olympic trials, during which time she rehearsed her dives so vividly in her head that she received three perfect 10 scores upon her first time back in the water. The truth is, our minds are so powerful that the more vividly we imagine something, the more real it becomes. When it comes time for the performance, we benefit from the added level of security and perceived experience because we’ve done it before… “once upon a dream!”

Try this at home: Start small with one line of music, adding more layers of music and detail with each mental rep (e.g. hearing your full sound, seeing the attentive audience, feeling the butterflies in your stomach, etc.) until you can see and hear yourself as clear as day. When you mess up or miss a note in your head, simply “rewind” the tape, correct the mistake, and move on. Note: this work is tiring, but even 15 minutes of powerful visualization can be way more effective than an hour of hands-on practicing. 

Anecdote #4: Shaking and Tension

“What’s been really difficult lately for me, though, has been my ability to control my body’s physical response to nerves. I’ll be on stage, feeling very calm, but within about a minute or two of playing I feel as if I’ve lost the ability to control my fingers.”

Discover the tension spectrum

How do you begin to unravel the physical symptoms of stress in the middle of a performance? First, know thine enemy. I’d been struggling with performance anxiety for nearly 20 years before I realized I had a problem with tension. The small amount of tension I had during practice would increase exponentially under stress, resulting in a very uncomfortable out-of-body experience and debilitating lack of facility. In Knopper’s case, the tension he experienced during auditions was a response to trying to control his shaky hands. “I could lower my tension,” he explained, “but I’m definitely afraid to, because if I do, the shakiness comes into my stick.” In addition, it’s hard to know how much tension is too much tension: “I could loosen my tension, but I’m not very precise about it. Maybe I’m at 80 percent or 20 percent [tension], but if I let go, where will I be?”

Eventually, Knopper realized that his fix wasn’t simply to turn down the tension knob. “The skill I needed was a different skill; it was being able to have high tension and move to lower tension [and vice versa].” Just like in percussion, there are differing levels of tension needed to execute technical passages on the harp. Getting specific about your physical needs for each passage (e.g. light tension for a trill, medium for an under-handed arpeggio, hefty for a juicy rolled chord, etc.) will help you stay more self-aware and flexible when performance anxiety kicks in. 

Just breathe

In my experience, the best antidote for tension and shaking ended up being my diaphragmatic breath and the powerful effects of full-belly breathing. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ll probably remember someone providing breath cues with every posture, helping you to stay present in the pose even when it’s uncomfortable. For me, I realized that my breath is closely linked with my internal musical phrasing as well as the tension in my body. So before every piece, between every phrase, or whenever I find my tension rising, I breathe. It’s the quickest way to reconnect with your body, sending oxygen to your bloodstream and a signal to your brain to relax. (Note: be sure to observe the difference between chest breathing and belly-breathing by practicing lying down. The former can actually increase tension and anxiety, while the latter actively disables it. Crazy stuff!)

Anecdote #5: Lack of Confidence/Will to Succeed

“I will make mistakes and people will think I am a terrible musician.”

Playing the long game

When it comes to developing confidence and courage over time, Knopper admits that he still gets nervous playing in front of his colleagues. To anyone struggling with confidence, he says, “Join the club of insecure, low self-esteem musicians. The fact that you feel inferior is the exact reason why you’re gonna get better.” The problem is when the inferiority becomes debilitating, leading to impostor syndrome or the belief that we aren’t worth the effort. Kageyama emphasizes the importance of “recognizing where we are” and scaffolding your performance practice with “smaller doses of pressure much sooner, and starting at the lowest possible level…to cultivate more positive performance experiences.” In the end, Knopper assures us that it’s not about being perfect. “It’s [about] the journey of exploring the systems of practicing that can deal with your problems one by one, not until you’re perfect, but just until you have fewer problems…”

Exposure therapy

Baz Luhrmann had a crazy song out in the ’90s called “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen.” It was a nostalgic, short spoken-word song, chock-full of great advice like “Sing,” “Dance like nobody’s watching,” and one line that I never really understood: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” As an anxious little 12 year old, everything already scared me—why would I want to introduce more fear into my life? What I now realize is that the simple act of naming our fears, challenging them, and addressing them with real-life experiences is the only way to prove to ourselves what we’re truly capable of. So harp on, my friends—this is only the beginning, and you are so worth it!

Meet the experts

Noa Kageyama

The Bulletproof Musician

Dr. Noa Kageyama is a performance psychologist and a faculty member at the Juilliard School. I was fortunate enough to first work with Kageyama 10 years ago at the New World Symphony, just as I was starting my professional career. His methodical and process-driven approach gave me the framework to navigate the anxiety of several high-stakes auditions over the next decade. A former concert violinist and trained psychologist, Kageyama is committed to providing resources for musicians of all levels and backgrounds, including beginners and amateurs: “I think it holds people back thinking ‘I shouldn’t have to expose myself to these experiences at this level…I can do way more pressurized things in other parts of my life, what is wrong with me that I can’t do it here?’”

Rob Knopper

Audition Hacker

Rob Knopper, a performance coach and percussionist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, made it his life’s work to help others learn to play under pressure after overcoming crippling performance anxiety to win the job of a lifetime.  “This area of our musicianship is largely unaddressed,” he says. “[In lessons] we talk about technique, scales, patterns, repertoire, musicality—and it’s like, ‘Oh, performance psychology? Deal with that later!’” Over the last several years, Knopper has dedicated his coaching to providing hands-on, data-driven techniques by diving deeper into the root of each symptom.