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12 minutes reading time (2351 words)

How do you help adults get over stage fright?

There are many famous people who have stage fright. According to Patrick Enright of MS IEC.com1Andrea Bocelli told Connie Chung that he's constantly afflicted by stage fright that lasts almost his entire performance. "The only way is to go on stage and to hope. "

Glenn Gould quit playing in front of live audiences because of his discomfort with public recitals. By age thirty-two, he only did studio recordings and radio performances. "I detest audiences. I think they are a force of evil."

In 1968, singer Rod Stewart was so nervous that he sang the entire first song of a performance from behind a speaker stack.

Carly Simon was known to have poked herself in the hand with safety pins. One time she asked her band's horn section to spank her just before the curtain rose to help abate the fear.

If this is the response professional musicians have to stage performance, how can we expect less from our adult piano students? Our two authors offer suggestions that might help your students at least partially conquer the stage fright demon. Too bad Carly Simon didn't have help before she inflicted damage to herself! 

"Even stars get stage fright." http:// www.msnbc.msn.com/ id/ 20727420/ . Retrieved April, 2009. 

Seven steps to conquering stage fright 

by Julie Knerr

When I was asked to write an article on adult stage fright my first reaction was, "No problem! I have first hand experience!" I struggled with performance anxiety throughout my college and graduate school years, and I have several adult students with similar problems.  

I believe that the foundation for confident performing as an adult is laid in childhood. young pianists who recieve a well-rounded piano education that includes thorough training in performance, repertoire, memorization, technique, ear train- ing, theory, and sight-reading will have a secure foundation on which to build as an adult pianist. In addition, pianists who have had many performance opportunities as children may cope better with the pressures of performing as they reach adulthood. Therefore, piano teachers of children have an incredibly important job by setting the stage that assists in confidence at the piano.

In observing my college piano students and myself, I have noticed that a person with performance anxiety problems tends to have or exhibit the following qualities:

  • Perfectionism;
  • Inadequate piano training in the pre-college years;
  • Understanding of the deficiencies that result from inadequate training;
  • High intrapersonal intelligence, with a high degree of self-analysis;
  • Females, in my experience, are more prone to extreme stage fright than males.

This is a picture of myself as well. The ability to identify with my students who have performance anxiety problems has been useful to me in developing strategies to help students overcome stage fright and perform successfully. 

Fill in your gaps. If students have deficiencies in their early training, those gaps must be filled. This can be done through assigning easy pieces for students to perfect and memorize along with their main literature. In this way, students can build confidence by learning pieces quickly, memorizing these pieces, experiencing success with performing these pieces, and filling in the deficits in their previous repertoire study.

Learn how to memorize. The kinesthetic memory most children primarily use is not sufficient for adult pianists who are anxiety-prone or who are playing advanced Iiterature. Other types of memory, such as the intellectual understanding of the piece through theoretical analysis, aural memory, and visual memory are also indispensable for confidence while performing by memory. Some strategies I have found useful for solidifying memory include: memorizing right hand alone, left hand alone, and then both hands together (what I call "triply memorized"); playing very slowly by memory; counting aloud by memory; playing with the metronome by memory at various tempos; beginning at different places in the score by memory; improvising out of a memory lapse without referring to the score; visualizing yourself in the perform- ance space playing through the piece; and playing through the piece on a table.

Assess your mental control. To perform successfully, a pianist must have control over the mind. This begins in the practice room with total concentration on the sound coming from the piano. Concentrating totally on the sound of the piano keeps anxious thoughts at bay and produces more productive work in the practice room as well as a more sensitive performance on the stage.

I ask these questions in Performance Class: "What were you thinking of when you made that mistake?" "Did you think that same thing in the practice room?" "How would you rate your level of concentration on the sound?" "Have you timed yourself to see how long you can focus in the practice room?" To this last question, one of my students found she could only intently focus for fifteen seconds at a time while practicing. She had to work to increase her concentration level, which required much more energy than she had anticipated.

Make sure you are completely prepared. For a successful and confident performance, a piece must be 100% prepared. Many students think they are at 100% when they are only 60-70% prepared. Piano study takes more intense work, concentration, and self-discipline than some students realize. When a student, especially an introspective one, is confident that the piece is 100% prepared, stage fright is lessened.

Perform daily. To become adept at performing, a pianist must perform often. Ideally, there should be a performance time every day. This does not have to involve an audience. Pianists can perform in the practice room for a recording device or can designate a certain part of the practice session as "performance time," where the pianist plays through pieces as if performing. Imagining the conditions of a successful performance and playing through the piece mentally is also beneficial for practicing performance.

Perform attainable units. A student can be assigned to play the last four measures of the piece by memory in performance class. The next week, the student can play the last eight measures, gradually working back- wards until the whole piece is performed. I have found that even if the four measures are shaky in performance the first week, they are much more solid the next week when eight measures are performed. Beginning at the end of the piece helps the pianist feel more confident as the piece progresses, since most pianists tend to be more familiar with the beginning of the piece.

Play "in recital" often. Generally, college piano students work all year on a program and then have one or two opportunities to perform those pieces before starting on a new program for the next recital. No won- der student pianists have performance anxiety! Compare this with professional pianists, who perform the same works again and again in different recitals, thereby gaining confidence in performing. Providing student performers with many recital opportunities to perform the same piece can allow students to experience the comfort in performing that only comes after many performances of the same piece. 


The best remedy for performance anxiety in adulthood is a solid foundation from childhood musical training. However, if this was not the case for our adult students, there is still hope! Performing is a skill quite separate from playing the piano, and more attention should be devoted to the formation of skills that lead to confident performances. 

Conquering the elephant 

by Alex Thio 

You know the feeling - the familiar thumping of the heart, the unusually cold and sweaty palms, the uneasy bout of nausea. All that, and you haven't even started playing a note on the piano.

Student or teacher alike, we have all experienced what stage fright can do. To you, it might feel like "butterflies in your tummy." To me, it can even be a mind- numbing, muscle-paralyzing moment. What- ever the degree of stage fright we experience, it is a battle fought not only by amateur pianists, but also professionals. For Vladimir Horowitz, the terrifying "monster" that was stage fright was said to have been the reason he avoided the concert stage for more than a decade.

Adult pianists seem to fear this "monster" most of all. Those of us who have taught our share of adult students know this is a big demon that most want to avoid. Yet, to allow stage fright to paralyze us is to have surrendered to it. The only way around is through.

The process of conquering the monster starts be/ore the performance; it continues during the performance; and finally, it ends after the performance. Let me share with you some tips that have helped my adult piano students overcome stage fright throughout this process. 

Before the performance 

 Question: How do you eat an elephant? 

Answer: One bite at a time.

It is a gargantuan feat to prepare an adult pianist for a recital performance. Yet, nothing is impossible if you break it down into bite-size pieces. 

Much of the preparation for battle against stage fright begins before the performance. For instance, student and teacher alike should take time to choose appropriate repertoire. I tend to lean towards more lyrical (but no less challenging) pieces for the adult student: pieces that are slower in tempo, and pieces that have a simpler musical form. We help our adult pianists set themselves up for success when we give ample thought to the repertoire they plan to study. In doing so, we help them build the confidence they require for a successful performance, sans major paralysis.

Duet playing can be a confidence-builder too. This works well for adult pianists preparing for their first piano recital. Invite your student to work on a duet with you. Choose duets with simpler primo parts for the adult pianist, and a more 'beefy' secondo part that you, the teacher would play. Assure the adult pianist that at the recital you'll both be making music, and that the joy (and nervousness) will be shared! 

The Adult Piano Luncheon

Do you know what the primary difference is between belting out your favorite song in the shower and singing a solo on stage? People.

The presence of people is certainly a cause for stage fright. We are concerned about what they will think of our performance. We are petrified that the mistakes we might make would be forever singed in the minds of our audience. To counteract this, we introduced the Adult Piano Luncheon - a social gathering of sorts where adult pianists mingle with each other and have the opportunity to perform.

Several years ago, my friend and col- league Amy Immerman invited me to one of these casual get-togethers. She had been organizing these Piano Luncheons for several years already. Students would gather at a home hosted by either Amy or one of her students - and after an hour or so of mingling over finger food (and sometimes a full-blown meal!), Amy would gather the students where the piano was and invite anyone who was comfortable to perform by playing a piece or two. The atmosphere was one of encouragement and affirmation, and the adult pianists felt little to no threat or intimidation during this performance opportunity. What an absolutely fun way to ready our adult pianists for a more formal recital performance and curb the levels of stress related to stage fright! 

During the performance

The hundreds of preparatory steps that lead to a performance are just that: steps. No matter how much we help our adult pianists ready themselves for the "big day," it is the performance itself that requires a healthy dose of confidence. Here are three tried-and-proven resolutions that have helped my adult students overcome stage fright - at least enough for them to leave their prescription drugs at home.

I am fully prepared. Said without compromise (and after a deep breath), this resolution helps to curb the stress levels related to stage fright. However, it is founded on the confidence built prior to the recital. Much of this depends on YOU as the teacher. Did YOU do everything you could to assure your adult student the confidence needed to perform successfully?

I am focused. This resolution involves focusing on a single musical element of one's performance. Examples of these might be:

I am focused ... on creating a consistent cantabile melodic line.

I am focused ... on conveying the differ- ent moods or "characters" within this pIece.

I am focused ... on contouring my phrases with audible dynamic shading. Whatever the focal point, encourage your adult students to maintain this focus from

the start to the end of the performance.

I have a gift to offer. Every adult student who has experienced the joy of gift giving can certainly relate to this resolution. Recitals can be such egocentric affairs - they are usually about me. The question is, "Should they be-"Personally, when I first grasped the concept of per- forming on stage as a gift to my audience, it freed me to perform with ease and confidence. Stage fright was no longer an issue - it was nothing less than offering a delightful musical gift to those who invested their time in attending the performance. 

After the performance

Overcoming stage fright is a monumental achievement, and as such, we must not forget to provide the affirmation and encouragement the adult student performer deserves. Offer honest and authentic praise to the adult student after a performance. Assure the student that you are indeed proud of the performance and that you appreciate all the work invested in preparing for the performance. We all thrive on affirmation - it serves as a reward for a job well done. Affirm your adult students, and see how their fear of stage fright is replaced by a love of performing on stage. 

In conclusion

Don't forget the elephant! 

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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