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Managing Stage Fright: The Inner Game

stage fright

Stage fright, for some musicians, presents a difficult challenge. Musicians are very much on the edge when performing. One minor mishap can initiate a domino effect that can derail a performance. Add stage fright into this scenario and it will have the potential to hijack one performance after another. Often, this experience is disheartening, discouraging and in some cases traumatic.

An acquaintance of mine provides a perfect example. This person tried his level ten piano exam in his youth. Although he was well prepared and was able to play his repertoire at a high standard, it did not go well. During the exam he got panicky and failed. Unable to resolve his stage fright problem, he abandoned the piano and lost out on a lifetime of music making.


Outward Obstacles

There are two common approaches to addressing this problem. One approach is to identify and overcome performance obstacles. This may include, for example, extra attention to a difficult passage. Addressing any identifiable weakness in the preparation of the music helps to secure a performance.

Another approach is desensitization. This method involves starting with a low pressure environment, for example, performing for friends, family or a small class. Then by exploring various performance situations, the pressure is gradually increased.

These approaches are sufficient for many. Others find them ineffective. Can we do more to alleviate stage fright?


Inner Obstacles

"The Inner Game of Music" written by Barry Green is a widely read book among musicians. Barry Green presents an important message. He points out that, in addition to addressing outward obstacles, we must also address inner obstacles. For this we must bring awareness to our inner dialogue or story telling mind. Thoughts entering our mind before or during a performance are usually in the past or future and they are often negative and distorted. These thoughts fuel our anxiety.

Barry Green points out that anxiety will always be part of our musical performance.  It is desirable to be anxious during a performance as it heightens our abilities. However, this anxiety must not to escalate into panic. Panicking during a musical performance, or any other performance for that matter, never turns out well.

The inner game involves bringing awareness to these thoughts and then replacing them with less upsetting thoughts. For example, we might notice a thought like "That difficult passage a few bars ahead is going to mess me up". Replace this with "I have performed this passage successfully many times, I can do it this time as well".

Another example is "I am not good enough, I have no talent and the audience is going to find out".  An adaptive response is “This is my artistic offering for today, I cannot offer more. In future performances I will be able to offer more as I am a developing and growing musician. Today's presentation is good enough".

This approach is effective for many people. However, for some intrusive thoughts are strong and persistent. Positive self-talk is not enough to prevent the onset of panic. Thankfully, we have another tool to explore.



Mindfulness is the process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. Meditation practice develops this ability. We are free from anxiety in the present moment. Problematic inner dialogue does not occur here. The feeling of serenity, peace, joy, and a sense of connection to others characterizes the present moment. By employing mindfulness we will be able damped down those problematic intrusive thoughts. For this we need to engage mindfulness mediation training.


Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an eight-week program. It offers intensive mindfulness training to assist people with stress and anxiety. This practical approach trains attention, allowing people to cultivate awareness. Developed Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR provides an excellent introduction to mindfulness meditation. MBSR is widely available and is provided both in community and clinical settings.

If you are new to mindfulness meditation and want to give it a try I suggest a guided body scan by Jon Kabat-Zinn which is available on YouTube.

Jon Kabat-Zinn Body Scan Meditation (guided meditation)


Mindful Piano Practice

Mindfulness practice presents a challenge. We can be present in the moment during our formal practice, however in our daily life are become unconscious and trapped in our story tell mind. To benefit from this practice we need to bring mindfulness into our daily life. In the MBSR program, this is accomplish by choosing one activity in our day and practice doing it mindfully. This could be doing dishes or taking a shower.

For managing stage fright, the choice would be to practice piano mindfully. Practicing mindfully is one step closer to bringing this practice into our performance. In a previous post titled Mindful Piano Practice: Increase Productivity and Lower Stress, I have outlined approaches for mindful piano practice.

In conclusion, redirecting our attend during mindfulness meditation is like exercising a muscle. This muscle gets stronger over time. The goal is to develop our mindfulness practice to the point where we can be more present during our performances and struggle less with our internal dialogue. This will require a significant amount practice, however, it will prove to be a very powerful tool. It will enable us deliver an effective and inspired musical performance that we know we are capable of doing.

One thought on “Managing Stage Fright: The Inner Game

  1. Yes, so glad to find your commentary on this. I agree that mindfulness is the best approach to dealing with many different kinds of ways we get in our own way around things, including stage performance. As we learn ways to renegotiate our relationship with the piano, with a challenging passage or entire challenging piece of music, and with ourselves, we can find ourselves enjoying entirely different kinds of experiences at the piano and in other areas of our lives. Thanks again for posting this.

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