top of page

Stage Fright


I had terrible stage fright when I first started performing again in 2006, after 12 years of not playing the piano. I started reading books on handling performance anxiety. I like to share with you my inventory of techniques. I know it is a long list, and some may even sound contradictory to each other. So just pick a few and experiment with them. If one does not work, move on to another technique. The mind is just like water: if you don't disturb it, it has no ripples


Below is a list of books I found useful:

Esposito , Janet E., In the Spotlight: overcoming your fear of public speaking and performing Green, Barry, The mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry Green, Barry, The Inner Game of Music Kochevitsky, George, The Art of Piano Playing: a scientific approach


To Attain Relaxed Concentration

  • practice sitting back, gaze unfocused - looking somewhere far away. Just listen while playing - do not try - just do it! Don't try to feel the music, or be expressive - just let the music be! The head should be clear of any thoughts - as if in a trance, meditating. Let the finger do the work without attempting. The way of Tao!

  • have someone sitting very close to me, while I practise performing the piece. I have to be comfortable enough with someone so close, and yet feel physically connecting to the touch of every piano key and hear every sound. My body should embody the music.

  • Practice play on my lap while sitting, or on a table - such that I can create the right mindset and mood without relying on the piano. I can then imitate performing the piece right before going on stage. Ensure my mind is focused in the touch and in the imaginary sound. Move my body in an exaggerated manner if I need to in order to feel the musical energy flows.

  • Sing out loud if I need to in an exaggerated manner to trigger the right emotions in me prior going on stage.


Quick Fixes For Anxiety while in Backstage

  • Deep and slow breathing: breathe out about twice as long as you breathe in (2)

  • Express a positive emotional states physically: recreate the body posture and facial expressions that my body normally assumes when I feel calm, confidence, relaxed, and centered. Imagine feelings of tremendous confidence and self-assurance. I am totally empowered, in the flow (3)

  • Ground myself to the present moment: Focus on things outside of myself - such as looking at the different colors around me. Try to find things that are green, or blue, or red. Listen to the sound the audience is making: is someone sneezing, coughing, laughing, talking? Listen to the entire mix of sound coming from the audience. (4)

  • Be aware of myself: sound I am creating (my breaths), my movements, my emotions (12)

  • Create a safe place in my mind: visualize myself in a beautiful, serene setting, and feeling perfectly calm and peaceful. Or visualize the day after the performance, the next month, or next year: see that life goes on as usual, and today's performance will be just a small part of a long journey. (5)

  • Create imaginary humor about the surroundings: use the scrambling technique adapted from Neurolinguistic Programming. Imagine as vividly as possible using all my senses a fearful situation (such as performing in front of an audience!). Then scramble the images and make the picture as ridiculous, silly, and bizarre as I possible can. For example, imagine the piano keys are flying away to the audience, which the audience grabs and start licking them! (6)

  • Positive visualization and mental imagery: Days, weeks, or months before a performance, imagine myself during the performance feeling calm and relaxed. Feel how I walk onto the stage with confident. Visualize how I adjust the piano bench, and test out the pedals depth and resistance. Imagine the energies from the audience merging with mine, and how the music flows harmoniously - fusing me and the audience into one. (7)

  • Slow measured movements when walking on stage towards the piano (8)

Surrendering into the spirit of the zone... no audience, no me - everything was gone except the music (1)

  • Listen to music that is dissimilar to what I am about to perform, but establish the right mood. For example, I try not to listen to piano classical music before I have to perform. Instead, I listen to Jazz, orchestral works, or movie soundtracks.

  • [I just learnt this from the Washington competition] Just have a jolly mood! Chat away with others, feeling how cool and fun it is that I am going on stage and people actually sit for 30 min and listen to me!. Do something fun and crazy to relax - e.g. try juggling! or act goofily in front of someone! Create a fun mood!

  • Try not to talk to people for 30-45 mins before my turn. Feel myself suspended in the boundless cosmos; in one with humanity; visualize the smallness of Earth in this Universe; imagine the insignificance of the next hour in the big scheme of things; feel Euphoria; feel the happiness in being able to share my experience with others in next 30 mins.


Stepping Cross the Line - onto Concert Platform

I was inspired by a behind-the-scene footage of the amazingly moving film Monsters Ball. The footage shows how Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton prepared themselves seconds before the camera rolls for a highly intense scene inside a car. Instead of seeing the actors meditating intensely, they were actually joking with each other even seconds before the camera starts rolling.

As soon as the camera rolls, suddenly the actors snap right into their characters, as if they put on a mask and are no longer themselves, but are the characters they are portraying - their facial expressions, intensities of their eyes, and their whole body suddenly changed 180 degrees. I now see an imaginary line dividing the backstage and concert platform. As soon as I cross that line, I snap into the musical character I am portraying. I visualize myself being a creature shedding my old skin, emerging anew becoming the music itself! I am an actor of the music - I am not myself anymore, but the character portrayed by the music (11)


Quick Reminders

  • My goal is to clearly and honestly convey my own musical intentions and emotions. Not to impress anyone, not to have others agree with my interpretation. (9)

  • I am going to perform exactly how I had practiced. I am not going to play the piece differently (e.g. faster, louder) to impress anyone, or to project more. Any projection required will be adjusted through my ear, not by banging the piano harder.

  • I am here sharing with the world my love of music. Bring the audience along with me, feel the energy, and spirits will come!

  • Stop being critical - say to myself: I am allowed to fail!. Try to achieve an unthinking state - relaxed but be aware. Simply be aware, without judgment. (10)

  • Remember I need to project the smallest pianississimo to the farthest audience!


If Inadequate Time to Try Piano

  • Be ready to play the soft passages without soft pedal (many pianos have a very muted or metallic sound with soft pedal on that does not sound good). Try a little of soft pedal and if it does not work, leave it off!

  • For big sounds, if the piano does not project enough, do not try to project more than how I had practiced it. Trying to force more sound out of the piano will only distract myself. On the other hand, if the hall is resonant, no need to push hard at all - need more gentle.

  • For melodies - always have a rich singing quality. If passage is p or pp, still let the melody sings out - just have the bass and inner voices subdued

  • Sing! : either in my head, or imitate the physicality of humming but without making a sound. Immediately my focus is on the music and the sound, and any adjustment will become automatic.

  • Focus on the sound, the touch of the keys, how each finger of my hand is moving. Never think - just observe (12)

  • Step back a little - never get totally emotionally involved or I will lose control (14). But at the same time be free to act out the music - let my body / face respond to the music naturally - as if I am an actor acting from my heart.

  • Feel relaxed physically, even though emotionally I might be intense.

  • Breathe slowly! Remember: sing along and dance with the flow! Feel extremely relaxed! Breathe with the music!


While Sitting on Piano Bench, Right Before Touching the Piano

  • Feel resistance and depth of right pedal, ensure bench right height and distance from piano. Then take 2 deep breath. Always start playing the piece when breathing out (to simulate the feeling of singing the music)

  • Remind myself: If piano is unknown, risk too much than too little sound. If opening is soft passage, use soft pedal but project main melody.

  • I am sharing my love of music with the world! Feel myself in-one with the energy in the concert hall.

  • I am projecting my music to the audience sitting at the farthest corner. Don't play only to myself! Share it with the world!

  • For technically demanding passages: remember to feel a little distant from the practicalities and be the conductor. Don't get excited or I will lose control.

  • Imagine I am my favorite performer, that I am in Carnegie Hall performing in front of a few thousand people. (13)


To Get Over with Being Ego-Centric

I find reading following passages about Zen Buddhism and Hinduism written by Alan Watts help tremendously in gaining the right perspective about music and life. He often emphasizes that there is no I to perceive, but there is only the perception itself. In other words, when I think I hear music, in reality there is no I as receptor of the musical sensation. Instead the reality is there is only the sensing of the music. I never exist, but there is only the music.

Below are more of his wisdom: from Easter Wisdom, Modern Life. Collected Talks. 1960 - 1969; Chapter Five: The Images of Man Hindus idea is that God did not make the world, but acted it. That is to say, every person and every thing is a role or part that the Godhead is playing. [p. 53] You don't have to understand in words how to breathe. You just breathe. Hindus image of the Divine is of a sort of centipede. A centipede can move a hundred legs without having to think about it, and Shiva can move ten arms very dexterously without having to think about them. It is just done simply, like that. If we had to describe this simple way in words it would be very complicated, but God, in the Hindus idea, does not need to do so. [p. 54] The Hindu does not see any fundamental division between God and the world. The world is God at play; the world is God acting. [p. 55] The Hindu feels that the Godhead acts his part so well that he takes himself in completely. And each one of you is the godhead, wonderfully fooled by your own act. And although you wont admit it to yourself, you are enjoying it like anything. So the person is the mask. Isn't it funny how we have forgotten that? [p.57] But if you forget that you are the actor, and think you are the person, you have been taken in by your own role. Behind the stage is the green room. After the play is over, and before it begins, the masks are there. The Hindus feel that behind the scene, under the surface of reality, you are all actors, marvelously skilled at playing parts and in getting lost in the mazes of your own minds and the entanglements of your own affairs, as if this were the most urgent thing going on. But behind the scenes, in the green room - in the very back of your mind and the very depth of your soul - you always have a sneaking suspicion that you might not be the you that you think you are. [p. 58 - p. 59] In all contests you know that while you are going to take it seriously and regard it as very important, in the back of your mind you know it is not ultimately important. Although it is very important, you are saved, and this enables you to be a good player. When we play music - even the music of Bach, to name a great master of what we call serious music - we are still playing. The Hindus see this world as play, in the deeper sense of the word, and therefore they see the intense situations, personally, socially, and so on, in which we are all involved, not as bad illusions but as magnificent illusions, so well acted that they have got most of the actors fooled into forgetting who they are. When he has become fooled, man thinks of himself as a little creature that has come into this strange and foreign world, and is just a little puppet of fate. He has forgotten that the whole thing has, at its root, a playful self that is also your own self. [p. 63 to p. 64] from The Way of Liberation, Chapter Two: Play and Survival p.33 The point is then that life is like music for its own sake. We are living in an eternal now, and when we listen to music we are not listening to the past, we are not listening to the future, we are listening to an expanded present. The present moment is a field of experience that is much more than an instant. To hear a melody is to hear the interval between tones. Within the present moment we can hear intervals and see rhythms. Thus, within each moment we can feel a sequence going on. p.34 Good music, as written by Bach, has no meaning. Classical music, whether it be of the West, of the Hindus, or of the Chinese, has no meaning other than its own sound. And words, like music, have no meaning. Words are noises that represent and point to something other than themselves. The sound water will not make you wet. You cannot drink the noise water. Therefore, the word is symbolic and points to something other than itself. And yet we say of words that they have meaning. And people get all fouled up because they want life to have meaning as if it were words. You are meaning. This is the point: the meaning, the goodie about life is exactly here and now. We are not going anywhere.


Here are other great quotes from other authors: From Umberto Ecos novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana: I started humming a tune to myself. It was automatic, like brushing my teeth but once I began thinking about it, the song no longer came of its own accord, and I stopped on a single note. I held it a long time, at least five seconds, as if it were an alarm or dirge. I no longer knew how to go forward, and I didn't know how to go forward because I had lost what came before. While I was singing without thinking I was actually myself for the duration of my memory, which in that case was what you might call throat memory, with the befores and afters linked together, and I was the complete song, and ever time I began it my vocal cords were already preparing to vibrate the sounds to come. I think a pianist works that way, too: even as he plays one note hes readying his fingers to strike the keys that come next. Without the first notes, we wont make it to the last notes. I'm like a burning log. The log burns, but it has no awareness of having once been part of a whole trunk nor any way to find out what it has been, or to know when it caught fire. So it burns up and that's all. I'm living in pure loss. From Zuckerkandls Sound and Symbol: Time is always new; cannot possibly be anything but new. Heard as a succession of acoustical events, music will soon become boring; heard as the manifestation of time eventuating, it can never bore. The paradox appears at its most acute in the achievement of a performing musician, who attains the heights if he succeeds in performing a work with which he is thoroughly familiar, as if it were the creation of the present moment.


References 1 Green, Barry, The mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry, by, p. 187 2 Esposito , Janet E., In the Spotlight: overcoming your fear of public speaking and performing, p. 50 3 Ibid., p. 98 4 Ibid., p. 49 5 Ibid., P. 46 6 Ibid., P. 86 7 Ibid., P.88 8 Kochevitsky, George, The Art of Piano Playing: a scientific approach, p. 53 9 Green, Barry, The Inner Game of Music, p. 18 10 Ibid, P. 28, 34 11 Ibid., P. 80 12 Ibid., P. 22 13 Ibid., P. 91 14 Green, Barr, The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry, p. 136

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
bottom of page