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Preparing the mind and body for performance: Conquering stage fright through effective practice

The brain is a complex organ. It controls our systemic functions and sparks our moods, thoughts, and actions. Physiologically, the brain registers fear differently, depending upon the threat. People suffering from panic attacks or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a "flight or fight" response, but those grappling with performance anxiety can feel paralyzed by fear. As the emotional body reacts, the mind plays out its worst-case scenario through the imagination. Together, the brain and body conspire to destroy any shred of confidence that once was there.

Brain functions

As performers, we gain greater knowledge of ourselves every time we play under pressure. We discover what was practiced effectively, what "holds up" in performance, and what aspects of our playing seem to suffer under the strain. While translating symbol into sound the performer aurally discriminates among nuances in tempo, rhythm, dynamics, pitch, and timbre. These are perceived, assimilated, and physicalized into the intricate techniques necessary to play them. Sensory perceptions and emotional responses to the music contribute to the fabric of an individual's experience and understanding of the piece. Such responses spin the crucial threads that tie the acquisition, consolidation, and reconstruction of memorized material together. These threads are the function of the amygdala—the part of the brain that controls sensory perception, emotion, and learning. As a musician practices, updated information concerning the work is re-formulated and integrated through the amygdala. Repeated practice (called "elaborative rehearsal" in scientific terms)1 interweaves new layers of knowledge with each playing of the piece, creating a tapestry within the memory that can endure the pressure of a live performance.

The brain's role in stage fright

As teachers, we learn through our students the many forms stage fright can take and find ways to combat that fear. Stage fright can stem from a wide range of causes—such as social shyness, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress. While important to musical memory, the amygdala is also the part of the brain that registers real or perceived danger. Neurological pathways are made from the amygdala to the frontal cortex—the thinking part of the brain. Because fear is felt and not reasoned, anxiety occurs when there is a miscommunication in these neurological paths. The amygdala misfires, sending alarms to other parts of the brain when no real threat of danger exists. Fear is a response to a real threat; anxiety is a response to a perceived threat. Better described as "performance anxiety," stage fright topples the delicate balance a musician must juggle between mind and mechanism, thus sabotaging the performance. Figure 1 illustrates the brain's role in a performance. Anxiety can rattle the delicate interplay of these various skills, undermine the performer's confidence, and compromise the performance.

Figure 1: Performance Anxiety and the Brain

The conclusions drawn from neurocognitive research are clear: practice that supports sensory perception, mindful repetition, and continuous investigation into the compositional and performance facets of the piece is essential to the successful acquisition and retrieval of a musical work. Simulating the symptoms of performance anxiety is vital to learning how to manage nervousness caused by performance.

Applying research to practice

Practice must be specific to support maximum brain function. As neurocognitive research states, practice should make conscious the sensory aspects of playing a musical passage. This ensures quicker retrieval of what is memorized, particularly under stressed circumstances. The acquisition of a musical passage engages, animates, and nurtures three types of memory: tactile, auditory, and visual. In their article "The Science and Psychology of Music Performance," Pamcutt and McPherson emphasize the necessity of being able to command each of these memory types for the performance to be successful.2  Practice techniques must support such a command of the music. One way to repair and strengthen musical memory is through "chunking." Musical chunks can be isolated in practice and repeated mindfully—consciously observing the rhythm, pitch, harmony, and form with each repetition. Manipulating musical elements of the chunk, such as playing it slowly, transposing it to another key, or working hands separately add yet another layer of understanding to the music. You can follow this systematic practice approach:

• Isolate a passage from a given piece of music. 

• Audiate this passage. Audiation is achieved through outward listening and inner hearing. In this case, listen to a recording of the passage and then replay the selection in your mind. 

• Read the right hand, paying attention to the correct notes, fingering, and rhythm. Do the same with the left hand. 

• Each playing of the passage should include aural familiarity of the composition as a whole, while engaging other tactile and visual responses to the performance that can be fully assimilated   in concert. Repeat the chunked material hands separately until memorized.

Stage one: Acquisition of memory

Once a passage can be played hands separately without the music, the real memory work begins. Start putting the hands together through aural learning by having the student play one hand while the teacher plays the other. Students should be able to hear when and where to change chords or play a note. If they cannot, play the passage for them while they sing the bass or treble part. Once a passage is easily performed in this manner, students are ready to put hands together. Have them play a two- or three-beat segment hands separately until they can sound out the passage hands together. Here is where learning by ear is often misunderstood. Students need to discover how to translate what they hear to the keyboard. Putting the score up on the stand to study may help, but refrain from demonstrating something for them to mimic, for there is very little learning in that.

Stage two: Adding layers of understanding

Once the passage can be successfully played hands together, return to listening. Observe how a phrase is shaped or a note is articulated. Take one aspect of the music and see it through the passage. For example, articulation may be staccato in one part of the phrase and legato in another.

Good audiators can hear this immediately and intuitively incorporate it into their initial learning of the notes. Although ideal, this is not always possible for every student. Dynamics or tempo can be another layer—systematically stack these layers of understanding on top of each other until all the musical aspects of the passage are assimilated and can be performed.

Stage three: Consolidation of memory

The final stage of chunking practice involves analysis. Depending upon a student's level, analysis activates a deeper stage of musical understanding through the senses and the brain. Young children instinctively do this by remembering the feel of a chord under their hand or the visual picture of what the chord looks like. A more mature approach to this level of learning incorporates a cognitive grasp of what is on the page. This includes, for example, a theoretical knowledge of the melodic line and the ability to verbalize its movement as scalar, triadic, or sequential. Older students can certainly hear when a section of music modulates from major to minor, or identify a key change. Take out the score and locate these changes. Relate harmonic progressions to the overall form of the piece—perhaps the tonal center moves to the dominant in the exposition of a sonata-allegro form, but stays in the tonic in the recapitulation. Knowing this provides a bulwark students can lean on in a moment of crisis during a performance. Cognitive knowledge invariably outlives tactile memory in a performance situation.

Memory work in lessons and practice

With my students, I call attention to each memory type as they are playing a chunk. What does your hand feel like as you play this chord? What note are you jumping to? Where should your eyes be as you do this? Can you sing this note before playing it? Without looking at the music, can you begin playing the measure before this chunk? Recent studies indicate that these musical chunks are stored in the memory by the use of "retrieval structures" that cue specific physical reactions to them. These can then be strung together to create a larger section of the music that is scrutinized and practiced as a single unit. 

Home practice is in many ways more vital than instructional learning activities, and it can support or undo any careful work done in the lesson. In addition to daily listening to a recording, my students go home with a detailed plan for their practice each week. For young children, I practice with them and go over the points with the parent. If applicable, I have the parent practice with the child in front of me so that I know it's being done correctly at home. Older children can do this for themselves if they are held accountable for what I (or they) have written down from the lesson. Accountability comes in the form of a parent or guardian listening to the practice at the end of the week or my checking off the practice goals in the next lesson. Either way, good practice leads to confidence and greater success, keeping nerves at bay.

Memory retrieval

Concert pianists employing this chunking approach use musical cues called "nodes" to retrieve memory in a performance. André Watts and Leon Fleisher agree that relying just on one's tactile memory for a performance is risky—"it's the first that goes."3 In Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance,4 Gabriela Imreh describes her "piecing together of chunks" in her practice of Bach's Italian Concerto. In the Presto, Imreh identifies and memorizes certain "nodes" that repeat at different levels throughout the piece. She links the nodes into musical sections of the piece that in turn fit within the work's formal structure. In the end, these sections and the expressive markings within them provide the necessary cues to retrieve what is memorized. A sturdy foundation in musical form, harmony, melodic phrase, theory, and expressive style are necessary to deeply know a compositional work of this magnitude and be able to reconstruct the memory of it in performance.

Desensitizing the performance experience

Practicing to acquire, consolidate, update, and retrieve memorized material is only part of the preparation required to perform; the other part is "desensitization." Also called "exposure therapy,"5 desensitization is a three-staged process designed to simulate performance anxiety in practice (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The three stages of Exposure Therapy.

Practice begins with imaginal work and is continued as the introceptive and in vivo stages are being incorporated into a performer's experience. Continued work on each stage reinforces the rehearsal of performance anxiety coping mechanisms in varying levels of difficulty.

Imaginal practice takes place in the performer's imagination. The imaginal performance focuses on the sensory perceptions of the act of performing, such as the feel of the keys, smell of the hall, and timbre of the instrument. In the interoceptive stage of practice, anxiety symptoms are artificially replicated to simulate stage fright. Such exercises as rapid breathing or sucking through a narrow straw simulate the light-headedness and increased heart rate often associated with performance anxiety, presenting an opportunity for an individual to practice performing under stress.

In vivo practice, the final stage of exposure therapy, is the performance experience itself. Exposure is introduced incrementally beginning with low-intensity performance situations, such as playing for a friend in one's home, and graduating to higher-intensity experiences, such as playing in a larger venue. With continued exposure to performing, a musician gradually gains practice coping with the negative symptoms associated with anxiety, eventually becoming more inured to them.


Our goal as performers is to communicate the music of our souls through a composer's given work. Our goal as teachers is to give our students the opportunity to achieve success through a higher sense of musical understanding. Performance anxiety is an impediment to such goals and can be thwarted through practice compatible with current neurocognitive research. Reducing anxiety allows us the gracious opportunity to perform and share the joy of beautiful music.

1 Dobbs, David. (February/March, 2006). Mastery of Emotions. Scientific American Mind 17, pp. 44-49.

Pamcutt, Richard and McPherson, Gary. (2002). The Science and Psychology of Music Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 167-172.

Pamcutt, p. 175.

Chaffin, Roger, Imreh, Gabriela, and Crawford, Mary E. (2002). Practicing Perfection: Memory and Piano Performance. Mahuah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., pp. 202-205.

Fried, Jerry. From an Interview by the author with anxiety specialist Jerry Fried, January, 2011.

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