Getting over performance nerves

Performance nerves

We looked at how to get over performance nerves in this month’s fiddle workshop. There’s a lot of factors that can make us nervous about playing in front of others. Fortunately there’s a lot a of strategies, and tips for overcoming the problem, too!

Building confidence

Part of building confidence is about improving your playing to a level you are happy with. If you’re working on a particular tune that you want to play well (perhaps you want to be able to start a set of tunes on your own in a session), it can be really helpful to make sure you feel completely confident about playing the opening few bars of the first tune.

We worked on developing a confident start to the note, by getting the bow to really engage with the string. There’s a knack to transferring the weight of the arm through the hand and into the bow right at the start of the note. Te weight is transferred through the index finger, with the thumb acting as a ‘pivot’ at the moment where the weight is transferred.

We played long open As, and worked on creating that engagement of the bow hair with the string at the start of the note. We focused on listening to the sound we were making, as we need to be able to feel and hear the moment when the bow hair engages with the string, and instantly relax the hand to let the string resonate fully as the bow stroke continues. Once you’ve mastered doing this, the effect on the sound of the start of the note is obvious. Have a listen to this recording – the first notes are bowed without this effect, and the second with:

Being able to play with a crisp start to the note can be really helpful with tidying up issues with timing – if it’s really clear exactly where the note starts (to both the player and the listener!), it will help define the pulse in the tune.

We learnt the slow air Theid Mi Dhachaig Chro Chinn T-Saile (I Will go Home to Kintail)


There’s a lot we can do to prepare ourselves for a performance, or any situation where others might be listening to our playing. It can be useful to have a few tunes that you know you can play really confidently any time, whether or not you’re playing them on your own.

We talked about various things that will affect how confident you feel about playing a tune:

  • Knowing the notes: Being able to sing through the tune is a useful way to work out if you are certain how it should sound. Singing the start of tune in your head before you start to play can help with reminding you exactly how it goes.
  • Timing: tapping your foot when you’re playing tunes with a regular pulse can help establish a tempo before you start playing.
  • Tuning: There are various things you can do to build your confidence with playing in tune.  Make sure and check your fiddle is in tune before you play in front of other people. It’s surprising how quickly a fiddle can drift out of tune, so do this even if you tuned up when you first arrived.
  • Playing with dynamics in the tune: this might be dynamics in a phrase or part of a tune, or dynamics within a single note. Working on the dynamics in your playing will help your music to become more expressive.
  • Being confident about bowing: being certain that you have a way to bow the tune that sits well, and that you can manage even when you’re not thinking about it will also help.
  • Practicing recovering from errors: We tried this out while playing a scale. We did so, focusing on the sound rather than thinking about what our fingers and bows were doing. Then we tried throwing in a random wrong note for the third note in the  scale, and continuing on with the rest of the scale straight afterwards.
  • Practice in the performance space: if you’re planning a performance, and can have a run through in the performance space before the event, this can be really helpful, as the space, and acoustics will be familiar to you before you perform. If you can’t perform in the space itself, can you create something similar? If you’re going to be playing with others, can you practice in the same formation that you will use to perform? It’s also helpful to give some thought to any speaking any of the performers might do in between playing, if this is relevant. We tried this in the workshop, lining up and playing to an imaginary audience. It gave us an idea of the importance of ensuring that everyone in the group can see/hear the other performers (particularly someone who is in charge of setting the tempo for a tune).
Fiddlers playing at a ceilidh
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Developing routines to calm nerves

Building habits that you go through before you play can help you to feel centred.

  • Try taking some slow breaths, breathing from the diaphragm. You might want to try the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.
  • Developing  routine of stretching exercises to do just before perming can help you to stay relaxed

What’s happening?

When we have stage fright, there are several physical changes that happen:

  • Physical changes: sweating, increased pulse rate, rapid shallow breathing from high in the chest, trembling
  • Mental changes: self-doubt, worrying, visualising failure, blank memory
  • Emotional changes: panic, apprehension, fear

It can be helpful to simulate some of these ‘symptoms’, and practice playing through them. Try going for a jog, and then playing your fiddle while you’re still out of breath. Or try setting up a camera and videoing yourself playing, to add a bit of pressure! If you do this, it can also be a useful tool for watching your own responses to stress when you’re playing, so you can develop your own effective strategies to combat it.

Dealing with ‘gremlins’

We’ve all found ourselves in that place where we ‘fall off’ a tune we’re playing. Very commonly this happens when we start paying attention to the wee voice that whispers ‘This isn’t going to work’ ‘It’s too fast’ ‘Here comes that tricky bit that you can’t play’ ‘That sounds DREADFUL!’ and similarly unhelpful things.

Part of the trick to getting beyond this is to understand what’s happening when we perform as opposed to when we practice. Practicing as an adult learner, especially with the fiddle, which is a tricky instrument to play well, often happens with our brains very focused on thinking and analysing what we are doing. To perform well, you need to access a different state, allowing your subconscious to take over. This is sometimes referred to as playing ‘in the zone’. It allows our playing to become much more expressive and fluid.

If you’ve never done this before playing in front of other people, it’s unlikely to just happen. So as you are learning, spending time switching from playing with your thinking head on, to playing ‘in the zone’ is an important part of your practice, if you want to play confidently. The gremlin voices interrupting our playing are a sign that we’ve slipped back into ‘thinking’ mode. If you’re aware of this, and able to switch easily back into playing ‘in the zone’, you can take evasive action when the gremlins strike!

Getting in the ‘zone’

There are many things we can do to start playing ‘in the zone’, including:

  • Practicing while playing something really easy (it can be as simple as a single note!) while focusing solely on listening to the sound you are making.
  • Focusing on interacting with other players while you are playing
  • Find a gentle visual distraction (such as watching TV with the sound turned down) while playing something simple

Find out more about playing ‘in the zone’

Creating manageable steps to your goal

Supposing you’ve decided your goal is to be able to start a tune on your own in a session. It can be a great help to find ways to reduce the level of anxiety about taking this leap into the unknown! So you might arrange to get together with some supportive friends who play, and try starting a tune on your own with them. If this seems too daunting, check before you play if there is a tune that other players on the group definitely know, and will join in with quickly. Once you’ve done this a few times you might find a friendly session where you can try it out. If it still seems very daunting, get familiar with the session, and the people who play there, before you play on your own. Check the etiquette of the session (can anyone start a tune any time? Some sessions are much more structured about who can start tunes, and when).

Are the other players in the session supportive of people who aren’t seasoned session players? If you have any choice about where you go, it makes a huge difference to find one that is open to folk who are starting out with session playing. It can be pretty daunting to stat a tune at a sensible speed, only to find that the regular players take off with it, and speed it up to a point where you’re unable to play!

It can also be helpful to go along to a session with a friend who also plays, especially if you have repertoire in common. If you don’t have anyone to take with you, ask the players near to you if they know the tune you’re about to start, before you play. That way, they are likely to join in to support you.

And it’s also worth paying attention to the abilities of other players, especially the people you end up sitting beside. It can be hard even for a seasoned player to keep a tune going if they have a loud player beside them who is out of tune, out of time, or playing something only loosely related to the tune they’re playing. If you’re making your first foray into starting a tune, pick a time when the players around you are able to play in a way that supports what you’re doing!


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