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!


How to overcome stage fright

 How to overcome stage fright

Tonight we got into an interesting discussion in the class, about how to overcome stage fright. The term stage fright can cover a broad spectrum – from an anxiety about starting your first tune in an informal pub session, to a paralysing fear of performing onstage in front of a paying audience.

Having learnt to play the fiddle as an adult, it’s something  I struggled with in the early days. I had no real experience of ‘performing’ in front of others to draw on (other than one disasterous school play!). So on top of feeling anxious about my ability to play, part of it was about a real lack of familiarity with being in front of other people who were focused on what I was doing. I was lucky to have a lot of opportunities which came my way, which exposed me on a regular basis to playing in front of other people, and gradually got to a point where I now generally enjoy playing in front of an audience.

How to overcome stage fright
Photo ©Ros Gasson

A large part of the perceived problem with playing in front of others is the fear of failure, or of being judged by others. If we allow ourselves to get into a state of fear before performing, it can cause all sorts of physical symptoms in the lead up to playing. The resulting tension in the muscles, sweats, knotting of the stomach, shaking etc are all likely to impact negatively on how we play. So before you know it, a cycle of fear and poor performance can set itself up, leading to a belief that we can’t play in front of other people.

So, what can you do to get over stage fright, to become more comfortable with playing in front of others, and stop this negative cycle in its tracks? Fortunately there’s a lot you can do to start overcoming stage fright, once you understand what is going on. For folk who have already tried playing in public, and found it really daunting, you’ll realise that no matter what happened for your actual performance, the sky didn’t fall in as a result.  Unless you’re planning on becoming a professional musician, the chances are that even if your performance is not at your usual standard of playing, a bout of stage nerves won’t have any great impact on the rest of your life.

The ideal way to start to get more comfortable with playing in front of others is to take it in very small steps. If you’ve never played with others, that might be by starting off with playing in a class situation, where everyone else is also learning. If you’re used to playing in a pub session, you might want to try going to a different pub session where you’ll be playing with different musicians. If you can find occasions where the steps you’re taking are small, you’ll have more chance of playing well, and feeling positive about the experience. The aim is to set up a cycle that reinforces a positive feeling about whatever stage of performing you are at.

Once you’re utterly comfortable with playing at one level, you can consider taking the next step out of your current comfort zone. For any playing situation, if you think you’re going to be out of your usual ‘comfort zone’ find some time before the event to think about how you can minimise the number of things you have to deal with. If for example you’re going to play at an open stage event, you might consider

  • Finding some other confident musicians who you can play with
  • Visiting the venue before the event, so you know what the space is like
  • Arranging somewhere to have a warm up before you perform, so you can relax into playing a little, before you go on stage

So tonight, we spent a fair amount of the class trying out playing in different situations. With each change we made,  we were just a little more exposed in our playing. First we played the Aird Ranters together several times, with some of the class playing it down an octave. Then 3 people became the audience, while the remaining six played through the tune a couple of times for them. We tried this out in different combinations, so that everyone had a chance to be in the audience. We spent a while talking about how it had been to play in a smaller group, and the audiences gave some feedback too. Several people in the audience role noticed that they really enjoyed it when there was some interaction with the players, or when the players were interacting with each other. We also noticed that it didn’t really matter when we were playing in a group that size if we lost the tune for a moment. It was fine to just stop playing, and join in later!

Next we split the class down the middle, into two groups of 4. In each group, 2 people were playing in the high octave, and 2 playing down an octave. One group played the A part of the tune, then the other group took over and played the B part. Then we moved around, so that members of each group were alternating around the circle. The first group played the tune, then the second group played the tune. We had one more go in this arrangement, with the players standing to play, rather than sitting down. After this, people got up into the circle in pairs or threes, and performed for the rest of the class. One thing I noticed was that some folk were positively enjoying this!

We also spent some time tonight looking at the bowing for Iggy and Squiggy, the reel we learnt last week. We were working on developing a ‘default pattern for bowing tunes, with a down bow at the beginning of the bar. For this tune, that means slurring 2 quavers on an up bow, after the crotchets in the A part, and after the triplets in the B part.

We ended the evening by playing through Dorothy and John Livingstone, the Barrowburn Reel, and Spootiskerry together.

Next week, Anne is coming to Edinburgh and is planning on joining the class for the night. I have a suspicion she might think she wants chocolate! 😉

The String Circle fiddle class summer term will start on Tuesday 16th April. Enrolment starts on Monday 1st April.



What happens when we perform?


What happens when we perform to an audience?

When we’re learning to play an instrument, we can be taken by surprise by what happens when we perform in front of others. If you’re not used to performing, how can you learn to overcome the nervous reaction to having people watch you when you’re playing?

Tonight the class was moved into the main auditorium at St Bride’s. We had loads of space, so I thought we could have some fun with it. I thought it would be useful to spend the looking at what happens when we perform, and to investigate what we can do to start to quell the nerves.

Overcoming nerves when playing fiddle in front of an audience

We played through our performance set to warm up, and 3 of us tried out a simple harmony for the Sleeping Tune. We decided that when we play the set at the Big Seat by the Fire, we’ll play the Sleeping Tune twice – once with the harmony and once without.

After this we split into 2 groups. Each group got up and performed the set for the other group. Then the ‘audience’ gave some feedback, and we spent a bit of time talking about how it felt to play together in front of the rest of the group.

There were a lot if interesting things to learn from doing this. Firstly, the sky didn’t fall in! Both groups managed really well with being put into a position of performing in a group that was effectively paying together for the first time. There were feet tapping in the audience, and some good feedback about the interactions between group members when they were playing. People in the groups found it hard to hear everyone, so we talked a bit about how we might stand when we play at the Big Seat, so this isn’t too much of a problem.

After the break we tried playing again, with everyone together. It was much less exposed that way. The group also tried standing in 2 rows, rather than a semi circle, which made it easier to hear each other. When the group came to the repeat of Brenda Stubbert’s Reel, and the rhythm section came in with the accompaniment, the set was swinging along – it was clear that everyone in the class really relaxed into playing at that point, and it had a big impact on the sound we made.

There are some interesting articles online about dealing with stage fright.  Here’s a link to one about mastering performance anxiety and another called ‘What every musician should know about stage fright

I’ve posted a copy of the Sleeping Tune harmony on the website music page.

What happens when we perform to an audience?
Photo ©Ros Gasson