Performance Anxiety At Piano Lessons?

Dear Piano Peeps:

Many of us piano students experience performance anxiety every time we play in front of our teacher. In spite of the teacher’s best intentions to put us at ease, we still feel attached to playing our pieces perfectly. When we make a mistake our stress level rises, the fight or flight instinct kicks in, and we find it difficult to think or even see the page clearly. Though it is probably a bit different for everyone, here are several common reasons why we experience performance anxiety at lessons:

  1. We know that we didn’t practice enough.
  2. We practiced, but we’re afraid that it won’t show.
  3. We are afraid that our piano teacher is bored, disappointed, or judging us.
  4. The teacher’s piano feels and sounds different from our own, which is disorienting.
  5. We want to do well, and being a student makes us feel incompetent.
  6. Making mistakes feels like we are ruining the music.
  7. We are tired, hungry or distracted with personal concerns and are finding it difficult to keep it together for our piano lesson.
  8. We suspect that we just don’t have the talent to play the piano.

Having spent many years as a student as well as a teacher, I have had all of these thoughts, and felt all of the attendant emotions. I’d like to talk about each one, then offer some solutions.

1. What is “enough?” It is an elusive goal that can never be reached. We almost never feel that we have practiced enough, because there is so much to learn, and always room for a great deal of improvement. Take heart in the overwhelming evidence that shows that a little practice each day can move us steadily forward. If you can’t practice 30 minutes a day, try for 10 minutes. The brain learns most efficiently with regular reviewing of musical material, even if your practice sessions are short. If you have been able to play for at least 10 minutes a day, five days per week, you have done enough. If you weren’t able to keep to a 5-day /10-minute regimen, practice before your lesson, then try to find more time in the following week. Put it in your planner; don’t let your head hit your pillow until you’ve shaken hands with your piano each night, for at least an exercise, or to study a short musical passage that you find challenging.

2. You will never play as well in front of your teacher as you played at home. That is a given. Your teacher experienced the same issue when s/he was a student. You can simply explain that you have been playing that passage without a hitch at home, and your teacher will understand that your mistake is temporary. Playing under pressure highlights weaknesses, so your teacher might still want you to go over the mistaken notes a bit at the lesson. Perhaps it was a fingering issue, and s/he can help you find something that works better.

3. If you really believe that your teacher is bored, or is casting negative judgements upon you, you must find another teacher. I think I can speak for most music teachers in saying that we go into this profession because we love experiencing each student’s musical development. We love it all- the beginner who is just opening her/his eyes, ears and heart to the world of making music; the intermediate student who after learning the basics begins to enjoy listening to his/her own playing; and the advanced student who can play more complicated pieces, but still needs direction and feedback. I love hearing my students’ music, mistakes and all. And I get excited when I think, I know just what this student needs to move to the next level on this piece. I love watching a student who is struggling with a passage for weeks come to that place where s/he just GETS IT! I love getting to know my students, noticing their individual beauty, rejoicing in their triumphs and sharing their pain when they face life challenges. Working one-on-one enables me to connect with each student– teaching piano privately is a great job! If, however, your teacher does not seem to enjoy working with you, find another teacher with whom you connect better. Unfortunately some teachers are frustrated musicians. They had never wanted to teach, only to perform, and failing that, they decided to give lessons. You want to find that person for whom teaching is fun and enriching. Another consideration is how you treat your piano teacher. Are you friendly, trusting and receptive to your teacher’s suggestions? Do you give sufficient notice if you need to cancel? Do you take your lessons consistently? Do you try to arrive on time? Both the teacher and student must treat each other with respect and kindness.

4. With time, you become accustomed to your teacher’s piano. It’s a good idea to get used to playing on a wide variety of pianos anyway; increased adaptability is an important skill for pianists who can’t take their instrument with them.

5. Being an adult beginner can be daunting. In her essay for the New York Times Magazine, piano student Melanie Rehak tells the story of her first lesson as an adult student:

“And so it began — an excruciating half-hour of mistakes, confusion and deep, deep frustration. I’ve never been more relieved to exit a room in my life. As I turned to sprint down the stairs and back across the street to safety, the door of the practice room across from mine opened and a small boy came out — a small boy with a stack of complicated sonatas and concertos as thick as a phone book. The humiliation was complete.”

Let me ask you this: What if you actually were content with your playing just as it is? What if we don’t measure ourselves up against prodigies or professional pianists, and we just enjoy our practice? I am taking French lessons, but I know that I will not be fluent before my trip to Morocco and Tunisia this winter; I will never be fluent. I just think it will be a thrill if I can utter an intelligent sentence or two to a waiter or shop keeper here and there. Shed your perfectionism, and just enjoy playing the piano however you show up.

6. Making mistakes is an essential part of learning, in any field. Of course you know that. In his book, The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning To Trust Your Musical Self author William Westney says, “A wrong note can indeed be…’perfect’–beautifully constructive and useful–when we consider it thoughtfully. And doing so can lead to liberation and mastery.” He suggests embracing your mistakes. Laugh at them. Focus on a small section, letting the body figure out how to play it, with time and practice. “Trust the process and don’t try to control it. Enjoy all the sensations.” Can you imagine embracing your mistakes instead of feeling shame about them? Try smiling when you make a mistake in your practice today. Enjoy all of the sounds you make, instead of recoiling at mistakes. Instead of seeing mistakes as evidence that you will never play well, try seeing them as “beautifully constructive and useful” information.

©Andi Berger

7. Students coming to lessons after work might consider bringing a snack and water bottle to refresh and replenish on the way to the lesson. If you are struggling with a challenge in your life, try some very slow, deep breathing before your lesson, letting your exhale take as long as your inhale. You won’t be able to forget about the problem entirely; perhaps it will add emotion to your piece, but let the music take center stage in your mind. Try repeating this affirmation before, and even during your lesson:

While I play my pieces I focus on the music. If my mind wanders, I bring my focus back to the piece

8. In his book Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin shows that very few superstars in the business, sports or music world were born with any discernible innate “talent.” For both Mozart and golf pro Tiger Woods, for example, it was their fathers making sure they were practicing daily, that gave them the skillful edge. Forget about talent, it’s primarily about your practice. Put in the time and you will progress. If you don’t have the time today, make a little time tomorrow. Competence and artistry come with experience. You will not be able to catch up to someone who has been playing all of her life, just as I will never speak French like a native. But enjoy the feel of the keys under your fingers, the challenge of learning to read notes and rhythms, and the thrill of hearing yourself play beautiful music. Let where you are today, be enough.

Remember, music lessons are not a performance, but an exploration of musical concepts and skills. Instead of trying to play from beginning to end, work on small problematic sections. Try to focus on the music and let your judgmental thoughts go. If you’re nervous, don’t try to make it go away, just accept it and shift your focus back to the page. Let go of unrealistic expectations of perfection. Life is too short for us to beat ourselves up for playing imperfectly. Here are some affirmations to help you enjoy the process of learning how to play the piano:

  • I give myself permission to make mistakes
  • I open myself to the process of learning to play the piano without judgements or expectations
  • It is beautiful and courageous to learn something challenging

Do you experience anxiety during your piano lesson? How do you cope? What helps you relax? Please share your experiences with us! With love and music, Gaili

Gaili Schoen

 Author Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50+ to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul

15 Replies to “Performance Anxiety At Piano Lessons?”

  1. I did like what I read. I used to tell the same to my students. I do tell them that it’s a good thing that they feel better about their performance home. It shows that they feel comfortable home. And they have to cope with their feelings when they are not in their intimate home sweet home. Very early in my teaching when I see a student which tense a muscle in his arm or in his back, I’m asking him to relax the specific muscle . I do ask sometime when they know a piece quite well to play it and in addition to paying attention to their playing to wander in their imagination in their body and to feel if there is any place tense. And if they find some place like that to do whatever they can to relax this place. Sometime I practice deep breath to show them what to do to relax. Thanks for the sharing.

    1. Thanks Nicole- that’s a great suggestion for another calming strategy- to relax the muscles in the arms shoulders and back, and to loosen the hands and wrists. Exploring in your body to see if there is a tense place is a brilliant idea. Thank you!

  2. The above covers the musical/emotional gamut.
    A preliminary exercise I have my students use is to play a scale deep in the bass (left hand only) and listen to the tone until it disappears, then move on to the next. Playing one octave ascending or descending is enough.This little exercise helps the student to focus and center. It’s simple but it works.

  3. I have had adult students who get so nervous at lessons that I have them use their smart-phones to record their best performances at home. I listen to them, then we work together on improving their playing during their lesson. It has helped them a lot.
    Thanks for sharing your insights.

    1. I love the idea of recording their best performances at home. I once considered having all my students videotape their performances at home, then having a recital where we just play the videos. Wouldn’t that be fun?! Thanks for your comment!

  4. For me, my musical performance anxiety is an outgrowth of complex trauma (c-PTSD). I was raised by a very loving AND very critical and cruel mother and learned to not trust myself and to fear criticism BEFORE I learned how to talk. I think childhood trauma NEEDS to be added to this list of issues because for some people, myself included, professional therapy is required because the anxiety of musical performance is NOT a result of piano/music in general but is instead the result of complex trauma symptoms.

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