Guitar Performance Anxiety

Hi Steve,

I am an amateur classical guitarist that can’t perform in public. My hands and arms get so tense that I can’t even play easy tunes. I’ve suffered with this for 30 years, and have avoided public performance because of it. Hours of intense practice has not helped.
I played a recital yesterday with disastrous results. I have another recital in about a month. Any special help would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

Dennis

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Dear Dennis:

Thanks for ordering my book.  I, too, was a classical guitar player for many years. Because of the highly technical nature of this style of playing, it is prone to the vagaries of performance anxiety, more so than other styles and acts: comedy for example, or the hum & strum school of guitar.

A few of my guitar playing customers are doctors. Some have suggested a class of heart drugs called beta-blockers. These may be useful to those whose physiological response to performance anxiety is not manageable with practice and mental preparation.  Perhaps you have heard of this therapy which is quite popular among the orchestral players.

I recommend that you buy Kenny Barron’s book, Effortless Mastery.  His approach to developing a relaxed playing style may be just what you are looking for.  But reading about performance is not the same as performing.

My experience is that it takes about six to twelve months of regularly public performance to effect a permanent change in your response to a crowd facing you and awaiting your brilliant act. What this means is that you must–for that time period–endure at least twice a week stage disappointment and unfulfilled expectations for your performance.  Preparation is required, but also execution. Get out there often in spite of the problems.  The Army calls this live fire drills.

Also, try to choose your guitar pieces with an eye to playing what is easy for you.  They may not sound easy to your audience. This was the revelation that allowed me to be happy with my guitar playing: Do what is easy for you. Occasionally add a piece that is a bit more challenging. But just a little. Your goal is to succeed within your capacity rather than over-reaching and being unhappy about your playing. As much as we want to reach the next level, we cannot force it or will ourselves there.  We work ourselves there bit by bit.  Be like Bob in the movie What About Bob… take baby steps.

Good Luck,

Steve Rapson

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Steve is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium. www.soloperformer.com He has several solo guitar CD’s in release.

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3 thoughts on “Guitar Performance Anxiety

  1. I suggest Dennis start signing up for open mics as often as possible (there are tons in the Boston area – don’t know where he is). Even the most elementary classical guitar piece will wow an audience used to 3-chord beginner singer/songwriters, and most OM audiences & performers are very supportive. Plus you only need to play one or two pieces, so it’s like dipping your toe in the ocean compared to a full recital 🙂

  2. Courtney says:

    Steve, I really appreciate your response to Dennis. As a bassist and beginning cellist, I very much relate to his onstage fright-plight. While it deals with the spoken word, the film ‘The King’s Speech’ was a great depiction of performance-related struggle. If music is like flight, no matter how well we handle the plane, it can be very discouraging to feel we are prevented from leaving the runway to do what we know we actually do well. You’ve offered some very helpful ways through this!

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