Pianists, no matter what level they are at, don’t like to talk about performance anxiety as there is a misconception that it makes them appear weak. However, I believe that once you understand what that anxiety means, or rather – what it doesn’t mean about you or your ability to play piano, then the opposite is true. By gaining perspective, you can gain control, rather than let it continue to ruin your performances.
Firstly, I want to let you know that you’re not alone. As a professionally-trained musician, cognitive hypnotherapist and performance coach, people sometimes assume I’ve never experienced nerves myself, but I have been crippled by them on many occasions, both on and off the stage. This was until I sought the help of a cognitive hypnotherapist, which not only transformed my whole experience of performing, but sent my life in an entirely new direction, and led me on a mission to help other pianists and performing artists to deal with their own issues with performance anxiety. It can be liberating to realise that fear and anxiety are not just something you have to live with, and that no matter what your circumstances, personality, past history or anything else; you have the potential to fall out of fear and into flow.
I was born at 26 weeks weighing just a little over 2 pounds, but I had a fighting spirit. The doctors gave me a 50% chance of survival. So my determination and passion for life can’t have been much of a shock to my parents when they presented me with a tiny Casio keyboard for my 7th birthday and I threw myself into teaching myself! My parents weren’t musicians, although mum might well have been under different life circumstances. I remember picking out dad’s vinyl of Beethoven Pathetique and Appassionata sonatas and listening to them over and over, mesmerised by the sound of the piano and the drama of Beethoven’s writing. I had no knowledge of musical notation and my parents couldn’t afford piano lessons so I began teaching myself. I dreamed so much about having a real piano and when I did get close to one, the sound, touch and grandeur of it was heavenly.
When I was 10, subsidised double bass lessons were offered at school and I jumped at the opportunity. I will never forget the feeling of playing with my first orchestra, aged 12. We played the Schubert Rosamunde Overture, and the feeling of playing my first few notes was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I wanted more.
Aged 14, I finally started having official piano lessons. I hadn’t ever stopped teaching myself and by this point, I was bashing my way through the very first Beethoven sonatas I had heard as a child. It felt strange being taught formally, learning scales, fingering and technique. I felt a bit like an imposter, as though I was being found out for everything I was doing wrong. Needless to say, I got my grade 8 and then my lessons stopped when I left school.
I went to music college on the double bass but I was devastated to be told I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to do piano as a second instrument. I yearned to have piano lessons again, and I used to attend the piano recitals of my colleagues and dream about playing the pieces they were playing.
My freelance career began on the double bass and all of a sudden I was acutely aware of my competition. Playing got serious as I had to compete to make my living. I was told in auditions that my instrument was below par and it made me feel incredibly self-conscious. The more I had to push myself out there, the more I compared myself to others and began to believe I wasn’t good enough. I dreaded auditions and soon developed a big problem with nerves. Even outside auditions I would be on high alert, wondering what my colleagues thought not just of my playing, but my personality too. I felt like a mis-fit. I was so worried about being good enough that I became withdrawn and relied so much on the validation of others.
I was desperate for things to change, so I sought help from a Cognitive Hypnotherapist. I felt I needed something powerful to get to the root of my issues and move me forwards, but I had no idea whatsoever of the level of change which was about to open up before my eyes, in all aspects of my life. We initially worked on my confidence and shattered my limiting belief that I wasn’t good enough as a person. This began to open up a whole new world. I told my therapist that I would love to fulfil my dream of performing piano in public, even though at this point I was mortified to play even in front of my boyfriend.
The cognitive hypnotherapy sessions sparked the confidence and courage within me to approach a highly esteemed piano teacher. I can remember how nervous I was, but also the sheer excitement at the possibility of having lessons again. To the first lesson I took along a Schubert Impromptu in G flat major. I loved the piece but I winged my way through it, terrified at what she would think. To my surprise, she was incredibly complementary and suggested that I audition for the advanced piano class at Citylit. The idea of an audition had become such a situation of dread for me, with all my memories of failed auditions on the bass. The last audition had been for the BBC Concert Orchestra, and I had completely messed up. I left in floods of tears and completely devastated. However, with the help of my hypnotherapist, somehow I knew this time on the piano it would be different.
The audition was a huge triumph for me. I performed the Schubert, followed by the Khactaturian Toccata from memory. I’d never even believed I could play anything from memory before, let alone in an audition situation! I had never felt connected enough and was always too much in my head, but being more in tune with my passion than my fear meant I was free to simply flow. I got in!
Despite this successful audition, I was still terrified in my first class, now I had to live up to the standard I had set myself. On the first lesson, my hands were trembling. I felt so out of control and so tense I kept missing all the notes. I made so many mistakes and I just couldn’t feel free. Once again I was worried about being judged and discovered as an imposter. I didn’t feel like a pianist, I’d barely had any lessons my whole life. In fact, I had barely any experience of a real piano, let alone a Steinway grand and yet here I was, in an advanced class.
I didn’t give up though, I continued to work with my cognitive hypnotherapist. Our work was so powerful that it gave me the courage to put myself forward for a public recital in Central London, my first ever public performance as a solo pianist! I finished the programme with one of my pieces from memory, the last movement of Ravel’s Sonatine. It felt so incredibly liberating and I felt at home on stage with just me and the piano, doing what I love. For the first time in my life, I felt like a pianist. A lady in the audience commented afterwards, “you don’t just play the piano, you live piano.” That’s when I realised I was living my passion.
Two years into this new journey on piano, I gained my LTCL diploma in piano performance which blew all my limiting beliefs out the window. Now l perform regularly both in public recitals and more informal settings. I have gone from shaking like a leaf to flying like a bird, and I continue to surpass my expectations of what I think is possible for me. Recently I took on two technically fiendish works I would never have believed I could learn, let alone memorise: the Carl Vine Sonata first movement, and the famous Rachmaninoff Etude Tableaux in E flat minor. I performed both pieces in public on separate occasions entirely from memory, and in the most elevated state of flow I had ever experienced.
Practice Never Makes Perfect
As a pianist, I will never deter you from practising, but the truth is that if you are worrying about things despite being well prepared, then more practice will not alleviate your worry. You are up in your head and disconnected from your natural flow. In a pressured environment like a performance, this can bring about an acute stress response. The sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and hormone cortisol is released, inhibiting your brain from functioning properly and putting you in survival mode. You will know what it feels like because you might feel fuzzy and out of control, and just want to run off stage.
The good news is that this isn’t a weakness, it’s normal, and you are human to feel this way. Understanding this, and being kind to yourself is the first step towards change. The more you understand about how the mind works in these situations the more you can let go of trying to control it.
You Are Good Enough
This plaguing sense of not being good enough, of being an imposter, or of not being worthy can haunt every one of us at some point. As a performer, you may be especially prone because it can feel as though you are constantly being judged. The risk of humiliation can be paralysing and it can stop you from taking opportunities to play, or even stop you from performing at all. It can also impact on your life off the stage as this fear of judgement can bleed into your career and life outside piano and your relationships, preventing you from being connected to your true self and living your dream life.
Most of these beliefs are just that, beliefs. They can come from childhood, school, old relationships and past experiences and are often buried in your subconscious. They can create patterns of behaviour which can be difficult to break without professional help. Cognitive hypnotherapy helped me get past this by deprogramming these old unhelpful patterns and allowing me to create new ones. In essence, hypnosis actually breaks the spell that you are already under and helps you to feel more in control of your experience, and able to recognise just that right level of adrenaline for you to perform at your very best. This, combined with an understanding of your innate abilities and the resources you already have within you, is the key to thriving both on and off stage.
You Don’t Have to Relive Bad Performances
A bad performance can stay with you. It can haunt you every time you step back out there, making you tense and expectant of more negative outcomes. Although hypnotherapy and coaching works incredibly well to break these cycles, you actually have the power to start that rewiring process yourself now. Teach yourself to expect the best, most beautifully connected performances by visualising exactly what you want to happen when you’re in flow. Start to question those old beliefs and see them for what they are, just beliefs. You have the power to create new beliefs which serve you better. Start to understand that a thought is just a thought, and it’s not necessarily true.
What Can You Hope For?
You can hope to go from dreaming to living, playing to performing, and testing to mastering. Like me, you could go from Casio keyboard to Steinway grand piano, from being afraid to play in front of family to performing a full public recital, from audition fear to audition flow, and from tension to ease.
It’s not uncommon to think that this sort of thing only works for other people or that your situation is somehow different. The reality is that we are all human, and just like everyone else your subconscious has created limiting patterns over time which affect your behaviour, and impact your life and performances. The way you feel right now doesn’t have to define you. You have more control than you realise, and your dreams are just within touching distance.