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Hi all,

I've got a bit of a crisis to deal with. I've just come back from performing a solo piece as part of a formative assessment (doesn't count, but is practice for future assessments). It was in front of a small audience of about 15-20, and for a bit of idea it was the first 3 pages of Blue Caprice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEbK766zaBg). I do find the piece challenging but certainly played it much worse than what my worst practice standard was. Anyway moving on, I can't deal with nerves. I have had this problem for a long time but it was easily under control when it began maybe a year and a half ago, but as I get better (I practice for about 2-3hrs a day on average, sometimes 5-6, have played for 6 years) it seems to get worse. Today I kind of hit my low, because I tried to control the nerves using everything that you are supposed to, the deep breathing, positive thinking, all that kinda stuff. Anyway, I played it so much worse than what I had practiced it as, even my bad practices, and so am kind of stuck as to what I should do. I have had many people tell me it gets easier the longer you play (years), but it doesn't seem to be heading that way, as it is actually getting worse the longer I play. I really want to pursue a career in music, but this is my last ditch attempt at looking for a solution, as I have tried everything and don't know what to do anymore. Another thing that should be noted is that I actually don't build myself up to get nervous, and I don't have an expectation of myself or anything, it just kinda happens without me thinking about anything. And then because of the adrenaline, I get all shaky and short of breath (both things that impact my playing!). Sorry if I have posted this in the wrong place, I couldn't find anywhere else that was appropriate. If you want to know anything else that might give some clarity to help, let me know. If any of you have ANY advice to give, no matter how silly or insignificant you might think it is, please give it if you are alright to, I'm willing to try anything to help deal with this.

Thanks!
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Just another note incase this is important, I played up until timestamp 3:25 in the linked recording for my piece
 

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My confidence is related to two things:

How well prepared am I?
How many times have I played in front of people?

The better prepared, the less likely you'll be hung up on possibly making a mistake. The more times you play in front of people, the less it becomes an issue.
 

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If you only have this problems playing in public, try rehearsing once a week in a kind of public space, like a park/beach/square. This way you'll have people looking at you and hearing and you'll hopefully get accostumed to it. Also, just remember that in the street 80% of the people hearing you don't know enough to know you are playing bad.
 

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When I first showed up at college I'd only been playing saxophone a year. I was easily the worst player on any instrument in the entire department. I practiced endlessly and was most devoted to my private teachers (luckily for me, luminaries in education). Still, I was the red-faced guy for 2-3 years every time I was on stage, or in a class where we played. It's not as if I finally got proficient enough that I wasn't embarrassed anymore, which led to a lot of the nerves symptoms you describe; it's more like it just hit me one day that that was just no way to live, it was making me miserable. And then it stopped.

Very very occasionally, to this day, I'll get the shaky hands, butterflies, difficulty focusing -- or feeling like I need some kind of increased focus, soon as I think that I'm kind of toast -- to me -- I have to be able just go play and be fine with it. I don't know why it happens. Fortunately these days I can go years between episodes. I figure if people think I suck, oh well, I sucked today. Prepare better next time.

I think that contributes to nerves, thinking you have to be perfect and if you're not, you suck. I never tell people how hot a player I am; if they ask, I say "I don't suck". Some folks may disagree with my self-assessment, but that's okay.
 

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I always think of nerves as potential energy. You have to choose if the energy is used in a useful way or a detrimental way.

I used to play in chaos in college: 4 of my saxmates would practice in the same room together, creating pure chaos and noise. It helped us all learn to focus on our own playing. then we would all play mock jury for each other: sitting far away and critiquing. Then we would play outside in public to get used to others hearing us.

For me, if I am able to forget myself and become the music I am playing, things work for the best because the performance is honest. Now I can only do that if I have practiced sufficiently, but as long as you can be honest when you play, imo that's what counts.

edit

Dave Liebman (in the flesh) came to my college as a guest artist and I volunteered to play in front of him so he could work with us. Dave is an intimidating dude both in playing and demeanor. I was terrified as we were counting off, but I took that fear, that bundle of energy, and just went for it and forgot he was there. We had an amazing clinic and I learned more in that 30 minutes than I had learned in any semester before or since. I "forgot" he was there and became the music and it worked out.

Music is supposed to be fun, remember? ;-)
 

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For me, if I am able to forget myself and become the music I am playing, things work for the best because the performance is honest. Now I can only do that if I have practiced sufficiently, but as long as you can be honest when you play, imo that's what counts.
+1. This is very true, imo. You have to take the focus off of picturing yourself playing and being afraid of making mistakes, etc, and focus on simply playing. Take your ego out of the picture. This is much easier said than done, but that's the goal. It helps a lot if you realize you are not doing brain surgery and no one is going to die or be hurt if you make a mistake. So just go for it.

And obviously being as prepared as possible will help a lot.

The bottom line is the more you play in front of an audience, the less nervous you will be. I think a lot of performers (of any kind) deal with a certain amount of nervousness before the performance, but once on stage it usually disappears for those who are prepared and have a fair amount of experience performing, because all of their focus/energy is on the performance.
 

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IMHO kreacher, JohnsonPowerSax, & JL are right on the money. Great advice.

Strangely, my problem is the opposite of the OP's. Performing for every kind of audience -- prisoners, schoolkids, barflies, random pedestrians, refugees, concertgoers, dancers, music festival fans, etcetera -- I've never had a hint of butterflies or anxiety. However, I get very uptight if anybody listens to me practicing.

I know why, too. Trauma; ancient history. I should be over it by now -- decades have passed -- & hallelujah, that is starting to happen. I can practice again! Gee, maybe now my playing will actually improve.
 

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I always think of nerves as potential energy. You have to choose if the energy is used in a useful way or a detrimental way.

I used to play in chaos in college: 4 of my saxmates would practice in the same room together, creating pure chaos and noise. It helped us all learn to focus on our own playing. then we would all play mock jury for each other: sitting far away and critiquing. Then we would play outside in public to get used to others hearing us.

For me, if I am able to forget myself and become the music I am playing, things work for the best because the performance is honest. Now I can only do that if I have practiced sufficiently, but as long as you can be honest when you play, imo that's what counts.

edit

Dave Liebman (in the flesh) came to my college as a guest artist and I volunteered to play in front of him so he could work with us. Dave is an intimidating dude both in playing and demeanor. I was terrified as we were counting off, but I took that fear, that bundle of energy, and just went for it and forgot he was there. We had an amazing clinic and I learned more in that 30 minutes than I had learned in any semester before or since. I "forgot" he was there and became the music and it worked out.

Music is supposed to be fun, remember? ;-)
I do something similar, I just pretend I'm playing in a practice room. I try to block out the fact that others are listening/watching and just go on about it. I find i'm still usually a bit nervous for the first few seconds, but I'm quickly able to settle in and just focus on the music. As others have suggested though repeated exposure might be the best cure. Try finding small groups of people you'd be comfortable playing in front of that will give you positive encouragement such as family or a small group of friends. That might help.

Thanks!
Kristy
 

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Consider your intake of caffeine (found in sodas, teas, chocolate, herbal supplements not to mention coffee), and nicotine, as well as consider the effect of medications. There are herbal teas that may help calm you, some containing Valerian root for example. If severe enough consider working with a professional regarding what might help you get over the hump until the tools that you've tried and that others have suggested above solve it for you.
 

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Consider your intake of caffeine (found in sodas, teas, chocolate, herbal supplements not to mention coffee), and nicotine, as well as consider the effect of medications. There are herbal teas that may help calm you, some containing Valerian root for example. If severe enough consider working with a professional regarding what might help you get over the hump until the tools that you've tried and that others have suggested above solve it for you.
In high school & college I'd get nerves so bad that my leg would shake uncontrollably - not so much performances, but with any kind of on-the-spot audition, test, etc. A lot of the advice didn't seem to apply - I knew I could do it, I loved performing, and I wasn't even all that worried about failure. And then for no good reason my leg would start going & I'd flame out. It got bad enough I got dragged to a mental health clinic who said, basically, my chemistry is just off-kilter. I quit the Diet Coke, cut down on coffee, started eating like I was diabetic (blood sugar crashes make me cranky) & have a just-in-case prescription for when it's really bad. And the unwanted vibrato from my leg went away when it dawned on me that most chairs are uncomfortably too small for me, & I'm way more comfy playing standing up!
 

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Do you do breathing exercises and relaxation techniques in your life at other times, when you are not playing? Meditation, relaxation, and peace are practices that must be cultivated in the same way you practice scales, vocabulary, repertoire, altissimo, etc. You can’t expect to have success with these sort of techniques if you’re not practicing them all the time.
 

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In addition to the helpful advice above, here's a simple fix that can help quite a bit: see your medical doctor and explain the situational anxiety and adrenaline rush and ask for a beta blocker. A small dose of propranolol will do wonders. I had a number of music majors that used it for auditions and major performances. I had no problem prescribing it because it helps and risk of side effects is very small. I'm speaking in past tense because I retired from my day job 3 days ago. Yippee, it's all saxophone now.
 

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A shot of whiskey is another alternative...and some states have other legal options that may or may not help...For better or worse, performers have been self-medicating for centuries to deal with nerves (toothaches, headaches, real and imagined phobias, fears, and insecurities).

While I neither advocate or condemn the above treatments, I believe most things in moderation are worth a try at least once.
 

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IMHO kreacher, JohnsonPowerSax, & JL are right on the money. Great advice.

Strangely, my problem is the opposite of the OP's. Performing for every kind of audience -- prisoners, schoolkids, barflies, random pedestrians, refugees, concertgoers, dancers, music festival fans, etcetera -- I've never had a hint of butterflies or anxiety. However, I get very uptight if anybody listens to me practicing.

I know why, too. Trauma; ancient history. I should be over it by now -- decades have passed -- & hallelujah, that is starting to happen. I can practice again! Gee, maybe now my playing will actually improve.
I totally get this because in practice, you feel vulnerable. Practice is where you work out things you're bad at, make mistakes, do your dirty laundry so to speak. I feel like practice is a sacred time/space where you can be free of judgement.

And it's specifically when people actively listen to practice that bugs me, not if they pass by and hear me. Passing by: no problem. Paying attention? *dies a little inside*
 

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In addition to the helpful advice above, here's a simple fix that can help quite a bit: see your medical doctor and explain the situational anxiety and adrenaline rush and ask for a beta blocker. A small dose of propranolol will do wonders. I had a number of music majors that used it for auditions and major performances. I had no problem prescribing it because it helps and risk of side effects is very small. I'm speaking in past tense because I retired from my day job 3 days ago. Yippee, it's all saxophone now.
Propranolol, exactly what is that? I'd love to hear from you. Phil Barone
 

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Propranolol, exactly what is that? I'd love to hear from you. Phil Barone
Propranolol is a "beta blocker" and it can block your body's response to adrenaline. So a person using propranolol will still feel anxiety, but the drug can help prevent the shaky hands, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, etc, that can result from nervousness. It's sometimes prescribed for people with general anxiety disorders, but is also used by many professional performers, including musicians.
 

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Do you do breathing exercises and relaxation techniques in your life at other times, when you are not playing? Meditation, relaxation, and peace are practices that must be cultivated in the same way you practice scales, vocabulary, repertoire, altissimo, etc. You can’t expect to have success with these sort of techniques if you’re not practicing them all the time.
This is good advice. Back in college I worked with theater a lot; actors taught me to gently close my eyes and practice measured breathing until my eyelids were completely still. It helped me settle down.
 
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