Tactics for Dealing with Competition/Performance Nerves

One thing that struck me when interviewing the 2017 Wilson Center Guitar Festival winners was the common refrain of trying to find a way to cope with competition-induced nerves and performance stress. I sympathize deeply.  It’s something that every musician faces, at some point.

Julia, age ~13-14.
Julia, age ~13-14.

I have a very clear memory of participating eons ago in an initial round for a city-wide, Chicago music competition (see the photo to the left). I was tongue-tied when asked to announce what it was I was going to play. I could barely croak out the titles, “A Brouwer Etude, Recuerdos de la Alhambra and Romanza,” though I felt confident about being able to play them.

There was a reason why I enjoyed playing classical guitar—it was because, at age 14, it made me feel like this:

"Guit-Arya Stark," Game of Tones.
“Guit-Arya Stark,” Game of Tones.

Okay, apart from the fact this still represents my elusive, ideal guitar, where a slim fretboard comes apart from the body and can stow away easily in an overhead flight compartment, do you really think this lady has to justify herself on the field by calling out her moves? I don’t think so.

When those piece titles stuck inside my throat back then from nerves, awkwardness and a heavy dollop of teenaged annoyance, I saw the judges’ facial expressions alter.  They’d lost confidence in me. However, one judge, a guy who sat at the end of the table, smiled.  I’d thought to myself in that instant: I will play for him.

No one else existed.

This created a shift in my mindset.  It no longer was a competition.  In the end, I was very surprised to win first place, mostly because I’d become convinced the winner was going to be a competitor who created an unearthly sound by playing a violin bow against a common handsaw.

Whether it be a competition or generic stage fright, there’s a number of things you can do to alleviate the stress before it can affect your performance. Preparation is both Number One and Number Two. In that order.  Also, with time and age, you will come to know yourself better as a performer and the reasons for why you are playing.

As many of this year’s Wilson Center Guitar Festival competition winners each discovered and pointed out, they managed to face down their nerves by finding the crucial reason for why it is they love playing. They surpassed their fear by placing all their faith into diving headlong toward the joy. There’s great wisdom to found in this tactic.

Of course, this isn’t an easy thing to do if one’s level of preparation is not fully in place. If the preparation isn’t there, it leaves open the door to worrying about a judgmental audience. The truth is, most audiences are not judgmental, even if they happen to be adjucators. They are rooting for you! If they could play, they would, but are happy to settle for the pleasure of listening.  And if they do play, they know very well what it’s like to be in your shoes.


[Don’t go there. Keep pedaling, Danny! The girls just want to hear you play.]

Of course, if you happen to make an error, it can feel as obvious as the orange hues in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, but keep going, without apology. Do not start over. After all, no one is going to hear that scream but you, inside your own head. That is, if you can manage to keep it there. Learn the magician’s trick of diverting attention, even if that attention happens to be your own.

The inevitable can also happen, otherwise known as:   Anything. How can you prepare for the unpredictable? The answer, quite simply, is to expect it. It’s how you carry on with performing that matters. Preparation can help, up to a point. Having a sense of humor can also help, as the late Roland Dyens proved when he encountered the interruption of someone’s wristwatch alarm going off unexpectedly during his performance. 

There was a moment during the Rock & Blues Division finals at the 2017 Wilson Center Guitar Festival when I was shooting photos—and stopped.  I felt a bit anxious when one of the contestants, Ramon Luis Galang, faced a considerable technical malfunction. A stage tech called out grimly from the wings that his backing track accompaniment was not working. Galang suggested that he give it another try because the tape had been working only moments earlier. The tech called out gruffly that it was a no-go. Those in the audience leaned in, out of suspense. To his credit, Galang firmly and coolly held his ground. He waited for the tech to try a couple other options and, when all else failed, he offered to go fetch his CD version of the backing track.

“Oh, I was rattled,” Galang told me later when I asked him about it. “I made several mistakes on the first song. “It’s a good thing my hands didn’t tighten up. I’ve played those songs so many times in public that I have messed them up more times than normal. So I relied on muscle memory, for the most part. All the songs I played in the competition were ones I’ve been playing since I was 9 years old. I learned two new songs for this competition, actually, but my dad told me to stick with the ones I’ve got an 8-year advantage with. I’ll never hear the end of ‘listening to parents,’ from my dad because of that!”

Galang later sent along this helpful video, with a note, “I ran across this the other day and remembered your asking what was going through my head during that backing track mishap.  I also remembered an exercise I used to do when I was about 9-10 years old and afraid of going onstage. I don’t know if it was my dad who told me this or if it was one of my uncles. So I made a video and this post. I said a lot here with the hope it will be helpful to others.”

Galang makes a significant point, which I recommend highly: It is helpful to know your instrument and your music by touch.

Lastly, worth noting, in my exchange with Samuel Hines who placed 2nd in the classical guitar division, I’d mentioned to him one bit of lore that made its way through the New York classical guitar sphere, was the merits of scarfing down a banana backstage before you go onstage to play because the potassium from the banana helps calm the nerves.  In this same vein, carrying a tab of chocolate inside your mouth, like a baseball player’s habit of chewing tobacco, will have the same calming, pleasantly distracting effect as it dissolves and serves to ease any nerves.

Of course, this brings a whole new meaning to the term, “guitar face.”

I offer my congratulations to all of this year’s competition winners, in addition to my thank you for giving me your time to share your wonderful interviews, exchanges and insights.  Your joy of playing the guitar shines through and will undoubtedly inspire others.

To readers: if you have any tips of your own that you would like to share on how to beat competition/performance stress, please send a note!

More about the Wilson Center Guitar Festival…

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