Read Your Checklist

Photo of airline cockpitPerforming is Complex

Performing music is complex!  Even without a professional’s stresses of marketing, running a business, bookings, travel, meals, lodging, and getting your instrument to the hall, there’s plenty to do.  Setup, tuning, warm up exercises, greeting guests and other musicians, and introducing the piece are all important before you play your first note.  Then after your performance, there are other tasks to remember: mingling with the audience, packing everything up, and arranging your next performance.  If it’s a formal recital, there might be refreshments to make and serve; and a program to design, print, and distribute.  When you think about it, this is getting to be as complex as flying an airplane.  And all that complexity leads to stress.  Fortunately, this source of stress can be controlled.   By controlling this stress, you can better focus on your performance and consistently play your best.

Too Complex To Fly

Speaking of aircraft, Boeing introduced a new bomber in 1935.  Other aircraft of the time still had primitive controls systems – flying them was still a matter of “gut feel” and instinct.  The new plane’s technology was far advanced beyond other aircraft of the day, so it could perform missions other pilots could only dream of.  Finally, the test day came and the crowd of dignitaries and military officials gathered to watch an aviation miracle.  The plane took off, climbed, and then crashed.  The investigation found that the pilots had so many gauges and controls to keep track of that they had missed unlocking the elevator.  Consequently, they couldn’t control the plane’s climbing or diving.  The press declared the plane was too complex to fly.  Boeing was given just a few weeks to make the plane flyable or face bankruptcy.

Turning Novices into Experts

After intense meetings, the test pilots came up with a brilliantly simple, flexible, solution that didn’t require redesigning the cockpit: the checklist.  Using checklists, today’s commercial aircraft fly 100,000 flights every day, making them the safest form of transportation we have.  And Boeing’s airplane, the B-17 “Flying Fortress” returned their relatively inexperienced pilots home from over 200,000 combat missions.  The checklists concentrated the test pilots’ lifetimes of thought and experience into an easy-to-use form and turned new pilots into experts.  In a matter of weeks, raw recruits were flying an aircraft that had been deemed “too complex to fly”.

Will a Checklist Help You?

If checklists can work for pilots, astronauts, and wedding planners, they can work for you too.  What’s on a good checklist?  It lists all the tasks that need to be done, but not in detail.  You already know what the tasks are and how to do them.  The list is there to remind you to think about the task and to make sure it gets done.  As you’ve probably already experienced, when you’re in the moment, it’s easy to forget something important – especially when some problem grabs your attention.  For instance, you get caught up in a conversation with a guest that arrives early and forget to check the sound system.  Or while you’re fixing a sound system problem, you forget to pass out the programs.  Or while talking with the host about how well the concert went, you forget to book a return performance.

Developing Your Checklists

It’s so easy to get caught up in problem-solving, that pilots even have a checklist for emergencies.  The first item on the checklist is “Fly the plane!”  Experience has shown that while the pilots are busy trying to figure out why an engine is on fire, they forget to keep the plane flying straight and level.  The checklist doesn’t have to tell them how to fly the plane, but just to remember to do it.  And so it is for you.  Your checklist doesn’t have to tell you how to soak your reed, tune up, or which warm-up exercises to run through.  It just has to tell you to do them and in a reasonable order.

Typically, there are multiple checklists – one for each stage in the process.  For pilots, there are separate checklists for before during, and after the flight.  For a musician, there might be checklists for everyday marketing activities, travelling, the performance, and after the performance.  The goal is to do all your thinking ahead of time, so that when you’re in the moment, you don’t have to do as much thinking.  The checklist tells you what to think about and when.  Then you can be efficient and thorough.  It doesn’t contain instructions on how to do the tasks.  If you need those instructions, write them somewhere else and put a reference to them in your checklist.  For instance, your checklist might have a line item, “Pack equipment (see ‘Equipment List’, page 2)”.  The text in parentheses tells you where to go to make sure you don’t forget to bring your rosin (or violin!) while you search for batteries for your electronic tuner.

Continuous Improvement

Checklists are “living documents”, because you don’t make it all up just once.  Checkslists change over time as your experience grows.  After each stage in the process, and especially after the performance, take some time to go back over the entire sequence.  Did you forget to do something?  Figure out when it should have been done and add it to that checklist.  Was there a near miss, where you almost forgot something?  Add it to the appropriate checklist.  Did someone give you a good idea for what you might do to improve next time?  Add it to your checklist.  As you gain more experience, you’ll find more and more things that did or could have gone wrong, or could go better.  By putting them on your checklist, you’ll learn quickly and efficiently and deliver consistently.

Here are some ideas for the types of checklists a musician might develop:

Practice checklist:

Ÿ Posture exercises

  • Stretching exercises
  • Mind-centering exercises
  • Breathing exercises
  • Specific muscle groups used by your instrument
  •   Legs
  •   Arms
  •   Hands and fingers
  •   Face and throat

Ÿ Technique exercises

  • Scales, arpeggios, chords, etc.
  • Speed (unusually fast or slow)
  • Pitch accuracy
  • Loud/soft
  • Expression
  • Specific techniques needed by repertoire development or maintenance


  • Maintenance of existing repertoire
  • New pieces
  •   Technical analysis
  •   Interpretive analysis
  •   Research of composer, original techniques, and history of interpretation
  •   Practicing new passages slowly
  •   Ramping new passage speed
  •   Difficult passages

Ÿ Planning

  • Analysis of  this practice session
  • Analysis of  strengths and weaknesses
  • Goal-setting for next practice session
  • Creation of a checklist for the next practice session

Creativity Checklist:

Ÿ General:

  • Listen to recordings of _____ (features my instrument)
  • Listen to recordings of _____ (featuring an instrument I don’t play)
  • Listen to recordings of _____ (a different genre than mine)


  • Analyze harmonic progression of _____

Ÿ Hands-on:

  • Transpose _____ to a new key
  • Improvise a new ending to ______
  • Improvise a new harmony for ______
  • Create a new melody

Business Process Checklists (or sub-lists):

Ÿ Everyday marketing activities

  • Ÿ Bookings
  • Ÿ Travelling
  • Ÿ Packing (local, overnight, domestic travel, international travel)
  • Ÿ Set-up at the venue
  • Ÿ Dress rehearsal
  • Ÿ Refreshments
  • Ÿ Programs
  • Ÿ Pre-performance
  • Ÿ Performance
  • Ÿ Post-performance

Read Your Checklist – Reduce Your Stress

Developing good checklists will reduce your stress at performance time.  By giving your processes concentrated thought when you’re thinking clearly, you develop a complete list of tasks needed for success.  When you go through your checklist during each step in the process, you know you’ve done all of those tasks.  Your stress is reduced, because you know you’ve done everything you need to.  And because there won’t be distracting thoughts about whether you’ve forgotten something, you’ll be able to concentrate on your performance.

One final word.  The more stressed you are, the more important it is to follow the checklist exactly, because you’ve already determined the right tasks and the best order.  When the engine is on fire, you need to follow the list exactly so that you see the “Fly the plane!” instruction first.  Just before your performance, read through your list and check off each item.  Presumably, practice sessions are more relaxed, and you’ll probably remember the plan you made at the previous session.  But it’s important to review the checklist at the end of the practice session to make sure you actually did everything on the list, even if it was in a different order.  In time, you will probably memorize sections of it through repetition.  To avoid a false sense of security, review it anyway to make sure you didn’t overlook anything.  When you’re on your next tasks or performing, you don’t want to be distracted by a nagging feeling that you forgot something.  You don’t want to discover that you knew to do something, but didn’t do it.

Ready for Takeoff!

A music performance is the sum of many complex tasks, some of which are done while you’re stressed.  You can reduce that stress by preparing a checklist of tasks that must be done in order to succeed, and then following that checklist.  The checklist is a living document that changes as you discover more factors for success.  By keeping it current and referring to it always, you guarantee your continued success.

Rehearse Realistically

I Blanked

I’ve mentioned that I get practice with public speaking through the Toastmasters program.  One day, I got up to give a speech about ways to reduce stress.  I listened to my nice introduction and walked up to the podium.  Then my mind blanked.  I couldn’t remember what my speech was about.  Even though my introducer had just mentioned my speech title, I couldn’t remember it either.  Everyone waited anxiously to hear what I was going to say.  I was anxious to hear it, too.  After about 20 eternal seconds, it finally came to me.  It also came to me that deep breaths and having realistic expectations wasn’t enough to control my stress.  So, I studied and found out what the next level of preparation was.

Fire Fighters, Commandos, and Musicians

Photo of firefighter walking towards fireFire fighters and commandos have to perform difficult, complex tasks and their lives and the lives of their comrades are at stake.  There’s no doubt that this creates fear and stress.  Somehow, they’re able to prepare themselves to face this stress.  Somehow, they still have enough body and mind control to remember complex instructions and do things that would have the rest of us frozen with fear or running away.  How do they do it?

The answer is that they rehearse as realistically as possible.  Fire fighters practice their skills on and in real fires.  Commandos practice with live fire going overhead – and worse.  Through slowly conditioning themselves with lesser hazards, they bring their ability to handle stress to a high level.  When they go out on a real mission, there aren’t any aspects that they haven’t dealt with before.  Only the particular combinations of circumstances and tasks are new.

As musicians, our lives are not at stake in a literal sense.  However, some performances are important enough that you feel they will change your life, that is, life as you know it may end or a new life can begin.  That’s certainly cause enough for you to feel stressed, so it’s cause enough for you to prepare as the pros do.  It’s reason to rehearse as realistically as possible.


As a musician, it’s realistic to expect distractions.  Some distractions are external and sudden: car horns, cell phones, coughs or dropped items in the audience.  Some are internal and sudden: a muscle twinge, gurgling stomach.  Some are a constant annoyance: staff clearing tables, noisy air systems, your pounding heart.

To prepare, you’ll have to recreate either the distraction (best) or the effect it has on you.  This list is only a start, and you’ll continue to fill it out through brainstorms, your colleagues’ stories and your own experiences.  Then practice your concert repertoire with each of these distractions, first singly, and then in realistic combinations.

For audio effects, simply record them or download sound samples from the Internet.  Create a mix with random sounds at random times.  Set up a loud fan to simulate a ventilation system.  A fire alarm will let you recognize the sound if you ever encounter it, and it would be a good idea to rehearse what you’d tell the audience.  After all, attention will already be on you, making you the unofficial leader.


At your performance, you know not to expect more from yourself than you’ve regularly achieved during practice.  But that simply pushes your expectations of your practice sessions higher.  Also, it’s naïve to think you’re not concerned about the expectations your audience has – or you think they have – about your performance.  In short, it’s realistic to expect to be stressed at your concert, so you’ll need practice in performing under stress.

I find that I feel the stress of expectations when I record myself, either in audio only or video.  I tell myself that I’m going to put this recording on YouTube or make it a part of my portfolio.  Of course, I want that to be my best and I assure you that I’m nervous.  I often find that after a few tries, I’m not ready to post this recording yet.  That’s when I sense I’ve lost my edge, lowered my expectations, and am no longer stressed.  Any more recording in that session is useless and if I continue, may make it harder to create a high stress level in the future, so I quit recording.  Whatever your method, just remember that your goal is to create the same stress in your practice session that you’ll feel at your performance.

A side benefit of a video recording is that you can play it back and hear and see yourself during the difficult portions.  By playing it back fast, slow, and pausing, you may discover why the parts are difficult for you.  Perhaps your posture, hand position, fingering, or other cause will become visible.  And eventually, one of them will be good enough to add to your portfolio.


To fully recreate the stress of performing in front of an audience, you’ll need to perform -in front of an audience.  Don’t start with the worst case, though.  Firefighters start with small, controlled fires before they practice on real houses and other hazardous situations.  Likewise, you’ll do best if you ratchet your stress level up from low to high by mastering each situation along the way.

The least stress is with a small friendly audience.  Note that “friendly” may not mean your friends.  Though your friends want to support you, you may feel the stress of trying extra hard to impress or please them.  You may be able to play in a hotel lobby, in a church or synagogue (not your own), or to acquaintances in your network.  You can expect such an audience to at least be polite, if not friendly.  If you want to do well, but won’t punish yourself for the occasional error, then that’s a good amount of stress to start with.  Play your most confident repertoire, so that you can focus on feeling and handling your stress without the distraction of actually playing the music.

A higher level of stress is an average audience.  Select some people who know you and want you to succeed.  Fill out the audience with their friends and acquaintances.  The hotel lobby, church, or synagogue might still work if you know some of the people there.  Or, invite a few of your friends to the venue.  Start with your most confident pieces, and if they work out well, increase the difficulty with subsequent sessions.  This should some create some stress, because you’ll want to do your best.  By now, your best will be well within your grasp.

When you can handle this stress level, then you’re ready for real concert-like situations.  By now, you know which pieces you can handle even when you’re stressed.  Set up a small recital with friendly, but musically knowledgeable guests.  You can select from family, friends, former professors and schoolmates, and others from your network.  These people will recognize a good or poor performance, so you’ll want to do well for them.  This will create the stress level you want to practice handling.


One other predictable stressor is audience interaction.  Especially if you’re an introvert – and many musicians are – talking to the audience is distracting and sometimes upsetting.  They give you well-meaning, but conflicting advice.  They don’t hear it the way you played it or don’t seem to have listened at all.  At the least, keeping track of all the guest’s names, welcoming, and thanking tends to crowd out thoughts of your performance.

It might be helpful to have someone you deeply trust as a go-between.  This person can explain the purpose of this concert and introduce you.  Your introducer might ask your audience members to fill out a simple review form.  This person can also collect the verbal or written comments from audience members after the concert and distill them down into something useful.  If your go-between discovers that several people did (or didn’t) like your concluding piece, that’s useful information for you.  If it’s discovered that one person thought you played some section too fast and one other thought it was too slow, a meaningful conclusion is elusive.


To prepare for performing under stress, do what other professionals do: practice as realistically as possible.  You’ll want to get more ideas for what that might imply from a variety of sources.  Certainly, it’s realistic to think distractions, expectations, and mingling with the audience will be part of a performance.

To become good at handling those stresses:

  • Ÿ Practice with pre-recorded distracting sounds at random times
  • Ÿ Practice with the stress of doing your best for a recording
  • Ÿ Practice with the stresses of live audiences
  • Ÿ Practice with the stresses of audience interactions

With this ever-increasing comfort level with stress, you’ll be able to perform “under fire” too.  You’ll go out to the stage with the confidence that success is not only achievable, but is already a habit.

Practice Beyond the Need

Speed limit signBreaking the Speed Limit

I was playing as fast as I could, and being an engineer, I figured that was about 8 notes per second.  In fact, since I was so nervous, I was actually playing faster than that.  In a sense, I was breaking my own speed limit, and it was only a matter of measures before I got caught.  My fingers would a miss a note, which would probably cause some other notes to be wrong.  I was on a crash course!  Of course, I applied my earlier lessons in stress control and slowed down so I was back at my speed limit again.  I finished the performance all right, but it was a race against myself to the finish and I still nearly lost.

Safety Factor?

Though backing down to my speed limit solved the immediate crisis, it’s an unwise strategy.  As an engineer, I design things so that they’re stronger than we anticipate it will ever need to be.  We call that a safety factor.  If there is no safety factor, then anything unanticipated moves the design from barely being able to handle it to not being able to handle it.  That’s when bridges fail, shuttles fall from the sky, and you feel like your performance “crashed and burned.”

In my story above, I had prepared for being nervous and to play at a high speed.  What I hadn’t anticipated was that my excitement and self-confidence caused me to play even faster, breaking my speed limit.  There are always things that we can’t anticipate.

Consider aircraft design:  Every component is tested against the specifications enough times to statistically predict its performance is adequate.  Each assembly is similarly tested to make sure the components work together as predicted.  Each system is tested to make sure all the assemblies work.  Finally, the entire aircraft is test-piloted to make sure all the systems work together under ordinary and even emergency maneuvers.   Even with all that testing, designers know that they can’t anticipate everything.  And so, airplanes have a safety factor too.  When the unexpected occurs, the safety factor is there to protect us.

If you’re using 100% of your capacity, then there’s no room for anything to go wrong.  When it does, it will lead what we engineers call “catastrophic failure”, that is, it breaks.  You probably won’t break physically, but the flow of your music might, and to me, it always feels like my performance was a catastrophe.  To prepare for the unforseen, plan to perform at only 80% – 90% of your capacity.

What Is Your Capacity?

There are several sets of musical variables.  The ones that are based on sound itself, pitch, timbre, loudness, and time can be measured electronically.  For these, it would be interesting to determine the boundaries of your capacity.  How high a pitch can you play or sing softly?  What’s the loudest you can perform a passage?  If you go faster, does the loudness decrease?  If you play faster, does the accuracy of the pitch or the quality of the tone change?

Beyond the physics of music, there’s the emotional language it conveys.  This can probably be measured only by the emotional response of others.  Even so, statistical surveys can tell us rather precisely what people are feeling.  In a less precise way, interviews with the audience can tell us which passages connected well and which ones were left wanting.  Even with these crude measuring sticks, we can estimate our capacity for the language of music.  Does your range of musical interpretation convey only basic emotions, or can you convey blends, shifts, and subtleties?

The Need

The music needs expression.  The composer – and tradition – gives us clues for how to express the piece.  Objective measures, like beats per minute, are strong clues.  Words, such as “Minuet” or “lively” in the title or body of the piece are weaker clues.  Regardless, the performer interprets the piece and forms a set of musical requirements.  The Wikipedia article on “Aspect of Music” gives several lists of factors to consider in the interpretation, including: pitch, duration, intensity (loudness) and timbre.  To this I would add the relationships and transitions between notes.  Sliding into a note conveys a very different feeling than precisely attacking it.

To achieve these musical requirements, the performer develops a set of technical requirements: how hard a key must be struck, how quickly it is attacked and released, or how fast to move in creating vibrato.  Given these requirements, how much of your capacity are you using to meet them?  It may be that we can never have enough technique to explore the full range of human emotion.  However, it’s important for your performance success to only use the portion you can sustain every time.  To put it differently, don’t plan to perform perfectly or your best ever.  Instead, plan to perform as well as you consistently perform.  If that means restraining your emotion some, use that as a motivation to improve your technique.  Do you think your audience would prefer a restrained performance that is played smoothly, or one in which the performer misses a lot of notes and plays unevenly?

It’s also possible to find a variation on the emotion that fits within your capacity.  For instance, high energy is obviously expressed through speed, but it can be more subtly expressed in a slower, “stately” manner.  It can also be expressed through loudness, but sometimes a whisper speaks louder than a shout.  To get a sense of what variations are authentic, ask yourself, “What mood or feeling is this passage intended to portray?”  When you have a few descriptive words of your own, look them up in a thesaurus to find synonyms.  One of these words may describe an emotion that requires less technique to achieve.  It may even convey an insightful interpretation.

Practicing Beyond the Need

Practically speaking, what does practicing beyond the need look like?  Consider practicing with physical impediments.  Perhaps you can attach weights to your fingers or empty some of your air into a balloon before sounding your instrument or singing.  If you can be successful in these circumstances, then the real circumstances will seem easy.  You will have created a safety factor.

Since speed is a factor, try a pace that is faster than you expect to perform at.  Also, try it slower, since speed sometimes covers irregularities in rhythm and fingering.  Try combinations, like rushed, then slow, or slow and then rushed.  Though you might never perform this way, it stretches your musical sense, so that if you need some part of this range, it’s ready.

Pitch is another musical variable and depending on the style, you may need to hit it exactly or only be approximate.  To be sure you’re ready for any of these requirements, you can practice transposing higher and lower.  For instruments whose pitch you control, you can also practice sliding into and doing trills around the proper pitch.  This will give you the ability to ornament notes.  It may also help you get the exact pitch, because you’ll be focusing on it instead of just passing through it too quickly to really hear.

To practice a wider emotional range than you’ll need, you’ll probably have to throw tradition aside.  Can you play the piece in a “schmaltzy”, romantic, or crooning fashion?  Can you make it robotic, stately, or plaintive?  Can you turn it into a march or a dance?  Can you play it in a major or minor key?  Though you’re probably never perform it this way, your capability with these extremes will make the subtler needs of the piece easy.

In the world of classical organ music, the famous piece “Litanies”, by Jehan Alain was composed on a train.  It’s driving rhythm is an important part of the piece’s performance (Litanies).  Developing the ability to play it “robotically” – beyond musical needs of “Litanies” – will make it easier to interpret the piece authentically.  It may also lead to insights for new interpretations.


Avoid playing at the edge of your capabilities, where a sudden distraction or a missed page turn will cause a cascade of failures until your performance falls apart.  Instead, play with a technical safety factor, so you can handle the problems you didn’t expect.  To keep your music authentic, yet within your capabilities, consider different interpretations.  Finally, work continuously to improve your emotional and technical range so that you can fully express whatever is on the page.

Controlling Stress during Performance

Controlling Stress during Performance

The Physiology of Fear

To better understand how to control stress, it helps to first understand what it is.  Stress is a reaction to fear.  Fear is a natural occurrence and helps us survive.  When we perceive situations where we might be harmed, our brains and bodies react to better cope with it.  There are several mechanisms at work, and in two time frames.  The immediate response acts first while the longer-term response thinks about it.  For instance, if you’re startled, you may jump back.  As you’re jumping back, you may realize that it was just a shadow.  Your first reaction is processed quickly and unconsciously.  If there’s real danger, you need to start running now.  You can determine what you’re running from later.  On the other hand, if you continuously run from shadows, you won’t have the energy to run from real dangers.  That’s why it’s important that we have both immediate and more deliberate reactions.  Realize, though, that the first reaction is beyond your control: your body will react with fear to perceived potential harm.

The immediate response starts two mechanisms: the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) system.  The ANS fires off nerve impulses in a fraction of second that control heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, and other body functions.  These prepare your body for action, such as fighting or running away.  The HPA system secretes hormones that travel through the bloodstream over the next several seconds.  These hormones, such as epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), give you extra energy so that your muscles can work harder.  The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) controls body functions as the fear response progresses, such as perspiration rate and constriction of some blood vessels.

We can recognize many of these physical changes as symptoms of fear.  For instance, constricting some blood vessels makes more blood available for your muscles, but it robs blood from your brain, causing you to feel light-headed or unable to think clearly.  Perspiring helps you dissipate the heat generated by your muscles during fighting or running, but it also makes your hands feel clammy and your palms sweaty.  Some other common reactions are:

  • Up to 300% more blood flow to muscles
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased blood sugars and fats
  • Increased rate of breathing, changing from deep breathing with the diaphragm to shallow breathing in the chest
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Slower digestion
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sharper hearing
  • Increased perspiration
  • Ÿ Dry mouth
  • Ÿ Tunnel vision
  • Ÿ Distorted sense of time

While these rapid actions are underway, the brain is also processing the information more deliberately.  It compares the triggering sound or sight to memories of similar sounds and sights.  It will search other areas of the brain to determine if you’ve ever heard of or read about this situation.  If it thinks that this is the same, or a sufficiently similar situation, then it lets the body continue with the reactions started earlier.  If it doesn’t think so – a false alarm – then the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) restores normal body functions.

Managing the Symptoms of Fear

In ancient times, these bodily reactions to perceived dangers helped us survive.  Few of us will face off to a lion nowadays, but that’s not how our brains “see” it.  Regardless of a threat’s source, it is processed by the same mechanisms.  That is, you react in the same ways, whether you’re about to be eaten, face banishment by your tribe, or think you might not live up to your expectations during a concert.  The loss of physical life, social support, or self image is all causes for the symptoms listed above.

In coming blogs, I’ll focus on preparing for a stressful situation.  For now, let’s assume that you’re in that situation.  What can you do?


Once I was playing postlude on the pipe organ at church.  In case you’re not familiar with this instrument, it’s like a piano, in that there are keyboards for your hands.  In addition, there’s a keyboard played by the feet.  As I was playing along, I thought everything was going just fine, until I reached with my left hand for a low note.  When I looked at my hand’s destination, I glimpsed my left leg.  It was shaking violently, moving up and down by over an inch several times a second.  Of course, if it accidentally hit one of those pedal board keys, no longer would everything be going just fine.  I suddenly became aware that I was stressed.  The symptom – the shaking leg – told me that my muscles were overly tense.  I now know that my HPA system was at least as much in control of me as I was.

As I discovered, the first step is controlling fear is awareness: becoming aware that you’re feeling the physical symptoms of stress.  The easiest ones to notice are your breathing, muscle tension, perspiration, and upset stomach.  But if you notice any unusual sensations or perceptions during performance, you can check them against lists on reputable Internet sites.  You’re also welcome to share them in your blog comments to see if others experience them and how they might be handled.  Most importantly, consult a physician if your symptoms repeat or persist.  Chronic or repeated stresses leave all those hormones and chemicals circulating through your body all the time, which can lead to severe side effects.

To practice awareness, pay attention to your breathing and muscle tension at various times: sitting relaxed, preparing to fall asleep, before and during music practice, and before and during a music performance.  When I was first trying to increase my awareness, I set a gentle alarm to go off every hour and then noticed what states my mind and body were in.


Now that you’ve become aware that you’re reacting to fear and feel stressed, a good next step is to control your breathing.  The body of science and the experience of generations of spiritual practitioners agree that there is a strong connection between breathing and your state of consciousness.  You may know from experience that excitement or stress causes you to breathe more rapidly than when you’re calm.  You may not know that the reverse is also true: if you slow your breathing, it calms you down.  That’s why people who are hyperventilating are given a small bag to fill with air.  Just 6 to 12 slow, natural breaths control the hyperventilation and start to calm the mind.  To practice calm breathing:

  • Stand or lie on the floor.
  • Put one hand on your stomach below your ribs and the other on your chest.
  • Breathe in through your nose deeply, so that the air pushes your stomach out while your chest remains still.
  • Exhale through pursed lips, and use the hand on your stomach to help push the air out slowly.
  • Repeat 3 to 10 times, breathing in and out at a reduced pace.


In addition to calming yourself with slower breathing, it helps to relax your muscles.  Relaxing has several important side effects for musicians.  First, you will be able to move more fluidly and rapidly.  Playing music with muscles in tension with each other is like driving a car with one foot pressing hard on the gas pedal while the other foot is pressing hard on the brake.  Even if you make it to your destination, you’ll be exhausted.  Relaxed muscles only have to operate your instrument – they don’t have to overcome the other muscles as well.  A second side effect is that the relaxed muscles will allow more blood to flow to other parts of your body.  Your brain will finally receive enough nutrients to think, your blood pressure will go down, and your heart won’t have to pound to force blood through constricted vessels.

It’s important to realize that our muscles are arranged in opposing groups: one group bends the joint and the other straightens it.  A portion of each muscle’s fibers is always in action.  This prevents your body from flopping around like overcooked spaghetti, while still giving the other muscle fibers a chance to rest.  This is called muscle tone, and is natural for your body when at rest.  As a general guideline, if you can’t feel the muscles at all, it’s because they are relaxed and in balance.

To practice awareness and relaxation of muscle tension:

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Lift your heel while keeping your toes on the floor.
  • Think about your calf muscle (triceps surae) in the back of your leg and notice how tense it feels.  You may wish to grasp the calf muscle with your hand to feel the change in tension.
  • Return your foot to the flat position and lift your toes while keeping your heel on the floor.
  • Think about the muscle in your shin (tibialis anterior) and notice how tense it feels.  Again, you may wish to grasp this muscle to feel the change in tension.
  • Pull both muscles tight.  Notice how both muscles feel when they are working harder than the relaxed “muscle tone” state.  If you ever feel this when performing, your muscles are tensed and need to be relaxed.
  • Lift your foot from the floor so it can dangle freely.  This will be easier if you sit in a taller chair.
  • Rock your foot slowly toward heel and toe, noticing how much tension is in each muscle.
  • Slowly reduce the movement until you find the natural position of rest, and continue to relax all the muscles until you can’t feel them.  This is the state of relaxation that you want to feel in all the joints in your body.

Ÿ You can do this for each joint in your body, practice extending, retracting, tension, and relaxing the muscle groups that operate it.  But some will be more important to your musical performance than others, so start with them.

This is also a good exercise to practice before you sleep.  While lying down, work from your toes up, noticing which muscles are tense.  In each case, move slightly to find a position that doesn’t require muscular tension to keep you there.  When you get to your neck, this will keep you from waking suddenly.  If your neck is tensed to hold your head in position, your head will move slightly when sleep causes your neck muscles to relax.  This causes a falling sensation and makes you wake up suddenly again.

Slow Down

Another thing you can do during your performance is slow down, that is, if you’re playing solo.  Your slowing may be imperceptible.  Suppose that you’ve practiced a piece at 100 beats per minute.  During performance, you’re so excited that you start playing it at 105 or 110 beats per minute.  You’re a nervous wreck!  Will anyone notice if you gradually slow it down to 100 again?  Quite possibly not.  If you record your practice sessions and performances and listen to them, you might be surprised by how unnoticeable it is.  Your audience might appreciate that you slowed it down to the “normal” pace.  Here’s another way to think of it: it’s your interpretation!  If you play it fast, slow, or as the composer directed, it’s still your interpretation.  The audience doesn’t know what interpretation you intended, so don’t tell them with your facial expressions, body language, or comments.

Slowing down made a big difference when my leg was shaking.  I noticed that I’d be more relaxed if I slowed down.  But even I didn’t notice how much I slowed down.  Instead, I simply approached the next section of the piece with a different mindset.  I had been playing the piece with an “energetic” interpretation, which made me feel overextended and tense.  After the next cadence, I started playing the piece with a “stately” interpretation.  It still had energy, but as my mind relaxed, so did my muscles and my pace.  For instance, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is usually played at a rather frantic pace.  But could the bumblebee also be moving from flower to flower in a stately, thoughtful, graceful, waltzing, or other, slower manner?  I suggest that some of your audience will dislike your interpretation, and others will enjoy it, hearing the piece as if it were the first time.  For certain, they’ll appreciate it more if you slow down and play all the notes in time than if you go so fast that you miss notes and they fall out of rhythm.

To practice slowing down:

  • Record yourself as you play the piece with different interpretations.
  • Listen to the recording.
  • Can you notice a difference in speed?
  • Does the extra clarity make the reduction worthwhile?
  • What does playback with a metronome reveal?
  • How much can you slow down, and over what span of time, can you achieve without making a discernable difference?


One final thing you can do to deal with stress while you are performing is to move around.  Under stress, your body is pumping chemicals into your bloodstream to help you act.  If you don’t act, they’re still there, building up, itching for something to do.  In my case, it felt like they were all concentrated in my leg, and it moved around without my will or knowledge.  To avoid that, burn up those sugars and fats by moving around!  Tap your foot or sway back and forth.  Any motion that creates large muscle movement and appears natural to the audience is a candidate for this technique.  How to practice this is obvious – you just need spend some time at it.


If you find that your performance – or your leg – is shaky, you can employ these techniques even while you’re on stage:

  • Be aware of your mental, emotional, and physical state
  • Breathe slowly and deeply from your diaphragm
  • Relax your muscles
  • Slow down if you can
  • Move around

Then you’ll be able to perform the best you can under the circumstances.

In future blogs, I’ll discuss how to change “you”, “the best you can”, “performing” and “the circumstances”.

Fast Track Your Stress Reduction

Stress Isn’t Unique

The stress of performing – getting it right, right now – isn’t unique to musicians.  Many fields of achievement create performance stress.  Track athletes get one try for the trophy, and every footstep has to fall into the right place with the right rhythm.  An ambulance team has minutes to arrive, and maybe only seconds to apply emergency treatment to bring a patient back from the brink.  Commandos have limited time for the mission and anything that goes wrong has to be improvised under threat of death.

All kinds of performance stress have the same physiology.  The same regions of your brain and the same glands are activated whether your stress is real or imaginary.  Your body gears up to freeze in place, flee, or fight regardless of the cause.  The good news is that we can overcome those stresses with practice.  That’s why firefighters practice with real fires and commandos practice with live ammunition.  The stresses still exist, but they harness the extra energy to heighten their senses, achieve greater focus, and perform their best instead of their worst.  There’s even better news: there’s a way to fast-track this practice.  Since all performance stresses work on our bodies and brains the same way, they are equivalent.  That is, learning to cope with one set of stresses makes it easier to cope with a different set of stresses.  Handling stress is a transferable skill.

The Fast Track: Public Speaking

Public speaking is one way to fast-track your stress reduction.  As a speaker, you experience many of the same stresses you do as a musician:

  • Ÿ Standing on the stage alone, with every eye fixed on you
  • Ÿ Delivering content from memory while also managing technical details, thoughts, feelings, your body, voice,  and anxiety
  • Ÿ Only one chance at each moment.  A wrong word, a pause that is too long or too short, or any other flaw cannot be undone.
  • Ÿ Accepting applause and meeting the audience
  • Ÿ Opportunity to interpret or improvise on a theme

However, preparation time for a speech is hours or days, instead of weeks or months.  This means that for the same amount of preparation time, you can get more practice handling stress.  Just think: by walking to the podium and asking the meeting to come to order you get the same benefit as you would by practicing for days, setting up a recital, and performing your piece – in a fraction of the time.

Create Stress Controlling Habits

In India, people wear clothing dyed in brilliant colors.  Yet until recently, these colors were all made with vegetable dyes that fade in the sun.  So, how could the colors remain brilliant?  The method is to dye the fabric in the color and leave it in the sun.  Most of the color fades, but some remains.  The fabric is then dyed again, left in the sun, with even more color remaining.  After multiple treatments, the remaining colors cannot fade – they are brilliant and permanent.

Likewise, these briefer experiences with stress, when repeated, help you develop habits for controlling stress.  They help you make the most out of the longer speech experiences, when you have to control stress for a longer period of time.  And they’ll help you prepare for your musical performances and the stresses they cause.  Of course, you can get the same experiences by jumping out of an airplane (don’t’ forget the parachute!), athletic competition, or any other situation that creates the same stress of having one chance to get it right.

Everyone Needs Communication Skills

But public speaking has one more benefit: it’s practical!  Your music performance career will be helped along with these public speaking and communication skills:

  • Ÿ Announcing your music
  • Ÿ Written and oral program notes
  • Ÿ Lecturing
  • Ÿ Directions to the audience in an emergency
  •  Teaching
  • Ÿ Writing letters and emails
  • Ÿ Blogging
  • Ÿ Advertising and web site text

Unless you’re going to parachute or high-jump onto the stage, the public speaking approach will be far more useful.

This Fast Track Works

Does this work?  I can say from my experience that it does.  When I gave my first speech at my Toastmasters club I was quite nervous.  My hands were shaking, my voice was shaking, and my memory of what I was going to say next was shaky.  As I gave more speeches, I learned how to control the fear by proper breathing, moving around to burn up the stress-caused hormones, and many other methods.  I’ve discovered that these techniques work when I perform music, too.  Proper breathing, moving around, and those same other methods control my nervousness on the organ bench.  Unlike my first day on the job, my hands and feet no longer shake, and there’s no question when the introduction has ended and it’s time for the choir to sing.

So don’t die in front of your audience.  Instead, dye yourself with habits that don’t fade under stress.  Will you join a Toastmasters club, or find some other way to fast-track your stress reduction?  We’d all love to hear what works for you.

Dennis Olsen

P.S.:  If you’d like to learn more about Toastmasters, visit  To find a club near you (in over 100 countries) click on “Find a Club” in the upper left corner.