As part of this short series on tension I would like to explore how our mental state affects our performance, and suggest ways we can improve what is going on in our own head if our self-talk is less than positive.

It is possible to play with a certain amount of tension but it’s like running into the wind. Trust, a healthy mindset and thorough preparation turn the current of wind from in front to behind you – pushing you forwards and not backwards. Adrenaline can enhance your performance if you know how to turn fear into excitement.

Anyone who has ever performed will have experienced loss of control. It is deeply unsettling to practise to a point where we can watch our fingers do the job beautifully only to have these same highly-trained digits sabotage us in performance. What felt comfortable, natural and reliable in our practice room suddenly feels unfamiliar and fickle in the presence of someone else.

We know the piece backwards and can play it in our sleep, and yet fear of forgetting or losing control when onstage might be enough to cause us to panic. And the crazy thing is not knowing when it’s going to happen. We might be absolutely fine performing to hundreds of people in a large concert hall, and yet our fingers turn to jelly when a friend’s aunt (who knows nothing about music) asks us to play  a little something for her in her living room.

It might surprise you to learn that many of the world’s top performers in all fields of artistic endeavour have struggled with stage fright – Vladimir Horowitz stopped performing several times during his career (often for years at a time) because of nerves. When we watch artists of this calibre walking serenely onto the stage and take their bow while beaming at the audience, we forget that this is part of their act. They look calm and in control, but they might be suffering inside.


The Critical Inner Voice

This voice is the part of us that hinders us, turns us against ourselves and affects our accomplishments. It can come from parents, teachers and peers who may have spoken negatively to us many years before – we might have bought into this on some level without realising. Comments such as the following can become internalised as beliefs – and then as self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can’t really play fast.


You’re not cut out to be a performer.


You haven’t done enough serious practice so you’re bound to mess up.


Don’t play Mozart in this house unless you can play it perfectly!


There are no other piano teachers able to give you what I can give you – you desperately need my help.

Mental Tension

As far as I’m concerned, the single most important factor in performance is thorough and painstaking preparation. Without this, we perform on a wing and a prayer – it might work, but then again the consequences of it going wrong may be dire. There are times we might be asked to perform at very short notice but if we know ourselves very well and we have enough experience this is more of a calculated risk.

Let’s say we are thoroughly prepared, we walk onstage and calmly launch into our programme. All is going fine, but about ten minutes into the first piece something upsets our equilibrium – suddenly a doubt enters our mind seemingly from nowhere.

  • Yikes! What’s the next note?
  • I never noticed my LH doing that before!
  • All this coughing from the audience is disturbing my concentration.

Any thoughts like these can be enough to tip the balance – doubt begets doubt, one uncertainty leads to another and before we know it we may be in trouble.


The Inner Game

When we perform, we may feel a sense of helplessness at not being fully in control of the outcome. We like to be organised and orderly but we may be overly worried about making mistakes, and worry that these mistakes will have consequences. If I make one mistake, this might dent my confidence and cause panic so that I make a whole string of errors I never made before. What if I have a memory slip I can’t recover from?

You may have heard of Inner Game work. This philosophy sets out to change the inner critic to the inner coach, so that we don’t allow these critical thoughts to bother us. In simple terms the inner game can be summarised in a formula:

P = p – i

P stands for Performance – what actually happens when we are on the stage, in the examination room or playing for a group of friends.

p stands for potential – what we are capable of doing when we perform at our best.

i stands for interference – any factor (internal or external) that adversely affects our performance.

Thus Performance = potential minus interference (or P=p-i).

According to this formula, P (performance) can be enhanced either by growing p (potential) or by decreasing i (interference).

Surrender Control

Fears about what other people may be thinking are our own projections and very unlikely to be true. If we have prepared ourself thoroughly, we deserve to enjoy our own performance. If we are enjoying it, so will our audience. If we are anxious, this will communicate to the audience and they will feel anxious too.

Imagine you are the owner of a shop. At the end of each day you need to count the takings, check the stock, place the orders and so on. After a while your business grows and you are in a position to open up a new shop somewhere else. So, you appoint a manager to take over the original one. The new manager is installed, but you don’t completely trust him to do the job properly, and you return regularly to go through the accounts. Because his systems are different to yours, mistakes are made. The result is the opposite of what you intend – this interference leads to conflict and inefficiency, with the potential for catastrophe.

In piano playing terms, the manager is the part of you who knows he can play the piece – and play it very well. So don’t interfere!

Good Adrenaline

We evolved to react to a perceived threat with a flight or fight response, which means that we are flooded with adrenaline. Adrenaline allows us to be quick and alert. However, this is no longer a useful response in modern life and certainly not helpful to us in piano performance. The only way to tackle it is take the situation which we perceive to be a threat and teach ourselves to no longer view it in that way.

There is such a thing as good adrenaline – the rush of excitement we might get from being on a roller coaster or bungee jumping. Next time we feel the adrenaline starting to course through our veins, we might turn it around, tap into our pleasurable associations with this state and actually learn to enjoy it.

OK, so I’m nervous and I can feel my muscles tightening up a bit. Never mind, I am so well prepared that I will be able to manage anyway, and I doubt anybody will notice.

Everything has a shadow side, not least careful and studious piano practice. On the one hand, we need to strive for perfection in our work, on the other hand, we need to find a mechanism of mind that allows us to let go of all of this care and attention and to surrender control when we are on the stage. We need to give ourselves permission that all our hard work in the practice room is the passport to our successful performance. We need to trust that we have done enough work and for long enough.

We also need to give ourselves permission to be human, and that mistakes are part of being human. We are not perfect, and we are not machines.

For a list of resources to help with performance anxiety and mental tension, follow this link to Part 4 of my ebook (click here)

Next week, I will explore the various options that are open to us to treat anxiety using cognitive therapy, mindfulness training and other alternatives to medication.

If you have a copy of my ebook, see the chapter Dealing with Anxiety Therapeutically for detailed information and a list of resources (click here)


Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4

I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).

The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.

If you would like a video introduction and more information on the contents of Part 4, please follow this link.

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Further information on the complete series is also available here and additional discount bundle combinations are available on the series catalogue here.