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Stage fright

Causes and remedies
for musicians

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Workshop: How to eliminate stage fright
Stage fright ... scary subject.. why should one want to talk or even think about it?

Maybe you think there can be something that could help you overcome stage fright or nerves, fear, performance anxiety, worry, all the names this can take, when performing for any sort of audience?

Or would you like to be more in control of your playing and of yourself during a performance? And since music is communication, do you feel you could communicate with your listeners (they may communicate to you as well!) and enjoy the experience?

So you've come to the right place, I'll tell you my personal experience, maybe it can help, I used to get really badly nervous when playing, with all the negative consequences.

This is one of the, literally, most frightening problems that performing musicians have to face, often without knowing what to do about it. Not only musicians suffer from it but, as far as I know, all performers and nearly everybody who ever had only to speak in front of an audience has experienced it.

For music performers it is particularly serious because when you play with somebody else you can't just stop and start again or explain it better, as a speaker could do.

Are there remedies for stage fright?

Being such a big problem, you can bet people have tried hard to find a solution to it. Some try to find a medication for stage fright, tranquillizers, some resort to beta blockers, for others a remedy could be just a good glass of wine or whisky or similar. Others, during a performance try to think "not to be there" or that the audience is not there. This may help to get through the piece doing all or most of the notes correctly but, since music is communication, how or what can you communicate to a listener if you are not there, or your mind is not fully alert?

As an experiment, try and do the same when you actually talk to someone and see what happens, what reactions you get.

If you are happy with these remedies, good for you! You can go to another page in this website, I hope you find something else useful to you, don't waste time reading this page. Instead, if you are looking for a different type of help about this, keep reading. I personally never wanted to use any of these remedies, because I thought they didn't address the cause of stage fright. Also it seems to me that our society is getting more and more drug-oriented, I mean, for all sort of problems (from stage fright to insomnia, study, anxiety, sex, happiness or lack of it, etc. etc. and whatever "disorder" someone may say you have), we are told that there is a pill to take to get rid of it. Quick and easy solution (and very lucrative for pills producers/promoters, but that's a different matter).

I don't believe these things, I like "natural remedies", they may take a bit longer but work better. Indeed, it is possible to overcome stage fright without drugs and feel the emotion, the thrill of enjoying a performance.

Stage fright - its causes and curesThere can be other factors in somebody's life, which have no relation at all with music, that can seriously undermine one's confidence and therefore play a major part in building stage fright over time, although the technical aspects of playing worry most players.

"Stage fright" is also the title of a book that analyzes all aspects, physical, mental and social, of stage fright, and gives practical solutions to the issue and I found it very useful. It is written by Kató Havas, the famous violin and viola teacher who wrote also other books about violin (or, better, string) playing. She was a child prodigy on the violin and performed extensively as a soloist, therefore she knew very well all the problems involved with playing and performing as a soloist. Then she made her own family and later developed what she called the New Approach to violin/string playing, which enables players to play with ease and this ease helps to overcome stage fright.

Come to my workshops: How to eliminate stage fright and musicians' injuries

Causes of stage fright

First of all, it's important to understand what is the cause of stage fright. It's similar to any other fright: if we know we are not able to control something, we get fright. Just to give you an easy example: you are happily driving your car, you know how to do the various things, in a word, you can control your car. But, suddenly, the road is icy, slippery, you want to turn left but the steer doesn't work, your car goes straight. You start getting some fright, so you want to stop it but because of the ice the brakes have no effect; you get more and more fright because now you know you can't control what's going on and eventually you and your car end up against the rail of that curve (my experience, I told you).

The same thing happens when playing an instrument, in our case, viola or violin. The more you know you can't control the technical aspects of what you are doing, the more you are going to worry about it. In fact, we tend to get more nervous about difficult things like fast passages, double stops, shifts, because most of times we are not sure we can control them.

This is the first aspect addressed by Kató Havas in her books and her approach to playing.

The books of Kató Havas

Nowadays, many give advice about stage fright, but bear in mind that the book I'm going to illustrate here was first published in 1973, when talking about this was not such a common thing as today. This book followed two other very successful books, "A New Approach to violin playing" and "The twelve lesson course, in a new approach to violin playing", about the prevention of physical injuries in playing. This also was something nobody talked about, back in 1961! when the New Approach, was published. Now everybody is well aware of performers' injuries and there are even clinics specialized in the cure of them. I love Kató Havas' books and her approach because they don't cure the symptoms, they go to the source and eliminate the cause of the problems.

So, you can be sure that a lot of people have read these books and got at least some inspiration. After all these years, they still sell well, and in several languages. Read what Yehudi Menuhin said about the book "Stage fright" in a congratulation letter, you can find it on the book back cover.

Stage fright book - Menuhin's letter

Please, note that although the book titles refer to our little brother, the violin, their principles and practice apply to the viola as well and also to all string instruments, somebody wrote a book about cello playing. Indeed, in the book "Stage fright" there is a specific reference to the viola, since any problem one could have with the violin becomes only bigger on the viola, because of its very size. These principles have to do with how to use our body (and not only the fingers!), particularly all the upper part (shoulders, arms, back) in a natural way, to prevent or eliminate various physical and emotional problems caused by an incorrect use of the body in playing. This, at the same time, facilitates the performance and makes it more enjoyable for the performer. Well, who plays knows what the problems are, right?

That's the meaning of "New approach". The violin is always referred to because Kató Havas is a violinist and started with the violin, but there are other people and books who apply this approach to other instruments. In developing this approach based on the physical side of playing, the release of physical tension, it appeared that this release was helpful also in the release of mental tension, so "Stage fright" is a sort of summary of both approaches.

The book

Stage fright

Its causes and cures

In 1996 I was asked to translate this book into Italian in view of a forthcoming workshop withStage fright in Italian, frontispiece - La paura del pubblico Kató Havas. So, I read the book and accepted to translate it (the picture here is the Italian version frontispiece). While dong the translation, in order to understand it better and be able to explain it in another language, I tried the exercises suggested, to see if it made sense and... it did make sense, they made several technical things easier (that's actually the way you should use this book, not just read it).

What struck me when I read this book, was that it was really concrete, not just good theory: indeed, in each chapter, for each problem you'll see that causes and cures are indicated, together with practical exercises.

Here you will find a description of the book and of the topics analyzed in it and, most important, the solution to the problem.

The following are the book chapter titles, which cover all aspects of playing. Click on each link to read a description of it.









a. What is anxiety?


If you ever wondered if it's only you, in this chapter you can read how nearly everybody suffers from this fear, maybe without admitting it, feeling ashamed of it. What happens when struck by stage fright (you may know it from personal experience, but it's useful to read about others as well), how the relationship between performer and listener is related to stage fright and what to do about it.


Here is a description of the Hungarian gypsy violinist, his complete ease and physical well-being at playing, his only focus on giving pleasure to the listener. Kató Havas is Hungarian and in her childhood she met these extraordinary players and was fascinated by them. Indeed, many were fascinated by their artistry, including Liszt. Kató Havas always refers to them and was inspired by them in developing her New Approach.



a. The stokes

a. The fourth finger

a. High positions
b. Shifts

First of all, it's necessary to solve the problems concerned with the physical side of playing. So here, for each of these universal fears, there are causes and cures explained, together with practical exercises.

How to use the natural body balances and movements to get to master the high positions and shifts, have a flowing bow arm and in control, how to prevent stiffness in the weakest finger and all hand.

But don't just read it, do it!


a. Hearing
b. Listening





Causes and cures: tips to practice fast passages, how to learn a piece to play by heart, which words create a mental state of tension, while others help to create ease and flexibility, so you know which ones to use when talking, teaching, even thinking about playing. How to use your imagination for help with this and to create your musical communication.



Causes and cures: I personally think that this is the most difficult fear to overcome, because even when you have got rid of the technical problems that made you insecure, still there is the fear of other people's judgement. This applies to many aspects of life, but it's especially true of playing an instrument, it's the identification of one's personal worth with the "goodness" of playing.

I personally think that another way to help reduce stage fright is to try to eliminate this attitude of fierce criticism, so prevalent especially among music students and no-longer-students. The more you criticize, the more you are bound to be nervous when your turn to play comes, especially in front of "friends" or people you know, because you are aware of what they would think of your performance and, what's worst, of you as a person. So, why not try and stop criticizing other players for every tiny mistake or other things? I adopted this attitude, "OK, that's the way he/she plays, it's their choice, it's not my job to judge other people's playing, it doesn't make me a better player so what's the point of criticizing?" By the way, I've found it useful not only for music, but for other situations, it makes me more tolerant of other people's faults and less worried about their judgement.





From reading the whole book, you'll have seen that playing and practicing is more a matter of mental attitude, not a mechanical thing, it's about what we mean to do with it. Here is some general advice about how to practice (see why practicing itself can be a major cause of stage fright), prepare for performances. So change your attitude and you change the results. Read quotes from the famous violin player Fritz Kreisler, who was famed for not practicing much, see what he says about relying on muscular exercise only and about practicing before a performance.

Other things you can do

When I was working on this, I did all sorts of musical thing, quite unusual for a classical player, which could, in one way or another, be helpful in improving my playing: I started playing with folk players, in pub sessions, processions, learned to play by ear (and more..., you'll see later on), just to regain that genuine feeling of doing it for pleasure, without worries.

We get used to think that if we make a mistake it's a tremendous crime, so we focus our attention only on not making any error, forgetting the musical communication. Of course, it's nice not to make mistakes, but if that becomes your only concern, oh, what a boring drudgery!

One learns from mistakes, so, something else you could do to overcome stage fright, is find situations to play where you are allowed to make mistakes because people are not there to judge you but they are only willing to receive and enjoy your music. When speaking with my students or other players who say they get nervous, I advise them to go and play at their church during a function, or play at an elderly people's home or play for little children, easy things to make them enjoy it, have fun, tell them a story. Even if you make some mistakes, so, what's going to happen? They'd never notice it but they would love you for the gift of music that you can give them, they'd ask you for more music and this will help you to build confidence in yourself, in your ability to play and to communicate and you'll be able to play more and more demanding pieces.

Then you can go home and practice the passages that need improvement. And if you can play by heart, without reading the music, much better, so you can look at people right in their eyes, "talk" to them with music, smile. Start with something simple and enjoy it.

If you still need some practice in performing your piece in front of an audience before a big event, the final touch, for many the scariest thing you can do, is some busking. Yes, go and play in the streets, there you have an audience, the situation is challenging, it may be noisy, people coming and going, a lot of distractions, you may have to cope with the idea of "what will they think of me?" (but who cares what they think?), but if you can cope with this, then performing in any other situation will seem easier.

To conclude, you can do something about stage fright, without drugs, improve your playing and enjoy yourself when you play, feel the emotion of making and giving music to your listeners, cause emotions in your listeners.

Start giving your music to everyone, see the nice comments you might receive...

Comments on music

and people dancing to your music...

A couple dancing with music

and you'll feel much more confident and able.

I found these books I mentioned very useful and if you have any doubts about how to solve some problems and so far you haven't found answers, I warmly recommend them to you!

Buy the book "Stage fright", read it and apply it, day by day. Then, if you want some more help and tips, get in touch, I do teach viola and violin. This is the way I teach and I see that my pupils have a nice tone from the very beginning, enjoy themselves much more, learn more quickly. Playing is not just doing all the right notes, as Kató Havas says:

"It is important to realize that our responsibility as musicians lies just in this - in the lifting up emotionally and aesthetically of all our listeners, regardless of whether they are examiners, auditioners, or members of an audience. If all our energies were channelled into giving people, through the medium of music, a deeper understanding of their own potential as part of the wonderful mysteries that the universe contains, we would not only do justice to ourselves as musicians, but stage fright would be banished from the face of this earth forever."

Good luck!

Come to my workshop: How to eliminate stage fright and musician's injuries

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