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My fingers just stop working! How I deal with performance anxiety when I’m playing the piano

Performance anxiety playing piano
(Image credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus)

When nobody else is listening, I like to think I’m actually pretty OK at piano. I’m capable, when I’ve got my headphones on and there’s nobody else in the room, of some buttery-smooth scales, some decent dynamics, even a dash of the eyes-closed playing that makes me feel a bit like a Proper Pianist. Then I try to play something for someone else, and my fingers stop working. 

Performance anxiety, thankfully, isn’t as much of a concern for me as it is for many piano players. I’m not trying to play recitals or compete with anyone, and my career prospects definitely don’t depend on piano.

Quite honestly, I could probably never play for a single other person and still be pretty happy: a lot of what I get from piano is the meticulous meditation of trying things over and over again until they click together, and I like having an interest that forces me to focus intensely on something without even thinking of looking at a screen.

I am not, in the words of sports fans, what you’d call a pressure player.

But also: it’d be nice to know that I can bang out a bit of Rondo Alla Turca at a party if the mood demands it. And to take it from a more metaphysical angle: if you think you got the dynamics in Sonata Facile right but nobody else heard it, did you really make a sound?

So I, like every other piano player, have to deal with getting worse when I’m playing for other people. And please believe me, dear reader, when I say that I get much worse. Instead of just clunking the odd note or messing up a trill, I’ll hit a sticky bit and grind to a halt, suddenly forgetting what I was playing.

Once, at a public piano in a train station, during a piece I’ve played probably a hundred times without (much) incident, my hands started shaking so badly I could barely get to the end. And I don’t even need in-person pressure to mess up: when I set a camera tripod up, I’ll quite often get the timing a fraction off on my first take, decide to do another one, then get worse and worse until I’m somehow making mistakes I’ve never made before, on the easiest bits possible.

I am not, in the words of sports fans, what you’d call a pressure player. 

But: playing for other people is nice. And one day, I would genuinely like to be able to wow a crowd at St Pancras, even if it’s only with pop tunes and videogame theme music, rather than a soulful rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9. So I’m trying to improve! And a few things have helped.

Firstly, the filming. Yes, the camera might take off 10 skill points (or grades, if you do them), but the more I force myself to perform in front of one, the more comfortable I get with it. I’ve seen people suggesting that you commit to doing just one take - a ‘performance’, if you like - then posting it to a dared forum or YouTube as a way to build the ability to play a whole piece with as few mistakes as possible. I haven’t dared do these yet - most things on my YouTube channel (opens in new tab) are the best of at least a few takes - but I do occasionally film a one-off effort and send it to some friends, as a way of keeping myself honest. 

The camera, it turns out, really does tell no lies: passages that sounded great when I was playing them suddenly turn out to stray horribly off-tempo, or have a thumping bassline that totally overpowers the right hand. And, yes, posting good takes to forums really is handy for feedback: I have no idea how anyone learned to play the piano without the internet. 

I also think there’s a lot to be said for trying out a public performance in a not-very-judgemental setting. I’ve bashed through a few songs at St Pancras now, and it’s a lot easier to play for a non-audience of dawdling commuters than it is to play for my (musically better than me) wife or (easily bored) child. There’s also a bit of self-regulating difficulty involved: the better, or more confidently, you play, the bigger the crowd gets, and the higher the pressure.

Then there’s simply trying to minimise mistakes. I’m sure most piano players do some variation of the ‘Play it perfectly three times before you move on’ (Mozart supposedly did 10, keeping track via dried peas), and there’s a lot to be said for slowing down pieces to play them perfectly - every good repetition, apparently, helps with the myelination of the brain-based pathways you need to replicate the effort - but there’s another benefit. By forcing myself to repeat a passage five times with no misses before I do anything else, I find that I get something like stage fright on the last one - I don’t want to start all over again, so my hands start trembling and a mistake suddenly seems much less trivial. 

And realistically, this is probably what works best of all. In the middle of my second year of practice, I saw someone on Reddit telling another aspiring pianist that the best way to not make mistakes when you perform is… to simply stop making mistakes in practice. That might mean slowing down enormously or practising hands-apart, but increasingly, it’s what I try to do whenever I sit down in front of the keys.

As somebody once said: ‘Amateurs practise till they get it right; professionals practise till they can’t get it wrong,” and while I don’t have any aspirations to professionalism, I’d still like to get it right a little bit more often.