Robert Estrin - piano expert

The Psychology of Performing - Part 3: How to Cope With Stress

Learn how to deal with the stress that a performance can cause.

In this video, Robert tackles relaxation in performing, and how you can literally "build" your performance without stress by starting from your most comfortable passage.

Released on December 10, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello and welcome to and I'm Robert Estrin and today's subject is how to avoid stress in your playing.

Well, there are basically two components for avoiding stress, and we're going to talk about that today. And this is applicable to all instruments. Well, there are ways of practicing relaxation. That's right! And the ways to do that is to take some very, very small sections that you can play comfortably and build that way. Being aware of how you sit and how you breathe on a wind instrument. So that you can really consciously add relaxation to your routine, in your practicing.

And you can get remarkable results just by paying attention. Like, how you sit. Sometimes, I'll look at students and their shoulders are up and you can tell they're uncomfortable. And just putting your hands on their shoulders for a moment and say, "Relax," can make a huge difference for a singer or for a pianist, for a violinist, for any instrument. Being aware of how your body feels. How you're sitting or standing, all of this.

What's the other component then? Well, there's only so much you can relax on an instrument, depending on how much technical proficiency you have. How much strength you have. That's right! With strength can come relaxation. On the piano, for example, or the violin the sheer amount of time you spend. Same with a wind instrument. If you're only practicing, let's say, 30 minutes a day on any instrument, it might be difficult to be relaxed in some virtuoso music. So you have to build up your strength over time with exercises, scales, arpeggios, etudes, all sorts of repertoire. Just simply playing hours and hours a day, you'll build enough strength and comfort in your instrument that with that can aid playing in a more relaxed manner.

So to recap today, there are two ways to aid in the relaxation and avoiding tension in your instrument. One is simply being aware and practicing small enough segments that you don't introduce any tension in your playing to begin with. The second is to grow what you can do by building your strength over time by challenging yourself with repertoire, amount of practice that you do, the amount of time you spend with your instrument, and exercises, repertoire, all of that. Building strength over time is going to aid you in relaxing just as much as paying attention to how you sit, stand, and approach your instrument and never introducing tension in the first place. Work on both of these, and you can avoid tension in your playing too.

Thanks so much for joining me! Robert Estrin, here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on January 3, 2018 @11:33 pm PST
You're quite correct Robert. I'm an addicted "golfer" and I know from the extensive literature on performance in sports, including golf, that sports psychologists have become quite important to many top flight athletes. But while similar approaches have begun to appear with respect to musical performance....they haven't appeared yet to have had the same impact on how musicians approach the art of performing their craft. I don't know if that is because the traditional manner of teaching people to play an instrument etc. has always been and continues to focus just on mastering the technical aspects and later the interpretive aspects of playing music, with the unspoken rationale that if one masters the technical and interpretive aspects the actual performance of a piece will be taken care of as a matter of course, which as it happens just isn't true.. When I was a young violin student, my teachers "never" ever talked to me about performance issues, such as performance anxiety, stage fright, or related things. Such discussions would have been helpful to me. A couple of insightful books on this subject:: The Inner Game of Golf by W.Timothy Gallwey and another book called The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey...this latter one basically applies the principles enunciated in the former to the problem of musical should be required reading for all budding instrumentalists.
Robert - host, on January 6, 2018 @10:09 am PST
You are right - music instruction rarely covers the psychology of performing which is so important! Thank you for the books you referred. I will check them out.
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on January 2, 2018 @7:36 pm PST
The subject of stage fright is a complex matter. I would venture that in overcoming it, different performers have found different ways of coping. For myself, I think the best remedies were 1. to only perform pieces well within one's technical ability, 2. to try to perform in public more often as opposed to rarely...and by in public I include small informal settings as well as more formal ones..performing often just to get "used to" the notion of playing in front of and for others, just as Robert mentioned earlier. Part of the problem is that sometimes one brings to the performance mental/memory baggage of prior negative experiences in performing, actual or imaginary, while anticipating the beginning of the would help if these were replaced with more positive thoughts and images. Having said that, one should remember that a certain amount of nervousness is probably a good thing...increases one's alertness...and that there have been cases of great performers (whether in music or sports) who have approached the beginning of a performance or game with great tension or stress (some have even thrown up beforehand) and who have afterwards gone on to play their music or perform their sport with great proficiency. Before performing, do not talk to yourself in negative terms: e.g., instead of worrying about disappointing your audience, think instead about what you want to get across to the audience with respect to the piece or pieces you are going to perform. If all else fails, I know some performers have tried to alleviate their performance anxiety by taking beta blockers...As I said, it's a complex issue. And each performer should actively seek out his/her own solutions to the problem... by trial and error/hard experience, and also discussing this problem with other performers, teachers, counsellors, etc. Performing should be pleasurable and fun, rather an ordeal to be suffered.
Robert - host, on January 3, 2018 @12:18 pm PST
Figure skater Sasha Cohen when asked how she felt just after winning a silver medal in the 2006 Olympics said, "It went just as I imagined it." A great deal of performance psychology comes down to mental (as well as physical) preparation.
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on December 10, 2014 @10:01 am PST
As you say, proper preparation (physically, mentally, and practice wise) for the performance is key to avoiding stress. I would add however, if the occasion makes it appropriate or allows it, the performer can also further help reduce the stress of performing: a. by rehearsing in the actual venue for the performance, becoming familiar with the venue; and b. at the performance, giving some introductory remarks before playing each piece, which is helpful for the audience, and which gives the performer a bit of a breather, a chance to relax, between pieces (instead of moving quickly from one piece to the next).
Robert - host, on December 10, 2014 @6:35 pm PST
You are absolutely right! It is incredibly important to have several try-out performances starting with family and good friends just to get a feel for how things go. If you can get an opportunity in the hall, even better!

Here is a video that confirms your idea of talking to the audience:
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on December 12, 2014 @12:02 pm PST
Thanks for the link to your video...very true and very helpful....missed it when it first came around.
The whole subject of stress and stage fright etc. is so all important, when it comes to the issue of publicly performing to the best of your ability. As you indicate, the audience doesn't want to see the performer tighten up and fail, make mistakes, etc...that's painful not only to the musician, but also to the audience.
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on January 2, 2018 @1:49 pm PST
HI Tosh & Robert, yes indeed, I followed the 3 contributions with interest, but the problem of "stress and stage fright etc. " wasn't addressed in detail. That's probably my worst problem though, being afraid to disappoint the public, and of course myself. It's also a big problem in some sports, where you sometimes see a guy in tennis one point away from winning the final or semifinal, and getting so upset he finally loses concentration, control, and the game altogether. Any suggestions on that in a part 4 of this series ?
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