ArticlesEducationFeaturedMusician WellnessOctober 2020

Practice Anxiety: The Musician’s Secret

by Terri Sánchez  and Kate Martin

Musicians of all ages and levels tend to know where they stand in their relationship with performance anxiety. They might feel they are in control of it, in the process of figuring it out or they might be absolutely consumed by it. Regardless of their relationship status with it, there is no doubt in any musician’s mind that performance anxiety is a real thing.

Unlike traditionally discussed performance anxiety however, musicians often have a secret, much more personal anxiety that tends to stay behind closed doors and isn’t discussed as openly. We call it "practice anxiety."

Practice anxiety is insidious. Over time, it can wear a musician down so gradually that its effects are not felt until they are already deeply ingrained and internalized. Practice anxiety negatively affects the mind, body and soul of a musician. It's serious. It's real. We think it's time to start talking about it.

Take a moment and reflect on the following symptoms of practice anxiety:

Procrastination (avoidance and/or unrealistic timelines)

Rushing (in a hurry to get things done)

Anxious thoughts (worry, blame, frustration, etc.)

Complaining (this part is too hard, too fast, too confusing, etc.)

Trauma (holding on to past criticism or bad musical experiences)

Intellectualizing (musical paralysis through over analysis)

Controlling (holding the instrument, body or mind too tightly)

Efforting (trying too hard, proving rather than experiencing)

If any of these symptoms resonate with you or your students, take heart! Trading one or more practice anxiety habits for the practice empowerment habits summarized below can have meaningful effects over time. As you explore what it means to feel empowered when you practice, it is important to take patient baby steps that help the ripple effects and exponential growth kick in as one habit opens the door for another (and another and another).

Proacting (designing practice schedules that feel good and work)

Relaxing (knowing results come faster with patience)

Asking Questions (prompting solutions with thoughtful inquiry)

Clarifying (taking time to understand and connect)

Telling Wiser Stories (mature perspectives on past experiences)

Internalizing (bonding with music, exploration and repetition)

Caring (taking greater care with instrument, body and mind)

Elevating (allowing skills and interpretations to rise and evolve)

Trade Procrastinating for Proacting

It’s tempting to blame procrastination on issues like lack of time, sleep or motivation. In a world where we somehow find the time to look at our phones incessantly (even when we’re busy, sleepy, depressed, etc.), it might be worth exploring the underlying causes of practice avoidance instead. “I don’t have the time” or “I don’t feel like it” can often mean “I don’t have the time because practicing feels hard and it’s going to take me forever to improve” or “I don’t feel like it because practicing isn’t fun or satisfying anymore.” Even if you justify waiting until the last minute by explaining that you “thrive under pressure,” procrastination still indicates a lack of connection to meaningful practice unencumbered by looming deadlines.

When you set emotions aside and take a proactive approach to designing your day, more consistent practicing can be achieved. Think smaller practice sessions (ten minutes is better than zero minutes), non-traditional practice sessions (doing your daily warm-up routine right after your daily teeth brushing routine), multi-tasking practice sessions (alternating chores, homework or emails with tackling practice projects one at a time) and creative practice sessions (painting and practicing, yoga and practicing, practicing outside, in a bathroom, for your dogs) and more!

When more consistent practicing happens, progress occurs and practicing is more satisfying. Trade procrastinating for proacting and relief will be felt soon!

Trade Rushing for Relaxing

The instinct to race toward a goal is normal and often motivating. Unfortunately for musicians, racing toward any kind of practicing goal can cause more problems than it solves. When you insist on accomplishing a musical task quickly, you may sacrifice beauty, clarity and overall quality. Eventually, rushed practice results can lead to disappointment, frustration and a general dislike of practicing.

Relaxing your way toward practice goals will get you there faster! When learning a fast technical passage, nine attempts at a fast tempo will often feel more frantic and yield much less reliable muscle memory than three slow attempts, three medium tempo attempts and three full tempo attempts. The slower tempos take more time, but create higher quality results that are much more likely to stick. Similarly, taking the time to listen to a new piece of music three (or more!) times before you begin practicing will create more meaningful connections than just diving into the piece without a sense of context or style.

Because more stable muscle memory and meaningful connections are achieved, taking a “slower” approach to practicing often turns out to be a time saver! Relax into one slow and meaningful practice step at a time and the faster results you want will be on their way!

Trade Anxious Thoughts for Asking Questions

Practice anxiety is riddled with mixed signals and chain reactions. What may feel like worry, blame or frustration about one thing may actually be related to a different thing or ripple effects from any number of things. A clarinetist might feel frustrated and blame her finger technique, not realizing that the lack of a filling breath is actually the culprit. A singer may worry he is not good enough to sing a big solo when it’s actually a lack of trust in his own listening skills and an outdated reaction to past critiques causing the problem.

It’s important to pay special attention to even the most subtle anxious thoughts before they begin creating mixed signals and chain reactions. Watch out for the cyclical trap of feeling anxious about being anxious (or even feeling more anxious about being anxious about being anxious). Stop anxiety cycles in their tracks before they become giant anxiety tornados with stress monsters in them! Ask yourself the following questions to clarify a potential root cause of any practice anxiety while it’s still small and manageable:

What’s really bothering me about this practice challenge? Is there a different way I could approach it? What could I do to help myself feel better about this right now? Have I learned any lessons from past musical experiences that could help? What would my teacher do? What would my musical hero do? What would happen if I took a break and tried again? Could this be broken down into simpler steps? Can I separate out different elements of this practice challenge so I can work on them one at a time? Could I practice this at a slower tempo and/or with more patience and practice games?

Even if you don’t have the perfect answers, asking questions like these will prompt your mind to start searching for solutions instead of feeling trapped in an anxiety cycle. Trade anxious thoughts for asking questions and simpler solutions will begin to reveal themselves!

Trade Complaining for Clarifying

Complaining that a passage of music is too hard, too fast, too confusing, etc. often comes from a lack of understanding about the challenge that lies ahead. If a trumpet player lacks the ease and flexibility to play different intervals, a passage of music with jumps and leaps may seem impossible. If a percussionist mostly understands a rhythm but is partially guessing, the extra time it takes to guess may make a fast tempo unreachable. If a saxophonist doesn’t break complex tasks into smaller, more manageable practice projects, reading music may seem like a confusing jumble of scary notes that she doesn’t feel equipped to handle.

Because it is often hard to know what you don’t know, the next time you find yourself complaining about a difficult musical challenge, take steps to clarify the individual components of the challenge. Look at the rhythms, pitches, articulations, dynamics, verbal instructions and any other clues written in the music. If you don’t have a complete understanding of them or the fundamental skills needed to execute them well, research the answers until you know what your next steps should be. Listening to professional recordings is helpful, but understanding the individual musical components is the best way to eliminate practice anxiety and improve your musicianship.

Complaining is a way to blame the music or other circumstances for your discomfort. Trade complaining for clarifying and the path toward overcoming challenges will appear!

Trade Trauma for Telling Wiser Stories

Sometimes, musicians experience mini-traumas that cause ripple effects for years. An embarrassing critique or a sense of panic during a performance can take root in the mind and body just like other types of emotional or physical trauma. Periods of ongoing stress like rehearsing under intimidating conductors or feeling disliked by an instructor can have even bigger traumatic effects over time. Worst of all, consistently negative self-talk can cause traumatic effects similar to those caused by emotional abuse. Residual thoughts and feelings related to these traumas may be small, subconscious or hidden completely, but like a pebble in your shoe, they can make the journey much, much harder than it needs to be.

Fortunately, musical traumas (knowingly or unknowingly inflicted by others or yourself) can be soothed and released over time by telling wiser stories. If an oboe player finds herself tensing up as she practices her orchestra music and upon reflection realizes that it’s a reaction to an intimidating conductor, she can take the time to humanize him and realize that he may have a difficult family life or health issues. He may lack the communication skills to get the results he wants with positive reinforcement instead of negative. He may simply be imitating the kind of musical instruction that he received or may even be taking out his frustration on others because of self-esteem issues or other personal struggles. No matter the reason for the intimidating behavior, as she humanizes her conductor, the oboist can release some of her tension as she connects with the fact that his behavior is not her fault.

If a violinist experiences stress when practicing for a lesson because he thinks that his violin teacher doesn’t like him or approve of his playing, he can consider the fact that she may want to have a more positive teacher/student relationship, but doesn’t know how. She might be propping herself up or putting him down because of her own insecurities. In fact, she might be thinking he doesn’t like her! There is also a very strong chance that misunderstanding could be the root cause of her apparent disapproval. No matter the reason for the tension, viewing his instructor with more compassion and remembering that he is 50% of the teacher/student dynamic can help him prepare for the lesson more effectively, letting go (at least a little) of the need for her approval.

If a pianist finds herself dreading the practice room and figures out that the negative thoughts in her own mind are what she is avoiding, she can take steps to transform old thinking patterns into new ones. If she is used to telling herself how bad she sounds, she can look for progress (or even micro-progress) and focus on that instead. Instead of judging herself or comparing herself to others, she can begin having more healthy competitions with herself, striving to “beat” how well she did yesterday. If she feels stuck in a negative thinking pattern, she can try breathing exercises, journaling or taking more breaks before returning to the practice session with a fresh start feeling. It’s not easy to change old thinking patterns, but if she has a true desire to improve her ability to practice piano and reach her musical goals, it is incredibly valuable for her to start trying.

Reflect on any traumas or mini-traumas you may be unintentionally holding on to as you practice. Instead of reactivating bad feelings and stressful thoughts every time you are triggered, make a plan to substitute new thoughts and actions instead. Instead of bracing against practice challenges, embrace them. Instead of worrying about other people’s opinion of your playing, humanize them and focus on gaining your own approval. Instead of focusing on old memories of past failures, create new memories with current successes. Trade traumas for telling wiser stories. Let go of old hurts and focus on the unlimited possibilities available to you now!

Trade Intellectualizing for Internalizing

Though being thoughtful in the practice room can be a good thing, continuing to analyze, evaluate, debate and keep track of to-do list items while playing a passage of music is extremely problematic. Dissecting and assessing musical challenges is necessary to plan what and how to practice, but when it’s time to play, the temptation to continue focusing on analysis can cause musical paralysis.

Rather than thinking your way through a passage of music, cultivate a sense of sing-a-long surrender through multiple repetitions (working toward playing with as much trust and flow as you would when you sing your favorite song). As you gain more muscle memory and familiarity on your way to sing-a-long surrender, you can tap into a more present, joyful, inclusive awareness of the music you are making. Being fully present during meaningful repetitions will always give you more access to more inner knowing and higher inspiration than endless practice to-do lists.

When you trade intellectualizing for internalizing, the practice process begins to reveal itself one step at a time. When you focus on internalizing through joyful, alert practice, you can even take care of polishing the details on your to-do list one at a time, completely eliminating the need to “keep track” of anything!

Trade Controlling for Caring

Fear of losing control can cause musicians to hold their instruments, bodies and minds too tightly. Unfortunately, tension habits of all kinds cause more problems than they solve. Control is somewhat of an illusion anyway! Balancing an instrument and holding it with care will always yield better results than squeezing or crushing it. Balancing, supporting and freeing the body will create more beautiful breaths and sounds than forcing it into submission. As mentioned in the previous section on internalizing, allowing your mind to free flow in sing-a-long surrender will generate more beauty, passion and vibrancy in your music than grasping at a sense of control ever will.

Look for ways that you try to control during your practice sessions and take greater care instead! If a bassoonist is struggling to find evenness as she practices her scales, taking greater care with her hand position, body mapping and/or breathing will yield more satisfying results than only focusing on controlling her fingers. If a trombonist is afraid he will make a mistake in the beginning of his solo, putting more care into listening and connection as he practices will lead him to the consistency he is craving.

When the idea of controlling is replaced by a more caring, wholistic approach, new perspectives and smoother paths towards progress will be revealed!

Trade Efforting for Elevating

It is understandable to believe that trying your best, working hard and proving improvement is the best way toward higher levels of musicianship. Upon closer inspection however, the “efforting” involved in trying, hard work and proving can often make practicing feel forced and difficult. When practicing feels difficult to do, it is natural for a musician’s mind and body to fight or rebel against the activity. Willpower may overcome this for a time, but ultimately struggle and frustration will enter into the equation. Instead of efforting toward desired results, try elevating slowly toward higher levels of musicianship.

A tuba player trying her best to take a good breath is a very different thing from that same tuba player experiencing more and more filling breaths each time she focuses on breathing. If a violist is struggling to master the opening of brilliant concerto, he can find more meaningful results by letting go of the need for immediate mastery and focusing on patient, increasingly beautiful repetitions instead.

One of the most effective ways to eliminate practice anxiety is to trade efforting for elevating. When efforting is replaced by consistent elevation of skills and connection, practice progress becomes more accessible, pleasurable and empowering!

Visit to learn more about emotionally intelligent practicing. Terri Sánchez is a Miyazawa Performing Artist and Senior Lecturer in Flute at the University of Texas at Arlington and Kate Martin is the Associate Principal/2nd Flutist of the Midland-Odessa Symphony. Terri and Kate are passionate about helping musicians like you move from practice anxiety to practice empowerment!

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