Performance Anxiety? Dismiss your inner demons

By Mike Cunningham  -  01 December 2014

Mind reading, counting sheep and how your early performances provide the solution to performance anxiety ...

Mike Cunningham, Mind Trainer

What first motivated you to dedicate your time to developing your skills as a musician? For most people it comes, in part, from those experiences of really enjoying playing and performing in situations where you’re just totally immersed in expressing the music and you’re getting that buzz, that adrenaline rush, that sense of excitement… I don’t know how you’d describe it? That addictive feeling of performing that makes you want to do more of it. 

At some point, in order to do more of the kinds of performance they really enjoy, people have to do auditions or perform in similar situations where there’s some kind of competitive element. 

All they need to do is demonstrate to the people on the panel, the jury or some other influential person that they have what it takes. They have to play well during that specific performance and that will open the door to more of what they enjoy. Simple. Except that doing these kinds of performances involves quite a bit of counter-intuitive thinking in order to do them well. 

If someone’s goal is to demonstrate how skilled they are to the people on the panel, it doesn’t matter how much time they spend trying to predict what the members of the panel will think ahead of time. No matter how many times they go through it in their mind they won’t be able to guarantee what opinions the panel will form about them.  Also, by deciding that the success of the performance is entirely in the hands of the people listening, that means the musician has placed all of the control in that situation in other people’s hands. 

This is when many performers reach the conclusion that, if they can just play everything perfectly – mistake free – that will absolutely guarantee that everyone will be impressed. Although this gives someone the impression that they are now ‘in control’ of the situation, it doesn’t usually work particularly well. 

This is where your mind reading abilities come in. Some musicians go through entire performance convinced they know what everyone around them thinks of every detail of their playing. The fact that their focus of attention tends to be on trying to interpret other people’s facial expressions and body language looking for evidence of whether they like it or not, means they’re not actually approaching the performance in a way that will enable them to perform the way they want to. 

Let’s look at this one point at a time. 

Firstly, when a musician is attempting to do everything perfectly, they end up focusing intensely on getting their body to produce their playing and the very same music that they would usually play naturally and easily in other situations, somehow seems much trickier to play. This is a bit like someone trying unsuccessfully to get to sleep at night. The more they try to actively induce the state of sleep the less likely it is to happen. The concept of ‘counting sheep’ follows the principle that when someone’s conscious attention is taken up with a simple task that can enable the rest of the person’s mind and body to go through the process of going to sleep naturally and unconsciously. 

What’s the musician’s equivalent? Well, it’s exactly what someone was doing to start with. Think about it. 

When you’re already immersed in enjoying expressing the music naturally and easily, how much easier is it to play and perform the way you want to? Even if you think of the goal to impress other people, if you look back at your most important experiences of impressing people with your playing, what were you doing in these situations? Enjoying expressing the music or attempting to play every note absolutely perfectly? 

Although this approach can seem counter-intuitive, it is actually based on the way you’ve already performed successfully on many occasions. It also changes the significance of any mistakes too. 

If you think about your experiences of watching and listening to a fantastic musician who’s totally immersed in enjoying expressing the music, if there are some details that aren’t absolutely technically perfect in their performance, how do you perceive the mistakes differently if they are expressing the music beautifully? 

Going into the future to the end of your next important performance, what would it mean to you having completed it successfully because you were enjoying expressing the music naturally and easily the way you wanted to? 

© Mike Cunningham 2014

Find out more about Mind training and how it can help your performance at

About Mike Cunningham

Mike works with top performers in sport, entertainment & business to enable them to develop their mind-set to perform at their best and handle pressure and challenges with greater confidence.

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