The Key To Understanding Your Performance Anxiety

Last time in Performance Fear—Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire!, we called fear out for the destructive and deceiving force it can be to our preparation and our performances.  As anyone who has experienced it, performance-related fear is a powerful emotion that all of us have felt.   In order to neutralize its ill-effects, it is important that you understand that it tricks you into believing things that may never happen because they are in the future.  These fears are only perceived.  They are mere possibilities, but they are not yet real.  Fear spoils the present moment and your playing or singing and sends you on a trip to the future where you imagine all sorts of pitfalls and unfortunate outcomes.

The ‘capital f’ Fact (important fact) of performance-related fears is that they are the product of your emotions, an over-active imagination, and distorted knowledge.   In Performance Fear—Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire!, we discussed how ‘what-if thinking’ can fuel fearful feelings and whip your imagination up into into a frenzied thought process rarely based in reality.  Much of the time, our fears are based on ineffective or irrational beliefs and other distorted knowledge.

The key to understanding your performance anxiety or performance-related fears is to uncover the beliefs and knowledge that are at their core.


 As seen in the above acronym, FEAR, known as performance anxiety is simply put, imagined or perceived harm that feels very real.  Getting to the bottom of these perceptions is key to neutralizing their harmful affects.  Let’s look at an example:

Bill was an accomplished horn player who had been successful throughout his undergraduate career, had recently won a major competition, and was looking forward to graduating with his Master’s Degree in a month.   The next step for him was to either choose to pursue a doctorate or to audition for orchestral positions.  Recently, in orchestra rehearsals Bill has started to become extremely fearful of splatting in high tessitura passages.   When exploring this fear further, it came out that he suddenly had started worrying about playing cleanly.  When asked what would happen if he didn’t play cleanly, Bill said he was afraid of being embarrassed in front of his peers.  Behind this fear of embarrassment, was his core fear.  Bill ultimately feared and began to question whether he was good enough or whether he could make a living as a horn player or even get a job at all.  In reality, Bill is an extremely clean player.  He rarely, if ever, splats, but he has become so anxious about this possibility that he shakes, worries excessively when he has an exposed solo, and has a hard time focusing in rehearsal and performance.

Bill needed to discover and understand what his ultimate fear was and what ineffective beliefs or distorted knowledge may have triggered the sudden change in his playing and thinking about playing.   In his case, Bill had attended a master class two months ago where he heard several incredible horn players.  The clinician responded to one of the players who splatted, “You’ll never get a job, making that kind of mistake.”  This stuck with Bill, “If this incredible player can’t get a job, how can I expect to?”  Bill accepted this statement as fact and this fact grew in his imagination into a fear that caused him to start doubting himself.

Like Bill, you may be thinking and acting on thoughts and information that seem all too real to you, but are actually sabotaging your ability to trust your preparation and play or sing at peak levels.   Like Bill, you will want to get to the bottom of these thoughts and beliefs to get at the core of your fear.  Once you discover what your core fear is you will be ready to face it and perform your best anyway!

Are your fears based in reality or based in ineffective beliefs or distorted knowledge?  Next time we will examine the last step in defeating fear—facing it, confronting it, and neutralizing it.


Goldberg, A. S. (2005)  Sports slump busting:  10 steps to mental toughness and peak performance.  Coral Springs, FL:  Llumina Press.


If you would like to work one-on-one with someone to help you discover and understand your core fear, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to my site by checking out the free mp3:   Mental Strategies for Peak Performance in Music.  You will receive a monthly newsletter and tips to keep you performing at peak levels.

I would love to hear from you so please comment on your fear or how you have managed to overcome a fear in your performing. 


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  1. simin.fani says:

    Dear Dr. Allan,

    Actually, I was very similar to Bill. I was worried about what my classmates could have told about my performance! In fact, negative statements had bad effects on me. I was
    not able to escape from these words, so I began to feel more nervous
    and feel fear. But after a while, I started to read your articles,
    finding more self- confidence due to reviewing all these
    strategies every day. They gave me real and rational thought toward this
    issue. Moreover, I think much more practice on these strategies is necessary
    for someone like me to become a person with a good logical thought.
    Thank you so much

    Best Regards,

    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Dear Simin,

      I am so pleased that the strategies described in these articles have been helpful. You are absolutely correct when you recognize that incorporating these techniques and forming new, more effective beliefs and habits takes practice–just like acquiring and improving any musical skill! I’m glad to hear you are doing this! Best wishes and keep me posted, Dr. Allan

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