Busting Performance Anxiety

by Jaye

          Anxiety is one of the most common problems facing all performers, and harpers are as susceptible to it as anyone else. Here are a few exercises that have helped me.

          Tune your harp and be ready to play. Then get up. If you can go outdoors, go outdoors.


          Your breathing sets the tone for your whole body. If it's rapid and shallow, you will be frightened or nervous. If you breathe deeply and slowly, your body will tend to relax. Breathe by expanding your lower abdomen, and picturing yourself drawing light or divinity/God (whatever is most comforting) into your being with each breath, and letting tension run out of you with each exhalation. Let yourself pause.... at the end of each exhalation and enjoy the looseness that comes with the breath being out of you. Then slowly bring the next breath in, deep down into your abdomen... deep into your toes and fingers, and with it light. White light for energy, light pink light for health, blue light for calm, or light green light for healing.

          Picture a soldier doing exercises -- all tense and “atten-hut!” Then picture a modern dancer doing the same movements -- all flow and grace and relaxation. Now, you're going to do some movements like the dancer. The point is to free up your joints and muscles, not to build muscle mass like a soldier.

          Shake your shoulders back and forth -- left up, right up, left up, right up -- loose like a rag doll. Let your head move and loosen your neck, too. Let the rest of your body get into the act. Just be a rag doll -- all of your body. Wrists, ankles, all of you.

          Now swing your arms gently in circles from the shoulders -- forward, backwards. Loose -- loose. Swing your wrists.

          Let yourself gently flop forward at the waist and hips, then roll around. Don't stretch down farther than is comfortable. Just let yourself roll forward, right, back, left, forward. Then go around the other way. Stand back up straight. Roll your head forward the same way.

          Brush the old energy off your body with your hands. Start at your head, and brush it down your body as you go. Brush the old off all the way down, and into the Earth. If you feel the need, do it a second, and even a third time. Picture your hands getting scoops of icky old tension off/out of your body as you do this. It is the visualization of it coming off you that does the trick -- you'll be amazed at how free your body feels! Be sure you brush the old energy off your hands and arms, too. (This also works well when you shower!)

          Reach your hands up gently to the sky. Pull in energy from Heaven/God. Draw it into your body. As you bring your hands down your body, pull in as much as you are comfortable with. You may notice different colors going to different parts of the body. This is normal.

          When you have the energy you want, rag-doll shake again -- you will feel much better.

          Now come back to your harp. Recheck the tuning.

          Close your eyes for a moment, take stock, and relax.

Selecting Repertoire

          One of the most anxiety-producing parts of most harperists’ performances is the repertoire they choose to play. I have spent years doing the same thing and paying the price wondering if I’ll hit all those notes that are right at, or even a bit beyond my skill level. Yet I so desperately wanted to sound like Kim Robertson and Harper Tasche that I kept pushing myself.

          What actually helped me reorganize my priorities was getting a new harp – a 6/6 cross-strung – two months before I had what I perceived as a major performance. Only two songs – but I was actually sharing a venue with Harper Tasche!

          The 6/6 is a very easy harp to learn the basics of to play easy music on, so instead of going for the style of music I had loved playing, I chose two meditative pieces written in modes, which I played in their basic forms, and then improvised simply around them.

          As I practiced, I found myself falling into a reverent, meditative state myself. I played slowly with the metronome, letting the music fill me. The music and I became one in a way I had never allowed before. I came to feel it in my body as I played it over and over, and I realized I had discovered a powerful way of playing. Choose music that is below my skill level, and let it fill me, and myself fill it, and send it out as a blessing. I played the gig, and it went just as I had hoped – I told the audience, “Instead of being entertained, I’d like to invite you to simply listen and enter into the music and be ministered to by it.”

Practice Performing in Your Mind

          If you have a harperist or other musical friend(s) you can get together with, by all means do this with him/her. If not, you can still do it by yourself. If you do this exercise in pairs or threes, take turns playing, and then talk about the changes you feel each time you play. Otherwise, consider journaling the differences.

          Everyone has some sort of comfort level for playing, even if it is “in my room with the door shut.” You start at your comfort level.

          Next, think about how you feel in comparison to the most popular anxiety rating system, the Subjective Units of Discomforts (SUDS). Zero is none at all – at ease as you have ever been in your life. Ten is as frightened as you have ever been or could ever imagine being by anything that could ever possibly happen to you. Think back to a few confident times, and try to estimate how anxious you were. Anxious/frightened times. Journal if you are alone. Talk with your partners if you are playing with someone.

          At each step, if your SUDS goes up, drop back to imagining playing for a smaller or more friendly person or group and play at that level a few times before going on to larger or more impersonal. Slow and gentle does it with this exercise.

          Now take turns playing, imagining you are alone in a very, very safe place – your room, a forest glade, wherever is safe for you. Rate your SUDS and discuss or journal your experience playing.

          Play, imagining you are playing for one person – a person in your life who loves you, and loves seeing you succeed. Who is always encouraging? If there is no actual person in your life who is this way, make up someone or choose someone from history to imagine playing for. Rate and discuss/journal.

          Play, imagining you are playing for a very supportive small group. If the people you are with seem supportive, play for them instead of imagining. Rate and discuss/journal.

          Play, imagining playing for a larger group that is still very supportive. Rate and discuss/journal.

          Imagine ever larger groups, but increase them gradually enough that your SUDS stays low.

          For your “graduation” exercise, imagine playing for the people in your life who have been most critical of you. Imagine them just as they are/were. Rate and discuss/journal.

          You may now need to do a last, “cleansing” playing, imagining a completely supportive audience, to shake the critical experience out of your imagination/soul/memory. Feel free, too, to stand up and brush the negative energy you feel off your body, and pull in some new, positive energy.


          Notice how you feel and how the music feels and sounds. Notice how everything feels and sounds. How relaxed is your body? How well does the music flow? How confident do you feel? This will be your “control” to compare to your “experimental” playing.

          Now close your eyes. Picture a silver cord extending from the heaven, through the top of your head down your spine, and out and through the chair, into the earth, and all the way to its center. The cord is pulsing with energy. Let yourself enjoy this connection for as long as you wish. Then play your harp. Compare the experience of playing without and with this cord. If you enjoy journaling, write about the differences.


          Again play before making any changes.

          Picture a second silver cord wrapping around you and your harp. Enjoy the feeling. Experience playing with the cord. Compare playing with and without. Journal if you wish.


          Again play before making any changes. Notice how everything feels and sounds.

          Picture a third cord wrapping around you, you harp, and your music stand. Enjoy the feeling. Play the harp again. Journal.


          Again play before making any changes. Notice how everything feels and sounds.

          When you play with another person or people, wrap a fourth cord around all of you before playing.


          When you play before an audience, do all the previous cords, If you wish, you may add this one.

          You may play before making any changes if you wish – or you may simply want to start by using the cord to set the feel of your whole performance, and use “how I used to feel before I tried this” as your “control” experience. It is much easier to start a performance feeling really good than to turn around and try get there after the first song has problems. If you play the first song as a “control,” notice how everything feels and sounds.

          When you perform, wrap a fifth cord around yourself and the audience. Enjoy the feeling. If you are playing for a church, now is a good time to pray for everyone your will be playing for. I affirm that my music will bring each listener exactly what he or she needs. Play. Journal.

Verifying the Cord-Effects

          After playing with the cords in place, you can test whether they are really doing any good by taking your hand in a straight-finger position, and making a like a knife or axe blade chopping “through” the cord or cords you choose to sever. Then play your harp again and experience the difference. Journal if you wish. Once you're comforable with the procedure you will be able to sever the cord by picturing chopping it rather than using your hand.

Second Graduation

          Try all the audiences of visualization with the various cords around you, harp, music, and ensemble, including the critical audience. Rate and discuss/journal.

          Third Graduation – When You’re Ready

          Your third and final graduation will occur when you can play for the critical parents and others in your head with no anxiety. The day will come. Don’t try to rush it, just be aware that it is a goal, and come back to your visualizations from time to time, go through them, rate your SUDs, journal, compare to previous trials, and pat yourself on the back for progress well-earned.

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