noa’s guide to nerves

noa's guide to nerves.png

so…i used to think that i was the only one on earth who got terrible audition nerves. i thought it was completely hopeless and i’d never win a job. 

i’d shake at auditions and get cut and feel like it was all a big waste of time. i’d feel like i, personally, was just unlucky and i was disqualified from being a musician in this life.

but it’s not true.

musicians can overcome nerves. you can practice a simple set of skills during audition prep to improve steadily and overcome the problem by audition day. i proved it to myself by developing my audition prep and getting rid of shaking, eventually. 

today i want to give you the tools you need to deal with nerves. so i brought in a true expert on the subject.


noa kageyama is the author of the bulletproof musician blog and he’s also a professional performance psychologist who teaches elite musicians at the juilliard school. 

i asked him a whole bunch of questions about nerves, and i hope that you can use these tools to understand and then systematically address each of your symptoms of nerves.

he answered a bunch of important questions, like:

  • what are nerves?
  • does everyone get nerves?
  • can you overcome nerves?
  • where do you start?
  • how do you address nerves during audition prep?
  • should you try beta blockers?

imagine having
complete confidence
while preparing
for your next audition.

noa and i are teaming up to teach an
8-week summer boot camp
to help you practice better and
perform more confidently. 

you’ll learn how to practice more effectively, use elite strategies to eliminate performance anxiety, and prepare for auditions with a proven, step-by-step process. and you’ll do it alongside a class of ambitious musicians like you.

at the end, you’ll feel like you KNOW how to make your excerpts sound like you want. you’ll KNOW how to spend every minute to make audition day feel like an
actual achievement and not a let-down. 

and you’ll know what type of practice leads to maximum
yes votes from the audition committee.

enrollment deadline:
may 27th at 11:59pm eastern time

live session dates: 

may 31
june 7  
june 14
june 21

august 9
august 16
august 23
august 30

(note: you do not need to be present at every live session to participate)

instruments: all!
level/age: all!

the interview

Rob: what actually happens when people get nervous while performing music?

Noa: there are actually two key elements of nerves.

first, there’s the physical response. your hands get sweaty, your muscles tighten, your heart pounds, we feel butterflies in our stomach. all that stuff is not helpful and very distracting…

the other is the psychological/mental response. and this is the one that tends to be more key to determining whether we’re going to perform well or not. 

if we start to obsess over the physical stuff that’s happening, then we don't have the brain power left over to think about what kinds of sounds do we want. and that results in underperforming. or we enter the cruel paradox where the more we worry about memory slips, the more likely we are to have them. 

R:  if i get bad audition nerves, does that mean that i can’t be a musician? or do all musicians get audition nerves?

N: everybody gets nervous. it’s not some inoperable condition that can’t be changed or can’t be improved on. it doesn't matter if you’re an olympic athlete, or an eye surgeon who has to perform microsurgery, or a musician auditioning for an orchestra position. and it’s actually kind of abnormal to not experience nerves. 

any time you care about something and the results are uncertain, your body is going to respond in a pretty predictable kind of way. on the other hand, if you don’t give a crap then you won’t be nervous because there’s no real pressure. 


that’s what i’m hoping to teach others. i want to make sure that people don’t still have the idea of “oh, if i get nervous, there's something wrong with me and i don't have what it takes to do this thing that i love doing”.

instead, you can work on it. you can work towards getting yourself to understand that “you know what, yes i get nervous but so does everybody else. and i can get better at learning how to handle this response.”

this is the skill development that goes into performing more effectively when you have nerves. you shouldn’t think of it as trying to get rid of nerves, but instead to just understanding what to focus on regardless of nerves. and this is just a set of skills. it’s definitely not something about your personality or character that’s flawed in some way. 

R: just another skill, like developing better rhythm, better coordination, or sense of phrasing. this is the skill of practicing dealing with nerves throughout your audition prep. i like that. so even if you feel like nerves is debilitating, there’s still hope?

N: right. absolutely. 

R: say i'm feeling nerves in my auditions. where do i actually start? 

N: good question. i used to always assume that if i practiced enough and was prepared a week or two before the performance, i wouldn't be nervous when the performance day arrived. that never ever happened. 

the tendency for most people is to practice your music well in advance, and not worry about nerves until the performance is maybe 1 or 2 weeks away. then you start to realize that you’re nervous. that’s too late. you need to start developing mental skills to combat nerves well in advance, even before you’re even ready to do run throughs. 

let’s start with two of the best exercises to deal with performance anxiety: diaphragmatic breathing and attention control training

so, diaphragmatic breathing. it sounds like it couldn't possibly be effective. but…

a - it’s easier said than done, 
b - it requires skill development and practice, and
c - it’s one of the most impactful ways of attenuating the stress response or controlling the stress response. 

there’s tons of videos online that lay out how to breathe in this way. just google it. but a singer recently shared with me a shortcut to more effective diaphragmatic breathing

try to imagine that you have a belt around your midsection with noses strung all around it, like the nose on your face. and imagine breathing in through all the noses on your belt. it seems goofy at first, but once you try it (go ahead and try it right now!), you certainly realize you can breathe and expand your abdominal air in a different way than you might normally.

and then the other mental skill is attention control training

this is all about creating a mental script for your performance just like you do with the physical side of things. 

think about it. physically, you know exactly where your hands will be, what your arms will do, and what your breathing should be like depending on the instrument that you play. and you make all of that automatic.

but we don't spend a lot of time scripting out what we should be thinking about, for instance, when we hear the person in front of us playing note-perfect excerpts. we need to have scripts for all the different moments of a performance, whether it’s waiting backstage or walking onstage or when you start playing your first excerpt. this is how you make sure your mind doesn’t stray from focusing on the music.

let’s talk about how to practice this.

basically you’ll work on these skills just like you would any other aspect of the music. focus on them every time you do a run through, and try evaluating them on a scale from 1-10.

for attention control training, here’s what lowers your score: if you critique yourself while you’re playing, or if you worry about something that might happen before it actually does happen, those thoughts result in a lower score. over time, you can try to get closer to scoring an 8, 9, or 10. once you get there, then increase the difficulty. invite a friend over and see if you can achieve the same things with a friend watching. then maybe invite a friend who you know less well who you get a little more anxious for, and see if you can achieve an 8 or a 9. and then invite yourself over somewhere else, and do mock auditions for teachers and other people whose opinion who really matter to you. score all of it.

you basically go up this hierarchy of pressure situations where it’s not just about exposure, it’s about practicing these skills and improving them as you go. by the time of the audition, you’ll have proven to yourself that you have a game plan that works for you. 

R:  if you you shake when you play, can you improve that by working on the mental side of things? 

N: i wish i could say there’s a direct relationship between the mental and physical sides. it would be nice if there was a very specific phrase to tell yourself so that you won't ever shake again, right? 

and, actually, nerves are not all bad. they have the potential to heighten the emotion and energy in the music. if we can embrace the adrenaline as energy, it allows us to have a level of focus that goes beyond what we can do in the practice room. i think most people have had experiences where they’ve been kind of nervous but really kicked butt on stage and played really really well. and other times where they weren't entirely nervous, and strangely calm, and the performance fell flat.

so we all have an individual optimal range of anxiety, if you will, where we tend to have our best performances. not too much but also not too little. it’s a matter of understanding where your optimal range is and knowing how to get there more consistently.

you can think of something like shaky hands like this: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. if you're able to control what you think about before you play, if you practice in a way that gives you increased trust in your ability to play during increasing levels of pressure, and if you’re also able to develop confidence in your ability to handle the physiological response so that it doesn't spiral out of control, then all those things together tend to allow folks to be in a more optimal physical mental place to do your best performing. 

R:  ok, last question. i can’t let you go without asking this. what do you think about beta blockers?

N: assuming the right dosage and timing, the beta blockers will take care of the physiological response. that’s what they do. (although, make sure that you’re being supervised by a physician, otherwise they can be dangerous.) 

but here’s the thing. even if you cure the physiological response, the mental response can be the same. you might still worry about difficult things coming up or worry about what the committee is thinking. you could still be totally distracted, even by how oddly calm you seem in that moment. 

and because beta blockers don’t affect the mental response, musicians can still have up or down or mixed performances. that’s why they have a mixed track record.

sometimes people have a physical response to performing that is so extreme that the physician will prescribe beta blockers as a way for them to get started. but in the same way that a psychologist would work with someone with serious depression or serious general anxiety under medication at first, they are still going to try to work with them on the skills to that will enable them over time to start weaning off the medication. 

the stakes just seem to grow and grow. if you have a good experience with beta blockers for one audition, it’s not going to get easier to get off of it later because the pressure to maintain this level of performance just grows. and there’s never a great time to get off. so i think unless there’s a compelling reason, it may not be a good idea to start there. the place to start is with things that don't have potential physiological dependence, and so that’s usually where i focus. while i dont have a hard and fast moral or ethical stance on beta blockers, it does worry me because they can be too easily sought out as an initial step. 

R: thank you so much, noa! 

rob knopper

hailed by @nytimes and james levine as needing 'louder triangle notes'. recorded delécluse: douze études for snare drum, percussionist in @metorchestra.