Do You Worry About the “What-Ifs” ?

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what ifDo you suffer from the “what-ifs”?

My student was preparing for an important performance. We still had two or three lessons before the date, and I was confident she was prepared.

But at her next lesson she surprised me. Her playing was excellent, but she didn’t have the confidence in her playing that I did. She had a case of the “what-ifs.”

  • What if they don’t like me? They know you already and they like you.
  • What if I forget my music? You put your music on the stand and keep going.
  • What if I push a wrong pedal? You fix it and keep going.
  • What if I totally screw up? Really???

This student was an experienced performer and was well prepared. All she needed was a little pep talk.

For less experienced performers or musicians who have never performed at all, the thought of playing “in front of people” can give them a more serious case of “what-ifs.”

The good news is that there is a cure, even for first-timers. It’s a four-step process that prepares you at the same time you are preparing your music. It helps you create a cushion of confidence, like a safety net, that will support you when you need it.

The ultimate enemy of the “what-ifs” is experience. It makes sense that once you have played a performance, you know better what to expect next time. Next time doesn’t have to be as scary. You just have to turn the “what-ifs” into “even-ifs,” so that you don’t worry about what might go wrong but you know you can play even if something goes wrong.

The trick to creating “even-ifs” is to make this performance one that will help embolden you to play again.  And that requires preparation.

The steps below will help you prepare properly for any kind of performance you have coming up. Ideally, this process should be spread over four to eight weeks, especially for a first performance. But if your first performance is in your immediate future, you can still use these tips to feel more confidence, play more securely and enjoy your performance.

Practice for Performance.

I know – you’ve been practicing. But often our regular practice is focused on fixing notes, fingering and other details. What matters more in performance is continuity or flow. You need to present your music in the way that a listener experiences it: a unified musical idea. Your practice as you near your performance needs to center increasingly on playing through your piece, beginning to end with no stops or hesitations.

This will help you develop the mental focus and physical stamina that you will need in performance as well as pulling your attention away from the details and back to the big picture.

If you’re not sure how your piece might sound to a listener, record it and review your recording. You will know instantly where you need to focus your practice efforts.


Your performance should not be the first time you ever play your piece for someone. Create “preview” performances, playing in different places, different times, for different people even if it’s only a friend or two.

Practicing in the space where you will perform is very helpful, but if that’s not possible, try seeing if you could practice in a local church or school where you could feel what it will be like to play in a big space. This will help reduce the feeling of intimidation from being on a stage.

One more suggestion: practice walking to your harp and bowing for the audience. If you think it feels silly, remember that the less you leave to chance, the less there is to worry about!

Play Favorites.

Whenever possible, play pieces you know well. You don’t have to play the hardest piece you’ve ever learned. Playing music you love and have mastered is a powerful confidence booster.

Picture Success.

It is essential that you create positive mental images to keep in mind as you prepare for your performance. If you have experience with visualization techniques, use them now. Envision yourself walking to your harp, head held high, sitting down at the harp, focusing your thoughts and playing your piece.

Create positive self-talk. Coach yourself; be your own best cheerleader. Understand that you will be nervous, and determine that you will play anyway.

And afterward, you can start practicing for your next performance!

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  • Rob Stone

    Great advice Anne! Thank you! There is a skit in the movie “Modern Times”, where Charlie Chaplin has to perform as a singing waiter, so he writes the words on the cuffs of his shirt(the cuffs, collars of a shirt were separate in this era). Anyway, when he comes out, the first thing he does is wave his arms and the cuffs fly off! Now, he has to perform the song without looking at the words and the rest is hilarious! I was hired a while ago to perform in Atlantic City and they gave me very sketchy details about the job. When I got there I was told I would have to take all the solos, no written music, during a fashion show. When I went off stage for a break, I was asked to help a model with her dress-you never know what to expect when you perform!


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