How to Overcome Stage Fright and Performance Anxiety: Ultimate Guide

How to Overcome Stage Fright and Performance Anxiety: Ultimate Guide

     How’s it going? My name is Cory Lee, and I’m the founder and executive coach of Liberated Performer. Since 2011, I have been teaching performers how to overcome stage fright and perform their best. I have given presentations at Juilliard and other conservatories, coached performers who perform with the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, and performed professionally around the world including solos in Carnegie Hall. I am thrilled to welcome you to Liberated Performer's Ultimate Guide.

     In this document, you will learn everything you need to know about performing, including how to overcome the mental and physical blocks of anxiety, how to perform your best in high-pressure situations, and how to actually enjoy your performance.

     This is going to be a very thorough document, essentially a crash course, so make sure to bookmark this page so you can revisit it over time. Also, I have created a table of contents below so you can sort through the topics.

Disclaimer: This is for the serious performer only. The content is intense and highly detailed; it requires action. Does this mean you have to be the best at your performance art? No. You just have to be serious about improving.

     ALSO, this document is not some top-5 psychological hack nonsense. No. This is about developing into a performer who has rock star confidence, who has the power to communicate to the audience on a powerful level, who is not afraid of using the spotlight to express themselves, who wins auditions and competitions, and most importantly, who has the courage to make a difference in this world.

Anyway, enjoy the guide, and let’s do this!

1. Discover the long-term motivations to overcome your anxiety for life.

     What is your motivation to overcome anxiety? Is it to stop shaking, sweating, and an increased heart rate? To avoid negative thoughts rushing through your head, like “I’m not good enough,” or “What will other people think of me?” To win auditions and play well in concerts? To avoid embarrassment? These are all valid short-term motivations that first encourage us to embark on our journey to overcome performance anxiety. They are usually created by past failures or a performance culture that creates high-pressure situations.

The first thing we need to do is reframe these thoughts in a positive light.

  • Instead of saying, “I want to perform without shaking, sweating, and an increased heart rate,” say, “I want to perform physically in control.”
  • Instead of saying, “I want to perform without negative thoughts like ‘I’m not good enough,’ or ‘What will other people think of me?’“, say, “I want to focus on powerfully communicating to the audience,” or choose a more specific focus, like producing a great sound.
  • Instead of saying, “I want to win auditions and play well in concerts,” which leads you to be outcome-dependent, say “I want to play to my full potential and offer as much value as possible,” without demanding any specific outcome.
  • Instead of saying, ”I want to avoid embarrassment,” say, ”I want to express myself to the highest degree and walk off the stage knowing I unapologetically performed like myself.”

     Now that we have reframed our short-term motivations, let’s discover the deeper motivations and benefits that will power you past the tougher obstacles. These motivations include the ability to actually enjoy your performance; to have a long-lasting, successful, and sustainable career; and to increase self-esteem and confidence, not only for performing, but for your entire life. These motivations might not be as powerful as the first list of motivations in terms of jump-starting your journey, but over time, they become the most important. Imagine performing with anxiety every time you walk on stage. Why would you practice thousands of hours for the opportunity to go on stage and experience anxiety? It doesn’t make sense, yet for many, this is a reality. Now imagine a more extreme version of this. Imagine performing your whole life with anxiety. On average, that’s 2-3 anxiety-ridden performances a week for decades. This creates unsatisfying experiences and a never-ending negative cycle. Unfortunately, this is reality for some professionals.

     Now that we have our short-term and long-term motivations, let’s further emphasize the most important aspect, which is the development of extremely high self-esteem and confidence. In order to understand why it’s crucial, first imagine a life lived with zero confidence. You don’t take on any challenges, you never feel great about yourself, and life is just kind of there. Secondly, imagine a life with an average amount of confidence. You take on challenges, you feel decent about yourself, but you’re not fully maximizing your potential in life. This is where most people live and become content. It’s totally valid and even leads to a good life. However, for a performer, it is not enough because we place ourselves in intense environments like auditions and concerts. Finally, imagine a life with extremely high confidence. You believe you can accomplish anything, you feel amazing about yourself, and you’ll be enjoying and maximizing your boss lifestyle. Let’s now make that imagination a reality through action.

2. Why you need more than just advice to conquer your performance anxiety.

Typically when you ask someone how to get over stage fright, they will give you advice like this:

  • “Just be confident!”
  • “Just believe in yourself!”
  • “Imagine the audience naked.”
  • “Eat a banana.”
  • “Just practice more.”

We all know this doesn’t work well enough. But let’s give your peers and mentors more credit. Perhaps they suggest learning how to:

  • “Breathe correctly.”
  • “Visualize success.”
  • “Join Liberated Performer!”

     Now that’s some good advice! However, it is all meaningless if no action is taken. It’s as if your teacher explained technique to you, but you didn’t actually practice. It is great advice but again, is meaningless. Advice is great for simple things in life like the rules for tic tac toe. However, auditions, competitions, and performances are INTENSE environments. In order to counteract an intense environment, you need to attack it with INTENSE strategies and ACTION. So, no matter how much awesome knowledge you receive, if it is not implemented with consistent and INTENSE ACTION, expect more anxiety.

3. Is practicing more the solution to your performance anxiety?

     Let me first start by saying practicing is crucial. Practicing deliberately and correctly is even more important. However, with that said, many performers rely on general practice to defeat their anxiety. General practice is defined as going to the practice room and doing your normal routine. This does not work. It may help a little, but you are not preparing yourself to perform to the best of your ability. During my undergraduate auditions, I practiced 5-7 hours a day, yet when I entered auditions, I shook uncontrollably, sweated, and focused on other things besides the music. During my time at Juilliard, I again practiced 5 hours a day, yet I still got nervous for studio class, competitions, and concerts. I was improving in the practice room, which is great, but I did not prepare myself for the stage. If you continue your same routine, same mindsets, and same behaviors, you’ll produce the same results.

4. Avoid these common mistakes on stage at all costs.

a) Many performers walk on stage seeking the approval of the audience and judges. This makes sense because the audience controls the applause and the judges control the results of your performance. However, when we seek validation, it detracts from our performance and causes anxiety, as we switch our focus away from the music and onto the opinions of others. Once we start thinking about how people will judge us, our anxiety can be triggered. We need to be able to perform free of others’ validation and opinions in order to play to our full potential and express ourselves. So how do we do this? We validate ourselves before we walk on stage. We do not wait until the audience applauds or the judges give us good feedback, because it’s too late by then. The goal is not just to feel good about ourselves after the performance, but to feel good during the performance as well, since it produces a more spontaneous and positive performance experience. Successfully validating yourself requires self-generated confidence, a strong identity, and the bravery to be vulnerable. I was recently chatting with the winner of a top international competition who asked to remain anonymous, and I asked him what his mindset was before he walked out for the final round. He had this to say. “I’m just excited to go out there and perform. I spent years on this repertoire discovering how I want to interpret my program, and I absolutely love the way I play this program.”

b) Many performers lack a significant purpose on stage. With an insignificant purpose on stage — like performing because it’s required, or because you want to prove yourself —  anxiety will overwhelm you, because you will have nothing strong enough to bring you back to focus in times of pressure. We need to walk on stage with an unstoppable force of purpose. In order to achieve this, you must take the time to ask yourself the questions of the cosmos in regards to your identity and programming. What is the meaning of your performance? What are your goals on stage? Is your performance valuable? How can you powerfully communicate to the audience? The last detail of this mindset is that you have to be 100% committed to your intention and purpose. There must be no doubt about your purpose when you walk on stage.

c) Many performers let stress get the best of them. Stress overwhelms us, makes us think differently, and changes our physiology as our adrenaline increases. Over time, stress creates a long-term negative impact on our health. We need to develop stress management skills so we feel in control when it occurs and can actually enjoy our careers. One of these management skills is the development of emotional intelligence, also known as EQ. This is the idea that you feel what you feel, but then rise above your emotions and execute the right action. We performers can use EQ at all stages of the preparation processes. During the preparation process, we may encounter days when we feel unmotivated and procrastinate. However, the right thing to do on these days is to overcome our lazy feelings and go practice anyway. Another common situation for using EQ is right before the performance, because we often feel nervous. When we feel nervous, we naturally start triggering our stress response behaviors such as over-practicing, overeating, shutting down, or freezing. However, it is crucial to rise above our stressful emotions and execute our pre-performance routine to get ourselves in the most optimal performing mindset. EQ will help you, not only with anxiety and performing, but with life. It is one of the most common skills among all successful professionals.

d) Many performers walk into auditions and concerts with false perceptions of the audience and judges. Typically, these perceptions are on the negative side, which creates anxiety. But what are the judges and audience actually thinking? We will never truly know, but we can at least reverse our negative perceptions into positive perceptions in order to help us feel better on stage.

     I have asked more than 100 professional performers about their experiences judging auditions and competitions. Some of these performers are faculty from Juilliard and Yale, such as Ani Kavafian and Naoko Tanaka. While each person says different things, all of them agreed on certain ideas. The first one is that judging is not the most fun part about living a performance career. They would much rather be performing or teaching. Therefore, many have said they really wish the performer would play their best so it’s more enjoyable for everyone. Along those lines, they specifically mentioned it’s quite uncomfortable, but normal, to see a performer be affected by anxiety. Therefore, everyone, including the judges, wants you to play and feel great.

     But what do they look for? They look for different aspects in different situations. General criteria almost always include the assessment of technique and artistic ideas in some form. For more specific judging criteria, the audition or competition usually has guidelines or mission statements. Besides the basic requirements, many judges are looking to see if you can be a great colleague. They ask questions like “Can I perform with this person?”, “Does this artist have the potential to have a successful career?”, and “Will this artist be the future leader of our craft?” You must see the judges as potential colleagues as well. This is a crucial mind shift. You must see them as equals. You must see them as humans who happen to be listening to you. Do not build them up as these all-empowering authority figures. They are your future colleagues, and they want you to play your best so they can see who you are.

e) Many performers never explore other performing arts cultures. On a day-to-day basis, a performer’s career is filled with rehearsals, individual practice, and concerts. There’s something beautiful about this as we accidentally shut ourselves off from the world to refine our craft. However, there comes a point where isolation negatively affects our overall development. By staying in isolation, we prevent ourselves from growing a stronger artistic identity. We avoid new creative experiences. We fail to overcome obstacles created by our specific culture. Most importantly, we lose the opportunity to implement the strengths of other fields. Check out my ongoing series of blog posts about how to expand your artistic identity here. As a classical musician, I embark into the jazz, EDM, baroque, multi-disciplinary, and Native American cultures to expand and experience who I am as an artist today. I couldn’t imagine a life without these experiences.

5. How should you prepare to feel confident?

      "Practice makes perfect” only if the way you’re practicing is perfect, because practice actually makes permanent. But how do you tell if you’re practicing perfectly? Well if you’re experiencing performance anxiety or not achieving a certain goal, then something in your preparation process needs to adapt. Often, we maintain the same practice routine for years, which produces the same results and prevents optimal growth. For example, in the beginning of our careers, we are focused mainly on technique. As we grow, we can now dedicate more time to the artistry, as technique is more automatic. But all throughout your development, especially if you’re reading this, you may have fallen into the common mistake of neglecting the development of the mental side of performing. This is a crucial skill to develop and implement into your preparation, because no matter how much you practice technique and artistry, anxiety is still detracting from your performance. Therefore, we need a process that addresses the three main ingredients for success on stage. They are technique, artistry, and the mental strength to thrive in high-pressure situations.

     The process I use works for me and everyone I have worked with so far. However, that doesn’t guarantee it will work for you. Also, that statement is inflated, because I make sure I can help a person before accepting them into the program, because performance anxiety is extremely personal. Proceed with a mind ready for trial and error.

     My 200-step process begins with a massive technical checklist. I went back and reviewed every technical exercise I ever learned and put it on one document. While I used to spend months on each exercise, I periodically review them as a professional, because the basics should never be forgotten or taken for granted. I also researched and made sure I knew of every technical feat possible for my violin. For example, I made a list of all possible articulations and made sure I had an exercise for each in order to polish them. Successfully going through my technical checklist allows me to walk on stage with the peace of mind that I can perform anything.

     The next checklist I have is for artistry. This might sound anti-artistry because art is not a checklist. However, my checklist is formed around creative questions. For example, one question is “how do I want to time this passage? What is the character I want to communicate?” Again, in order to form this checklist, I went back and reviewed every aspect that creates artistry and put it on one document. Successfully going through my artistic checklist allows me to walk on stage with a clear intention for every second of the performance.

     The last checklist I have is for the mental side of performing. To create this list, I have taken the best ideas and strategies from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis, biology, professional performers, self-help, conservatory faculty, personal experience, and spirituality. While the list is over 400 pages of dense research, it’s important to know I customize this process for everyone I work with. Anxiety is different for everyone and cannot be solved with one general solution. With that said, let’s begin with mentally preparing yourself for any situation.

6. What should you be thinking before and after the performance?

     You’ll be most anxious when you’re at an audition, concert, or competition. The following advice is all based around the question, “What is the most beneficial mindset to help me perform to my full potential?” Let’s break it down into “before” and “after” mindsets.

     Before the actual audition or concert, your natural reaction in regards to anxiety is based on past experiences. If you’re reading this, you probably have negative attitudes and feelings about performing. You have to learn how to take on new perspectives. You do this by understanding our natural way of processing things. To simplify the process, it goes like this.

You hear or see something. → You make up a narrative. → The narrative creates feeling. → You act on the feeling.

     For example, you hear about a competition. You imagine a story, drawing on your past, including how you will mess up again and get anxious. Then you feel anxious. Then you act on your feelings by procrastinating or avoiding the competition.

     So what kind of “before” mindsets do we need to adapt? Well, we can’t just tell ourselves that we will be confident because that is based on limited experience, but we can at least assume the learner’s mindset. In the learner’s mindset, you assume you will make mistakes and get nervous. However, you focus on turning each event, negative or positive, into a learning experience. This decreases the pressure of your expectations and keeps you in a more productive state of mind.

     Another important “before” mindset is to go in with the attitude of giving it your best shot. This mindset offsets the typical mindset that we have to succeed EVERY SINGLE TIME WE STEP ON STAGE. That is simply unrealistic and unnecessary pressure to put on yourself. We have to understand the magnitude of what we are asking ourselves to do when we enter an audition or competition. We are asking ourselves to go into an INTENSE environment and succeed. Perfection is impossible even for the best of the best performers.

     Instead of expecting perfection, just walk on, knowing you prepared all you could, and give it your best shot, no matter how far in your career you are. You may argue that you need to succeed in this one performance, or else you’ll never have the opportunity again, and it’s a valid thought. However, adding that kind of pressure rarely works to produce the best result out of you in that moment. Focus on what mindsets are actually helping you feel great about yourself and empowering great technical and artistic execution.

     Another shift is to start viewing competitions and auditions as an amazing opportunity to take the next step in your career. Without auditions and competitions, you would not have the ability to get a job or get into a school. They are simply necessary. Does that mean they are perfect? Of course not. Can you get a job without auditions? It’s possible, but somewhere along the way you’ll encounter one. Debating the pros and cons of their existence is meaningless. They are here to stay, so we might as well reframe them to be an amazing opportunity, which they are!

     The last mindset to adjust before a performance is to have other projects or goals outside of the audition, concert, or competition. When we want to play well or win something, we place all our value and focus onto it. This is good and bad. It’s good because we need to devote our energy to what we want. However, having a small side project or a future competition to aim for releases the pressure off of winning this particular audition. The last thing we want is to feel like this is our only thing in our life and our only chance at success. Do not exaggerate the pressure and do-or-die scenario of ONE audition. Your life is never over, no matter how poorly you perform.

     What about the “after audition or performance” mindset? In auditions and competitions, you fundamentally either win or lose, although I always say it’s an eventual win because you can and must learn from your successes and failures.

     Let’s start with the most desired outcome. Let’s say you win. If you win, celebrate. I can’t emphasize this enough. In a field as tough as the performing arts, a celebration is not going to ruin your career even if you have deadlines approaching. Celebrations also allow you to clear your mind and get ready for the next goal.

     The second thing to do is share the good news! If you’re an introvert, share it anyway because the people who support you will enjoy it as they have enjoyed helping you along the journey. Along with celebrating and sharing the news, enjoy the moment. Be in the present moment and enjoy the fact that your hard work paid off, you achieved your goals, and positive feelings are flooding to your brain.

     Lastly, leverage this win for the immediate future. At your next performance, bring back this awesome feeling you have when times get tough. How do you build confidence? Experience. Leverage this experience for the future, and incorporate these great memories into your day-to-day work regimen. The high you feel after winning will only empower you and motivate you to aim for the next level of development. Ride the wave!

     Now let’s look at the other possible mindset to have after a performance. What if you lose? The first thing to do is to realize you’ll need to process what just happened. Over the past couple months, you have been preparing for this audition or competition. It’s never an amazing feeling to “lose”. Therefore, prepare in advance to expect some sort of recovery period.  Once you process things, you can move on.

     During part of the recovery period, it’s important to remember to enjoy the fact that you had this chance in the first place. This is not a made-up mindset. It’s actually the truth. If you ever meet people outside of the performing arts world, it’s rare that they will have similar experiences in high-pressure situations. It’s also rare to have a career in the arts, so enjoy it while it lasts. People would die to have the life you have. Performing is a truly unique opportunity to be cherished, no matter how it goes, because before you know it, the moment has passed.

     Realize there are more losers than winners, so relax. In our self-obsessed world we are constantly thinking about ourselves. Oh no, we lost an audition! Guess what, an overwhelming majority lost with you. Welcome to the club! Before my successful Juilliard audition, I was 3 for 30. But who’s counting? All you need are a couple of wins. Eliminate this self-perception that you are invincible or expect to win everything you enter. The more you embrace reality, the less you’ll be negatively affected by it when it hits you.

     After a loss, you must examine what went well and what you can improve on. If you lose and do not do this, you are missing out on valuable lessons and are only left with a negative experience of the whole process. Commit to learning from your mistakes and become open to adapting new ideas. After a loss, you’ll be more receptive to trying new things and seeking answers. Along with analyzing your preparation process and experience, also analyze what was in and out of your control. Could you control how the judges perceived you? Could you control your day of preparation? Could you control the other competitors? Avoid falling into the common mistake of having the false perception of controlling the environment. The only thing you can control is yourself.

     Continuing on the same mindset from the “before” section, it’s now time to vigorously attack your next project. When you work on the next project or goal, you will achieve small victories and rebuild confidence that may have been lost. Working on this next project will also remind you that life is not over after an audition loss or poor performance.

     The last phase of the “after” mindset for a loss is to remind yourself that your purpose in the performing arts is not to win auditions or competitions. They are important and part of your career development, but never let it detract from your greater purpose. Your greater purpose is your artistic identity, what you represent, and what you mean to the world. Avoid falling into the trap of losing sight of your greater purpose.

7. How you can create a pre-performance routine that actually works.

a) One of the keys to success on stage is having a pre-performance routine. Without one, you’ll be inconsistent. You won’t know why things work or don’t work, and you’ll be extremely underprepared for whatever happens. Typical routines include eating a banana, breathing, and practicing more. If solving anxiety was this simple, then no one would have a problem with anxiety. Anxiety is complex, so our pre-performance routine must be complex. It begins with the first steps of the 200-step preparation process, in order to make sure we have addressed the technical, artistic, and mental sides of performing. So what about the last steps we need for the couple of days before?

b) Before we dive in, let me say that creating a pre-performance routine requires customization. Again, what works for others may have no effect on you. While there are many aspects that should be personalized like what to focus on, I will give you a list that applies to everyone.

c) Get your logistics handled. The last thing you need is stress due to lack of planning. Do you have everything you need for the audition or concert? Do you know how to get to the performance space? Is your instrument ready to go?

d) Health is absolutely crucial for everything in life. Performing is part of life. Performing is life. Therefore, health is absolutely crucial for performing. Take care of your body. Eat well. Sleep well. Exercise. Consult a doctor, trainer, and dietician. You’ll feel amazing on stage.

e) Prepare for impossible performances. As a performer, you’ll inevitably at one point in time have to audition or perform after a tragedy, relationship difficulty, or something else that extremely distracts you and puts you in an unstable mindset. Do your best to focus hard on your task and delay emotions until the end of the performance. The show must go on, and if you can succeed in this moment, every other performance will seem easy. This is easier said than done, but it must be done. I will never forget how hard it was to perform after powerful events shook me. It’s a true test of mental strength and courage.

f) When you are backstage about to enter the audition room or concert stage, you will be on your own. If you do not know how to handle yourself, such that you rely on your teacher or performance anxiety coach, you’ll feel lost. While in the beginning, it’s important to get others’ help when learning how to cope with anxiety, there will come a time where you must be on your own. Therefore, it is crucial to develop the skill to coach yourself past your performance anxiety.

8. Techniques you can develop to manage your performance anxiety.

a) Visualization is a powerful external technique that you can use in the practice room and just before you walk on stage. In the practice room, you can visualize physical movements, musical ideas, or what’s known as mental practice. For performance anxiety, visualize both success and failure in high detail.

     Visualize success because while it’s only mental, it’s still better than having no experience succeeding in a high-pressure situation. Visualization also helps you organize your thoughts and go through possible scenarios to be mentally prepared for them.

     You can also visualize failure in the sense that you conclude that even if you mess up BIG TIME, you’ll still be alive. Often, we mentally increase the power of failure when we become anxious. However, this is the performing arts. You’re probably not going to die on stage, and you’re also not the first one to mess up. Failure is really OK. Confront it with visualization and be at peace with it. As you accept it as reality, you’re now free from its pain if it happens. You’ll also want to actually visualize the place you’re going to be auditioning or performing if possible. Get acquainted with the unknown, so when you get there in real life, you’ll have a higher sense of comfort. Google search the venue and possible judges, and introduce yourself! For further visualization guidelines, there are plenty of books in sports and performing arts out there.

b) Power poses are something I learned from both Amy Cuddy and Dr. Michael Luan. Amy Cuddy has a wonderful TED talk on power poses, and Michael Luan is a fitness coach and physical therapist at Music Academy of the West who helped me through anxiety. You should check out Amy Cuddy’s presentation here. She essentially studied people before they went into high-pressure situations, and she discovered that certain dominant body positions actually increased their confidence. The people who used power poses released more testosterone and lowered their cortisol, essentially reducing stress.

     Michael Luan offered similar advice to me when I first embarked on my journey to overcoming performance anxiety. He observed that in times of stress, we hunch over or protect our vital organs like our heart. However, in these moments, we should instead expand our body and make it vulnerable. When we open our body, we create a positive feedback loop that tells ourselves that we’re exposing our vital organs, but are still alive.

c) Breathing is similar to visualization in that it is a vital skill to develop and has been proven to help all fields of expertise. When we get stressed out, we tend to hold our breath. However, learning to breathe from your stomach as opposed to shallow breaths in the chest can help relieve stress. Breathing patterns can help, as well as conscious breathing and bringing awareness to the body. For further breathing guidelines, there are plenty of books in sports, meditation, yoga, and performing arts out there. The only thing I haven’t read about that I have found important is incorporating conscious artistic breathing into your practice. This way, when you get nervous, you’ll automatically breathe at certain places and it actually makes sense artistically too.

d) Alexander Technique is taught in the majority of conservatories and for good reason. Alexander Technique makes you aware of your alignment, helps you move in a more comfortable way, creates awareness of bad habits, and improves health. Take advantage of this. It reduces anxiety and improves your technical execution.

9. How do caffeine, alcohol, and beta-blockers affect your performance?

a) Everybody’s caffeine tolerance is personal. However, performance coaches typically recommend avoiding caffeine before the audition or concert as it may increase physical shaking. Become aware of how caffeine affects you — both time and amount — in regards to physical shaking and energy. If you feel like you need more energy, try to plan your nightly sleep schedule heading into the audition. If getting a good night’s rest is impossible, which is highly likely, look for other energy boosters such as a healthy energetic diet, 15 minute power naps as part of your pre-performance routine, and exercise.

b) Do not drink alcohol to solve your performance anxiety. Alcohol lowers your motor control.

c) Beta blockers are a prescription drug that reduces the physical manifestations of anxiety like shakiness, sweating, and increased heart rate. If your friend offers you some, make sure to go to a doctor to know how much you should be taking. Don’t just randomly take them, like I did back in the day. The downside of taking beta blockers is the fact that the mental manifestations of anxiety — like lack of confidence, self-doubt, and lack of focus — still exist. The more you use beta blockers, the more dependent you become on them in order to perform. Also, the longer you use them, the more you have to take to get the same effect. In addition to blocking the physical manifestations of anxiety, beta blockers block you from developing into the best performer you can be and block you from experiencing liberated performances. Instead of taking a pill to survive a performance or audition, develop the skill and self-esteem to walk into any environment and play your best. Your confidence will increase to extreme levels. Life is insanely awesome knowing you can thrive in high-pressure situations all because of your self-esteem, not because of a pill.

d) All these strategies will save you at some point in your career, and possibly for your entire career. These are the building blocks to achieving the mid-tier performance level of managing a performance. They are also the extra boost needed to achieve top-level performances. But how do I get to a top-level performance, doing more than managing my anxiety through techniques and strategies?

10. How to truly overcome your performance anxiety.

     No matter how many managing techniques you develop in your skillset, you will still be missing the fundamental key to overcoming your performance anxiety and truly experiencing liberation on stage. Often, we learn how to breathe, visualize, and other tactics that give us results. Over years of practice, we actually get quite good at it, and we can reduce the anxiety more and more at a faster rate. However, the skills to breathe correctly and visualize do not address the fundamental cause of your anxiety. They merely mask it temporarily. Shouldn’t we just be able to walk out and perform? What’s holding us back? Lack of confidence? Fear of judgement? Fear of failure? Lack of self-worth? Anxiety disorders like depression, social anxiety, general anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders? If we truly want to take our performances to our full potential and create an enjoyable career, we need to address the fundamental causes of anxiety. Do not let anxiety hold you back from becoming your best self, especially because we are artists. Part of the artist’s role is to be above fear, or at least consistently embracing it.

     Learning about and addressing your anxiety can be scary and can even destroy your current realities. However, after building yourself back up by restructuring perspectives; gaining new performance experiences; and becoming aware of your behaviors, thoughts, and personal history; you can now walk on stage with a completely different experience. Imagine walking on with an insane amount of confidence, and then using the external techniques — like breathing, visualization, and power poses — to help you focus and give you even more of a boost to performing your best. Performing like this is the goal. The goal is not to survive, but to thrive in performances. You can only do that by overcoming your fundamental causes of anxiety.

11. Why you need full commitment to the performing arts.

     The performing arts world is full of challenges. There will be ups and downs to your career. You need to keep in shape by practicing consistently. You need to improve your craft constantly. The high-pressure situations will never end. You will gain more responsibility as you progress in your career. There is constant competition for your job. There are years spent in solitude practicing.  You will constantly be tested on stage. Your art will be rejected.

     This sounds like a daunting list, and it can discourage many from continuing or choosing a career in the arts. However, if you can overcome all those and be at peace with the obstacles, the payoff is the best thing in the world. There is nothing like the stage and its power to communicate to people.

     But how do we improve our chances, facilitate progress, and gain a better mindset to cope with all these obstacles?

     Fully commit to the professional lifestyle. As a performer and as a person, commit to refining technique, expanding artistry, facing fears, and expressing yourself. Pursue self-improvement, self-confidence, work ethic, focus, and the intense love of your art. By committing to the lifestyle, you’ll gain massive experiences, stay on course during hardships, and power past rejection. Don’t just pretend to be a top performer, but actually live the life of a top performer.

12. Understanding your journey to overcoming performance anxiety.

     Our initial goal when seeking to overcome performance anxiety is to reduce anxiety. We do this by learning to manage a performance through techniques. When we want to take our performance to the next level — where we thrive in performances and walk on like a complete boss— we address our fundamental causes of anxiety in addition to increasing our performance skills and routines. This leads to amazing results that will improve your career and life exponentially. You gain confidence, overcome fears, develop high self-esteem, validate yourself, develop intense preparation processes, gain career opportunities, open yourself up, and powerfully communicate to the audience. You’ll learn to love performing and your art form on a deep level, enjoy adrenaline, have a purpose, and increase self-awareness. You’ll overcome rejection, gain artistic freedom, and have an amazing presence when on stage.

     Overcoming performance anxiety creates larger benefits than just performing your best. This journey not only allows you to become a better artist, but it also forces you to develop confidence for everything in life. You become your better self. This is a Liberated Performer.

13. Some epic inspirational stories from my years of coaching.

a) After a lecture at a pre-college program, a mother walked up to me and asked if I would coach her son in high school. She described him as being very shy and stiff. She said he would always get nervous in performance situations. When I met him, she was absolutely right. He was soft-spoken and hunched over in the shoulders, but when he played you could tell he had a solid technical and musical foundation. So we began working during his sophomore year, to prepare for college auditions.

     Over time, he got to a point where he could comfortably walk on stage and play much closer to his full potential. Could he perform like a rock star? Not yet, but he was closer. With the combination of a good teacher, consistent practice, and the confidence to succeed, he performed great in his auditions. He wasn’t the most talented musician at that stage in his career, but by merely investing in the mental skill of performing, he could play closer to his full potential during auditions. Meanwhile, the majority of performers who neglect the mental side, especially in high school, most likely auditioned at a lower quality because of pressure and anxiety.

b) I was contacted by a woman at Juilliard who began her email with “I am on the verge of quitting because of anxiety.” This is a real aspect of the performing arts and forces many people to take their talents elsewhere. This can stem from medical conditions, past experiences, personality, and many other variables. Whatever each person’s unique causes are, performers are moving away from the performing arts, and anxiety is a common reason. It makes sense too, because if you repeatedly can’t perform your best in high-pressure situations, how on earth are you going to win anything? Also, do you really want a career filled with anxiety experiences, one after another? Any sane person would choose a different lifestyle, including myself. I can’t imagine years of performing with anxiety! I’ve already experienced it and it sucks! Anyway, if I were to help her, she would need to help herself as well.

     In order to make sure the program would be a success for her, we met up and chatted for a bit. During our chat, she told me about her past, but more importantly, I noticed her inner motivation and emotion when talking about anxiety. This was going to be the key to her success. She was tired of being held back by anxiety. She wanted to get her career handled and do everything to achieve her dreams. She wanted to take control of her life. So we began the program, and her emotional leverage powered her past the tough obstacles and motivated her to focus and perfect her performance skills. She successfully took auditions with a newly developed confidence and love for music and life. She could now perform to her full potential in public, which led her to performing with one of the top 5 orchestras in America. Dream accomplished and still going.

c) Two years into my career as a performance anxiety coach, I received an email from a professional who wanted to overcome performance anxiety. A bit surprised, I asked myself, why would an already established performer (top 5 orchestra) contact me for help? I was less than half his age, not as musically experienced, and knew less about the field. So I met him to see if we could succeed together and discover his motivations. It turned out that he had been taking beta blockers since his conservatory days and wanted to perform without them. After years of taking them, he was a bit nervous about quitting them, especially because he was in such an important seat in the orchestra. What if he played poorly without them? Would he get fired?
Even though there was a real risk of lowering his playing quality, he still wanted to do whatever it takes to perform naturally. So we began the program with a couple of goals. The first goal was to stop taking beta blockers and offset the potential decrease of performance quality with even better preparation and more practice. To no surprise, he was quite nervous the first couple of performances without beta blockers. However, with the extra preparation and practice, he kept his job and played better than he expected. As he gained new experiences, threw out old mindsets, and adjusted his preparation process, he grew more confident in his performances.

     After his hard work and willingness to improve with an open mind, he now officially performs without beta blockers and feels completely liberated. Performing without beta blockers has done wonders to his confidence and he has developed a new appreciation for performing. Working with seasoned professionals is definitely a different dynamic than working with high school performers. There’s a certain understanding and emphasis on the subtle details that translate their years of professional life experience into more success. After I work with them, they always tell me that they wish they’d known about the mental side of performing earlier in their career.

14. My own personal rough journey to overcoming performance anxiety.

     The last story is my own personal journey. Let me start by saying I was not a natural-born performer by any means. In fact, I was probably one of the worst. I began experiencing performance anxiety in my early teenage years where I would shake uncontrollably and perform to half of my potential. Negative thoughts ran through my head, like “What are people thinking of me?” and I would sweat profusely onto my violin. This continued for years during concerts, auditions, lessons, and even rehearsals. However, after completely embarrassing myself at a small regional competition in the middle of nowhere, I decided to do something about it. No more failure. No more fear. No more feelings of helplessness.

     With this motivation, I embarked on the journey to learning everything about performance anxiety. I gained massive positive performance experiences, faced my fears of judgement, and created a 200-step preparation process that keeps growing. Most importantly, I built my self-esteem. After years of self-development, I can now say I can perform confidently in any situation and enjoy my time on stage.

     From fearing the stage and literally shaking in my shoes, I now love performing and can’t imagine my life without it. I love the feeling of walking onto the stage at an audition or concert and performing totally absorbed in the music, present in the music, playing to my full potential, nailing the technical passages, and carving out the musical phrases like I know I can. I am fully expressing myself and powerfully communicating to the audience. All my hard work is being realized, whether I’m winning an audition itself, or walking off stage after a concert knowing I did my best. I have all of this because I overcame anxiety, one of the hardest things to do in life. But the benefits didn’t stop at performing. Everything in life, with the true development of self-esteem, improved drastically. We can overcome any fear we have and can genuinely conquer the world.

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Overcome Stage Fright: Speak Confidently In Public

How To Speak Confidently On Stage

In 2017, my colleagues and I were ecstatic and grateful to receive honorary doctorates for our work at Denison University. With this honor, we were asked to give the commencement speech as thousands of people. While it did not phase my colleagues, it definitely got my heart pumping followed by a rush of anxious thoughts. Now this wasn't the first time I was getting nervous at the thought of speaking in public, but it was definitely a situation with higher stakes. Some of the thoughts that went through my head were what if I messed up? Would the University be embarrassed that they just honored me? Would my colleagues be disappointed? Would the faculty and students question my value and forever remember me as the guy who couldn't speak? AHHH! Be right back, freaking out. 

Photo Credit: Tim Black

Photo Credit: Tim Black

So, what should I do to not feel anxious? 

Prepare. Sound familiar?

The first step is to develop great content. If you don't have great content, you won't feel as entitled to speak as well. It's like the difference between playing a piece that clearly lacks quality compared to your favorite piece. There's just a different mindset even if as a professional you try to play every piece with equal effort. Along with developing great content, you'll inevitably discover techniques like "making good eye contact". All of these techniques are in service of helping you communicate your great content. It's like learning how to produce a good sound quality with your instrument so the audience is not distracted and can actually listen to the music. 

The second step is working with a speaking coach. We all know the value of private lessons and coachings. Nothing gets you to your goal faster and more efficiently. In tandem with working with a coach, you will need to practice consistently and develop good habits. All the typical practice principles apply like taking it slow, doing it right the first time, listening intently, analyzing and applying the right solutions, experimenting, and repeating the passage until you can execute it 10 times perfectly in a row. 

The third step is to begin speaking in public! Join a toastmasters club or practice in front of friends. This is a crucial step because we all know that no matter how much you practice, it never guarantees how you will do on stage. You need speaking experience!

The fourth and final step is to speak with a clear intention in the present moment. A lot of times you will watch many presentations and speeches that have zero personality. This will not be good enough. There needs to be a performance aspect to it. You need to embody the character of what you are saying just like in music. 

In conclusion, you will need great content, techniques to convey your message, individual practice, public practice, and that X factor to speak in public successfully. This may sound like a lot of work, but as performers already, you have the foundation in place to move people with your words. So, do not fear, put in the work, be patient, and develop this vital skill!


-Coach Cory


Part 5: How to Improve Creativity In Music With Multimedia Programs

How to Improve Creativity In Music Part 5: Multimedia Programs

Welcome to part 5 of improving your creativity in music! We have covered quite the range of cultures and now I'm thrilled to give you the inside scoop on ETHEL's newest project called Circus-Wandering City. This is one of my most favorite programs of all time. It's super fun, entertaining, and represents a new direction for classical performances.

Circus- Wandering City combines stunning images and films from the Ringling Museum’s unmatched archives, intricate projection mapping, and original music composed by members of the quartet. The music and projections illuminate and reveal a 21st century take on a larger-than-life performing culture of global traditions and origins, while celebrating the wonderment and excitement of one of America’s most iconographic popular culture experiences.

So how does this project expand artistic development?


All my life I was trained to translate a composers intent. I study a composers style and acknowledge directions like notes and dynamics. It's really fun and ultimately what I still do for a living. However, in this program we have created our own music which is doing it old school like Bach who composed and performed his works. For me personally, this task was challenging because I am the only one with pretty much zero composition experience. Fortunately, I had the help of my colleagues, one who was even nominated for a Grammy in composition, to tackle this obstacle. 

Throughout this process, I faced massive creative and technical challenges. I would experience writers block for days and would be forced to start from scratch again. Just like all previous skills I developed, it forced me to create some sort of process. I learned to be flexible in my approach, but for starters, just get a solid concept and overview of what I was going for before diving in. 

Ultimately, creating music gave me new insights and exposed me to the composers perspective. We can study composers all we want, but we won't truly understand their perspective if we don't try it ourselves. By no means am I a master composer now, but by merely completing works, it gave me a deeper understanding of improvising, structure, and musical language.

The other and probably most relevant impact it had on me was the feeling of absolute ownership of the music. I wasn't playing Mozart, I was playing Cory. When you play your own music, you can't make a mistake and you know exactly what to aim for (relatively speaking).

Theater and Dance

Every time I went to my classmates dance concerts and theater productions, I always left in awe. Theater and dance have always moved and inspired me to look for ways to incorporate certain aspects into the classical concert. With Circus- Wandering City, it was the perfect chance. Thanks to director Grant Mcdonald, we emphasize staging, lighting, choreography, costumes, story line, and set design. Sound familiar? Well that's because it's similar to opera! To me, there is nothing more inspiring then taking the best of what other performance arts offer and trying to incorporate it into my performance. After watching something like this, how can you not be inspired to expand your use of choreography and staging?


If performing my instrument wasn't hard enough already, ETHEL loves to sing and play at the same time. It adds a beautiful color and makes the show more dynamic. Kip Jones, the other violinist in ETHEL is a master at this and it's one of his claims to fame. Anyway, for me I wasn't ever really a trained singer. I sang in a choir for a little but nothing compared to my training in violin. 

So here I was trying to sing and play at the same time and wow, what a terrible result. The moment I focused on my singing, I played like I was in pre-college again. The moment I focused on violin, my voice sounded like a tone deaf drunk person singing karaoke. To improve, I began doing a couple exercises like singing scales as I played them to match the voice and violin. After hours of practicing that skill, I could execute it decently. When I listen back to the concert recordings I still have a long way to go, but it's at least a step in the right direction. 

After my experience of singing and playing at the same time, you might think it's not worth it. However, singing forced me to be that much more automatic with my violin skills. Without singing, I could focus on the sound of my violin and everything would be fine. However, since I had to focus on singing, my sound quality and intonation had to be so engrained in my muscle memory that I didn't have to think about it. Yes, that made me practice more but the payoff is so rewarding. 


Memorization is standard for solo repertoire in classical music but not really for orchestra or chamber music. It makes sense that it is like this because it's really hard to remember so much repertoire especially when the repertoire changes every week and certain figures might be repetitive. However, in this program, we will be touring it for a couple years and find it much more practical and beneficial to memorize it.

Memorization not only allows us to be free from sheet music, but the opportunity to create amazing communication on stage. Instead of looking down at our music with our peripheral vision on our fellow peers, we can look into each others eyes and jam the whole piece! Now to get here, we need to rehearse a lot, do a lot of personal practice, and review, but memorizing repertoire is simply liberating. The audience can see and feel the music on a deeper level because you're that much more engaging. Check out the Aurora Orchestra. Look how beautiful it is to perform for memory. 

Production Team

Often times in our training, we are isolated in our practice rooms working on our individual obstacles. This is great, but we must not forget about joining a team. In every professional field, the best things are always created by multiple people and classical music is no different. Now you may be out there alone performing Bach, but you still have to give credit and work with your teacher, manager, presenter, marketing team, and supporters.

With regards to creating a program such as Circus- Wandering City, ETHEL had big dreams and knew it had to reach out to other disciplines to empower the creative process. The program features direction and projections by Grant McDonald, scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West, costume design by Beth Goldberg, lighting design by Bradley King and sound design by Stowe Nelson.

With professionals in each of these categories, it allows ETHEL to focus on our musical strengths, while simultaneously incorporating different performance aspects to create a program like no other. A production of this magnitude simply cannot be created without a team effort and ETHEL is honored to collaborate with all of them!

So, in conclusion, get your team spirit on and create something bigger than yourself. 

Photo from our work in progress show in 2016! Join us for our premier in January of 2018!

Photo from our work in progress show in 2016! Join us for our premier in January of 2018!


Partaking in this process has made me think about so many different ways of performing. It has been an extremely entertaining, creative, and awesome experience with tons of fails but also epic realizations. As ETHEL creates more productions, we will take away many lessons from this process and improve upon them. However, after years of investment in time and energy, sometimes you just gotta step back and appreciate what you created. 

Hope to see you at a show!

-Coach Cory

How To Recover From A Bad Performance

How To Recover From A Bad Performance

Have you ever experienced an extreme low after performing? Well, I certainly have. Check out these thoughts about what you're feeling.

Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments at

Be well.

-Coach Cory

Part 4: How to Improve Creativity In Music Through Native American Music

How to Improve Creativity In Music Part 4: Native American Music

Welcome to part 4 of improving your creativity in music! The past three articles have summarized my visits to the baroque, jazz, and EDM worlds. In this article, I am so excited to introduce you all to one of ETHEL's main collaborators, Robert Mirabal. 

Robert Mirabal is a Native American flute player, instrument builder and three time GRAMMY® Award winner. In collaboration with ETHEL, we created one of our most powerful programs called "The River". During this program, the audience is immersed in a flow of music, narrative, and ritual, that evokes timeless Native American traditions through contemporary musical artistry. It is truly a unique collaboration and has empowered me to develop not only as a performer, but as a person.


I grew up viewing the stage as a place to perform my piece at a high level, entertain the audience, and somewhere along the way, I started seeking the validation of the audience. These are common views shared by many in the musical world, but what does it result in? In my case, it produced a musician who was negatively affected by both the extreme pressure to execute at the highest level and audiences potential negative opinions. I was simply stressed every time I was performing or auditioning and it wasn't a fun or successful time. To solve this, I learned managing techniques, developed strategies and intense processes for performing my best and enjoying the stage. After years of work, I was able to get to that point and it felt amazing. With multiple successful experiences and auditions, I thought I had performing finally figured out. However, when I started performing with Robert Mirabal, I quickly realized he embodied a different spirit on stage that could help me even further.

If you ever attend a Robert Mirabal concert, which you should, you'll immediately feel his connection with the audience. He is the definition of a natural performer. But how does he get there? Well aside from owning his music and being the best at what he does, he views the stage as a place of ceremony. A ceremony differs from the standard view of the stage because it is just something you do. It's not a place to seek validation and prove yourself. It's not even about executing at the highest level. For example, if you go to church and the congregation or priest is singing out of tune, no one is judging. They are there for the ceremony. Now of course as a performer you don't want egregious execution to distract from the ceremony, but you get my point. The focus is more on creating the experience, ritual, and spirit.

The results of this are some of the most moving experiences I have ever felt on stage, which directly translates to the audience. After a concert, you'll typically hear comments like "I enjoyed the show, you're so talented, and that was beautiful." While we receive those types of comments, we also receive statements like "thank you for healing our soul tonight." This is the power of focusing on the ceremony and makes a concert experience that much more effective.


Now does this mean you have to replicate "The River" and it's ceremony on stage? Not at all. In fact, classical music concerts are already a ceremony. All you have to do is switch your perspective of the stage. When you begin to view every concert and audition like a ceremony, you'll reduce your anxiety, self pressure, and create an unforgettable experience.

-Coach Cory