Overcoming The Fear Of Playing Live

Sep 06, 2022
Christopher Maloney, music educator and founder of Practice Warriors helps musicians overcome the fear of playing live in public.

For many budding musicians, the thought of playing live in front of an audience sends shivers of fear down their collective spines.  There’s that old adage that people fear public speaking more than they fear death itself.  If simply speaking in public is so terrifying for so many folks, then playing or singing in public has to be a fate even worse than most people’s greatest fear.  

I believe that the greatest fear, however, is not public speaking or playing live or even death; it’s the fear of the unknown and the anticipation of failure.  THAT’S what people are actually afraid of.  

So, how do you get over the fear of the unknown and the anticipation of failure?  C’mon silly…the answer’s right there in the question itself:  Make the unknown “known” and anticipate success!


I know, I know…easier said than done.  The simplest solutions are most often the best ones.  Let’s talk about that first real fear: the fear of the unknown.  

The Fear Of The Unknown (Solution: Make it known!!)

In dealing with a reluctant musician who is afraid to play in front of an audience, I’ll ask them to tell me about other times in their lives when they were afraid to do something, did that something, and then realized there was nothing to be actually afraid of.  They pretty much lead themselves to past successes to use as proof that there is nothing to fear in doing something unknown.  

When that musician finally gets on stage and plays that song or that etude or that open mic or that concert, what happens?  To a person, I’ve always gotten the same comment as they’re walking off stage.

That wasn’t as bad as I thought!! 

What’s the next most common comment?

I can’t wait to do it again!

BAM!  That person got over their fear of the unknown by making the unknown…KNOWN.  We have just gotten rid of the first major fear that keeps people from playing live.

Of course, the musician may need some convincing to get on stage in the first place before this revelation can hit them.  Not knowing the result of a future action keeps many of us mere mortals from taking any action in the first place.  In the times when I’ve had to convince reluctant musicians to take the leap and get on stage, I always asked a simple question:  “What’s the worst that can happen?”.  That’s usually answered with a resounding shrugging of the shoulders and a determined “aahhh…I dunno…”.  

Well”, I ask, “Will you die?”

Nooooo” they answer. 

Are you going to be naked out there?”


Are you going to be ostracized for the rest of your life and shunned by your community and hated by your family and friends?”


Now here’s the REAL question stated a second time: “So, what’s the worst that can happen, then?”  It’s THIS repeat of that same question that either gets at the heart of their fears or exposes any excuses they have for playing on stage.  They use their past experiences and some new rationale to give them the courage to play in front of people.  As I mentioned earlier, once they do that and realize playing live is easier and more fun than they thought, they’re hooked!!

What about the second big fear?  Do you remember what it was, or have I been prattling on for too long?  Patience, my friend.  The second big fear is the anticipation of failure.  

The Anticipation Of Failure (Solution: Anticipate success!!)

Again, you can use the “What’s the worst thing that can happen” line of questioning once again.  This may actually be even more effective than earlier, because this question literally translates to “if you totally screw up and make a massive fool of yourself, what’s the worst thing that can happen?”  This means that anticipating failure isn’t a big deal, because the failure itself isn’t a big deal.  

Wanting more arrows in my musical psychological quiver, I also like using the visualization process with people who are afraid of failure.  I’ve used this myself in some of the most pressure-filled situations in my musical career.  Whether I was performing in an adjudicated jury judged by some of the best musicians in the world, or a potentially career-making audition, or a showcase gig in front of record companies, or a televised performance broadcast to millions of people, I’ve used this visualization process and got myself into a state where I was totally convinced that I would not fail. 

Here’s what I would do: I close my eyes and picture myself in the physical place that I will be playing.  If it’s on an outdoor festival stage in front of 15,000 people, that’s where I visualize myself.  If it’s a recording studio in front of a picky engineer, that’s where I put myself.  Whatever situation I’m preparing for, I visualize myself being there.  Then, I picture myself being successful at whatever I’m attempting to do.  I get all my senses involved too.  I hear the audience applauding, I feel my instrument in my hands, I sense the positive emotions I’m feeling as I sound better than I ever have before.  I literally see my success unfolding.

This isn’t a one-off process, however.  I visualize myself being successful over and over again.  I condition my mind, my body, my emotions and my cells to feel the successful outcome of this performance.  Before long, I am no longer anticipating mistakes or fear or failure; I am anticipating success!

Once, I had to do the aforementioned jury at my music school in Los Angeles.  I snuck into the jury room a few days before my performance test, stood on the small stage and pictured all the teachers there watching me.  Then, I pictured myself looking across the stage to all the people I’d be playing with (even though I didn’t exactly know who they would be).  I visualized them smiling at me and being excited to play with me.  I then pictured the jury members applauding and loving my performance.   By the time the actual jury came about, I had actually done it several times in my head.  My jury was a success because of not only my preparation but because:

  1. The process wasn’t unknown to me, because I visualized myself doing it over and over and made the unknown something known, and…
  2. I had pictured myself having a successful performance, so I had anticipated success!

Failure, as they say, wasn’t an option.  It wasn’t an option, because it wasn’t even conceivable in my reality.  I had already seen into the future and, in that future, I slayed the earth with my playing!  Hey, who said having delusional thoughts of grandeur was a bad thing??

Now, I don’t suggest risking expulsion or arrest by breaking into a room or venue that you’re not supposed to be in, but you don’t need to go that far.  You can visualize your success in the privacy of your own home and safe from getting your butt in trouble.  

…and listen, many people who play a musical instrument or sing have NO interest in performing in front of an audience.  They want to play music as a solitary venture; a way to relax, a kind of meditation, or a way to shut out the noise of the outside world and have something in this world that is just for them.  That is great, of course.  I would also say that, if these musical loners did take the next step and share their gifts with others, they would find a whole new satisfying avenue for their music. 

That being said, music is there for you to do with it whatever you want.  Play live?  Great!  Don’t play live?  Great!  You do you, baby.  Just don’t let fear stop you from enjoying and sharing your musical gifts with the world.

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