Guest Post: How to Improvise When You’re Feeling Anxious

You’re on stage. The music is about to begin, and, suddenly, your heart catches in your throat. Your fingers freeze and you feel paralyzed. How on earth are you supposed to play when you’re having trouble simply breathing regularly?

I remember when I was in my high school jazz ensemble. I was playing Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” on the tenor saxophone. I felt the audience’s eyes on me and, for a second, I froze up. Then I took a deep breath and started to play. By the time I got to the end I received a standing ovation, which made me feel like it was all worth it!

Here are some practical tips for overcoming performance anxiety. 

Practice Breathing Techniques

You might want to do a short meditation before the performance if you have time. A regular practice schedule will likely help you feel less anxious overall, but this will help you breathe deeply and relax. If you feel yourself freezing up, focus on your breath and make sure your feet are firmly planted on the floor. Chances are, you’ll be able to relax and improvise without anyone knowing you were nervous.


If you’re improvising, remember that you have every right to be silent for a little while. In fact, this can actually come across as quite creative. If you lose count of how many measures you’re playing for, keep your eyes and ears peeled for a sign from the other musicians. If you go slightly over your allotted time, act like this was not a big deal and start playing with the band again when your solo is over.

Stay Confident

Improvising can be challenging and nerve-racking, especially if you’re a beginner. If you play a note that you didn’t mean to, don’t fret; just act like it was intentional and move on with your performance. The audience will be none the wiser. It’s amazing how many mistakes people miss if you don’t completely stop the performance and tell them you screwed up.

Practice Consistently

It’s important to practice for at least thirty minutes a day if you want to succeed as a musician. Although your solo will be different every time, it’s still important to make sure that you play it with your band as much as possible before the performance. This will help you know how many measures you have for your solo, so you can explore your creative freedom without getting lost.

Think Positively

If you find yourself stressing out before the performance, you’re probably getting caught up in a mental spiral of negative “what ifs?” Instead of doing that, try to visual the best possible outcome. See yourself doing a stellar job in your mind’s eye. Imagine the audience clapping and cheering, giving you and the band a standing ovation, and see yourself slaying your solo. Positive thinking works wonders!

Performance anxiety is completely normal. The more you and your band have practiced playing together, the more you will likely pull it off brilliantly even if you’re nervous. You’ll remember the rhythms automatically and it will feel like second nature to you to count the measures as you solo. Your band will be proud!

Ellie McKinsey is a staff writer at Know Your Instrument and frequently writes about playing and learning different instruments as well as other musical themes. When not writing, Ellie likes to play sax in her band and with her friends and try different types of food.

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