Confessions of a “Nervous Nelly” – by Janis Peterson

Janis promo pic 2017I didn’t always have performance anxiety. When I was three years old, my mom told me I was ready to play on a piano recital, and since every kid in my neighborhood took piano lessons from my mom, I thought every kid played piano. I was thrilled to be “good enough” to play on a recital and looked at performing as pure joy.

My issues started with my first Middle School violin solo at District Solo & Ensemble Festival. My private teacher, a HS violinist, gave me a piece that was too hard for me, so I was very insecure going into that performance. The crazy, OMG, heart-racing, knees knocking, hands shaking metamorphosis took me over without warning and my playing suffered. That experience carved a pathway in my brain that would last a lifetime.

As the years went by, I was able to control the nerves when something important was at stake like a scholarship audition – but there were many disappointing times when I felt completely prepared only to have my entire being flip and leave me incapacitated. Performing was always a risk because I was never sure I was free from the debilitating effects of my nerves even though my Michigan teacher, Gustave Rosseels and Michigan State teachers, Romeo Tata, Lyman Bodman and Walter Verdehr had great suggestions:

  • Practice more
  • Perform more 
  • Concentrate more
  • Fix positions to enable a more relaxed body
  • Picture yourself in a black hole
  • Don’t eat sugar or drink caffeine
  • Be a vessel that passes on the composer’s music

Being a ‘nervous Nellyhelped me be a more compassionate teacher. I provided positive performance opportunities for my students. I encouraged solo playing and insisted on good (and relaxed) playing positions. A nurturing environment was my top priority as a classroom orchestra teacher.

Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and in the three weeks it took to get the details about my prognosis, I worked on my bucket list. The only important item was conquering my performance anxiety. I started reading everything I could find, attending the PA workshops at MMC and National ASTA Conferences and talking to performers/teachers about their tricks. I re-read books that friends had given me with a different mindset I WILL do this!

In the last three years, I have finally reached a place where I am back to my PURE JOY attitude of performing and owe this to an incredible book/CD: “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner. If you are suffering as I did, please get this book and read every word and use the meditations on the CD religiously. Here are a few of the things I have learned:

  • Performance anxiety is a result of MY OWN thinking
  • Practicing a passage until it is EFFORTLESS makes it much easier to control nerves in a performance
  • Deep breathing and meditation are effective prior to a performance
  • Every note is beautiful in practice AND in performance
  • Performing requires a connection to one’s inner self
  • Bowing to an applauding audience is an opportunity to express gratitude for the performance opportunity and letting go of ego
  • Almonds, turkey, bananas…there are several foods that help but they aren’t as important as the positive mindset about performing
  • We are all masters performing is a celebration of that mastery
  • Performing is an opportunity to share something beautiful/meaningful and souls can be healed through music
  • Performing is a life-long challenge and an opportunity for life-long learning

I am living proof that a nervous Nelly CAN change and overcome symptoms of stage fright. Now, my cancer-free life and bucket list includes joyful performing! I leave you with these words of wisdom from Kenny Werner:

“Ultimately, musicians of the world must come to realize the potential of their calling…If the musician is illumined from within, he becomes a lamp that lights other lamps…I am grateful for the pain that led to the pursuit of a higher Self….Every spiritual teaching confirms that it is better to give than to receive…By giving as much as you can to something, you become a channel to receive…Don’t let the light of your search dim…

Best wishes on your own journey toward Effortless Mastery and giving stress-free performances!