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Nervousness during lessons

  • Donna
    Donna O

    I tried to search for this topic but have been unable to find anything.   My teacher suggested I post to the column for help.     During my practice sessions I will be able to play a piece I have been working on for a while perfectly, however when I have to play during my lesson, it seems like all the "wheels fall off the wagon" .   I get so nervous, I lose my place in the music and it is difficult for me to continue even though I know it from memory.  I have read some of the forums on performance anxiety but this is occurring during my lessons, not even during a performance for others.    I am still a beginner although I have been taking lessons over the past 3 years.   

    replies to "Nervousness during lessons"
    • Kay
      Kay Lister

      Hi Donna,

      I know EXACTLY what you mean.  I can play for a church of 1,000 people and have no problem but when I have MY lesson, everything that I have accomplished in the past 2 weeks seems to fall apart sometimes.  My teaches says this is not uncommon and that I am putting WAY too much pressure on MYSELF.  I want so much to play it all as close to perfect as I can get it, and the harder I try the worse it can become.  I have gotten better about this though.  I have just tried to plant it in my head to "Play like I don't care", keep my technique as it should be, exhale and go for it - it helps.  The notes will come,  the areas in the music that you need to zoom in on will draw your attention more and more and you will get there.   Even though you swear your fingers fell off and someone put them back on incorrectly - they didn't.  Take it slow and one step at a time.  Your teacher doesn't expect perfection, she knows there will be problems - that's why you have a teacher.  Just try to relax and give it the best EFFORT that you can.  Remember, THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!!!

      :-) Kay

    • Sherry
      Sherry Lenox

      My teacher is the kindest person on earth, but I can never play in my lesson as well as I do at home.

      For me, it's definitely expecting myself to be perfect, and I also get totally freaked out if I think my teacher will think I haven't practiced enough.

      Do you feel that the music in your assigned lesson is appropriate to your abilities and goals?

      One other thing- when you say you can play your music perfectly at home, are you sure that you're playing it at the same tempo when you take your lesson?

      I have a tendency to try to do everything faster in my lesson than at home.

    • Donna
      Donna O

      I actually think I slow the tempo down in my lessons just because I know I am going to mess up.   I think what you say rings a bell though, because I think my teacher will think I haven't practiced enough.  I do think my lessons are appropriate for my skill level.   Usually new pieces have some new techniques to learn which helps me to stretch a little more each time from what I already know.  Fortunately for me, my teacher is very patient with me.   He frequently has said to me "Who's race are you running"   I know it's my own, but at my age I want to learn to "run the race" faster.   I love playing just for fun and my goal was to play primarily for my own enjoyment. 
      Kay, thanks for your encouragement.   I wish I could play like it didn't matter but that's easier said than done.  It is good to hear that others experience some of the same frustrations

    • Audrey
      Audrey Nickel

      What you're describing is normal.

      When you play for your teacher, the same mechanism comes into play as when you perform.  You ARE performing, actually, even though you're only performing for one person (the one person you especially want to please!) You badly want to do well, and you know someone is listening and evaluating, so those performance nerves kick in.  It happens even when you've known your teacher for a while (I've been with mine for four years, and I still fumble all over the place during lessons).

      You will probably discover something similar happening when you play for family and friends as well.

      Look at this as a learning experience.  The things you have trouble with during lessons are also the things you will have trouble with during performance.  It's your clue that those pieces or sections are the ones you need to spend more time working on.  And the more you play for your teacher (and for family and friends), the more coping strategies you will come up with for these performance nerves (and the less acute those nerves will be).

      Do you have your own harp?  If so, are you in a position to play outside periodically, where people can hear you?   This can be a great way to start getting that performance anxiety under control...first get comfortable just playing where others can hear (but aren't necessarily in sight)...maybe by an open window.  Then, when that get easier, play outside, maybe in a park or in your front yard, where people can hear you, see you, and may even stop.  Relax, and let yourself make mistakes...they will happen.  The more you get used to playing around people (and letting the mistakes happen without remorse), the better you will get and...surprise!  The fewer mistakes you will make.  It's a matter of desensitization.


    • Dawn
      Dawn Penland

      Donna, I think I'm like you.  I hate playing at lessons.  Every other situation is easier for me.  I know other students don't feel this way and play their recital pieces perfectly at their lesson and then mess up in performance.  My teacher actually tries to make us more nervous by recording us just before the recital.  Playing for a lesson is like American Idol, you get feedback and it's not always positive.  When you play in other situations, they always love it.

    • Luanne
      Luanne OReilly

      My wonderful teacher solved this problem for me.  She told me to record myself while I was practicing.  Knowing the recorder is on "listening" to me is the same as having an audience. 

    • Donna
      Donna O


      Thanks for the suggestions and observations.   I do have my own harp
      (Prelude 40) but it's not practical for me to take it out because of
      it's size.   I have on one or two occasions played for family and
      friends in my home.   It's interesting because even though I am
      nervous, it's not as severe.
      Luanne,  I do record myself and my lessons but I think the difference in these situations is my teacher is not there observing technique as well as accuracy.     The same is true with family and friends......they know nothing about proper technique. 
      Thanks for all the helpful suggestions.     Off to practice!

    • Diane
      Diane Michaels

      From the perspective of a teacher, specifically about worrying that your teacher won't know how hard you worked:

      We can hear and see hard work through the nervous mistakes. If in last week's lesson a student and I focused on a particular mistake to be corrected, and I see that job was done, a new mistake where there wasn't one last week won't detract.

      When nervousness derails a student, that can be a topic for a lesson. Since this usually happens at the beginning of a lesson, I remind them that sitting down cold and expecting their best performance is unrealistic. If warming up directly before a lesson is impossible, look at that first pass through last week's material in the lesson as a warm up. Cut yourself some slack: go slow, if it is newly memorized, use the music, and take the time before playing to gather your thoughts about this specific piece or passage.

    • Sylvia
      Sylvia Clark

      After several years of lessons, one day my teacher spent the whole hour lesson on a 4-bar section of a piece.  When I left, I finally realized that I wasn't going to lessons to perform for my teacher.  I was going there to learn how to practice.  It's sort of like a skating coach helping a student get ready for a competition (performance). After that, I felt more comfortable at lessons, thinking of them as a guide, rather than some kind of test.

    • Diana
      Diana Day

      Hi, Donna;

      I've been in the same situation. I think the nervousness in lessons is perfectly understandable. You're playing for someone whose job is to help you correct your errors, so you have someone sitting next to you listening with a critical ear. You're just learning the music so you have not had time to get comfortable with it.  If you have any degree of perfectionist tendencies whatsoever this creates the perfect storm for high stress. You can tell yourself that's it's just a learning situation but this will not eliminate the fact that you're on the spot to "perform".

      Have you thought about recording your sessions at home and sending the sound clips to your teacher? He won't be able to correct your hand position, etc, but there's still a lot to be gained from letting him hear you play.

      You may decide that taking lessons isn't helping you reach your goal of playing for your own enjoyment. If you're playing for stress relief, it may actually be counterproductive for you. Not everyone is meant to be a performer, even in lessons.

      Best wishes to you for happier harp playing,


    • Bonnie
      Bonnie Bouwer

      I think most of us experience this nervousness to some degree.  I have taken only 7 lessons - and loving every minute - and have been irritated with my own nervousness.  I finally realized that I really look forward to my lesson because I will leave with more fun stuff to play and more technique problems to work on at home.  Still nervous, but not taking it so seriously.
      I taught piano professionally for 25 years, so dealt with my students' nervousness all the time.  I usually went to get a cup of coffee while they warmed up, to give them a chance to relax a bit . . . and my harp teacher does the same thing.   8-)

    • Gary
      Gary C

      I get this. I've been having lessons with Susan Z via skype for about 7 months (wow, is it that long?) and I often flub a piece that I'd been playing correctly only a half an hour before the lesson.

      I beat myself up a lot when I don't get things right, which isn't so helpful either, and I've been admonished for that.

      And this is from someone (me!) who used to be a gigging musician in his younger days. I was never nerve free on stage, but the critical observance of a skilled professional is much more nerve racking for me than playing to a house of a hundred or so slightly inebriated C&W  fans :-))  (did keyboards and vocals back then, not harp!)

    • Audrey
      Audrey Nickel

      I find the same thing, Gary.  I'm much more nervous playing for other musicians than I am for a general audience.  Of course, there may be other musicians in a general audience as well (almost certainly, actually), but one doesn't really think of that.


    • Gary
      Gary C

      Yeah it's fun with other musos in some situations. If I'm in the audience I can tell if something's been fluffed, at which point the band member and I will have a quick glance and grin. That's fun.

      In most gigs I played (I don't know about Harp, perhaps audiences are more discerning), it was quite clear that 90% of them didn't know enough or care enough to catch the small mistakes, and the small number who did, you'd have a quick grin with. Quite fun really.

      The main thing I learned when playing live over all those years, was to never EVER stop. Even if you end up on the wrong chord or something, just keep making noise and you'll get away with it most of the time, with most of the audience. If you stop though, that's awkward, and people will notice. Even the drunk ones!

      Being in a lesson scenario is just totally different. I need to relax more. Now where's my coffee?

    • Kay
      Kay Lister

      That reminds me of someone I used to know that was the director of the Naval Academy Choir.  She told them "We'll start together and end together, and what happens in the middle is no ones business but ours".


    • Rod
      Rod C.


      I agree with all the posts here. What you are experiencing is quite normal. Maybe knowing this will help you relax a bit.  I have been taking lessons for 3.5 years, and I always play better at home than I do in front of my teacher.  In fact, my teacher and I laugh about this because apparently it is the lamet of virtually every student. ("I played it well at home!")

      I remember my very first lesson-- my fingers were trembling. (I was sitting in front of a symphany harpist for gosh sake!!) Well, my teacher could not be nicer, and I have never heard a negative word come out of her mouth. So, it has been my self-talk that has made me nervous. My fingers don't tremble anymore, but I never play a new piece in front her as well as I play it home.


      Rod C.



    • Galen
      Galen Reed

      One thing I frequently find with my students is that when they have it "perfect at home" but don't do nearly as well at the lesson, they frequently have forgotten the context.  At home they've probably gone over and over and over it, and what they are recalling in the lesson is what it sounded like after a lot of careful repetitions.  In the lesson they don't (usually) do nearly that many repetitions, so are not nearly as warmed up on it and hence do not live up to their expectations.  Probably not as much of an issue w/adults, but for what it's worth...

    • Carl
      Carl Swanson

      Kim Rowe asked me 8 years ago to write an article about preparing for a performance. Any performance: final exam, student recital, entrance audition, competition, etc. She told me she wanted to call the article THE BIG DAY. The article I wrote was published in the March/April 2002 Harp Column. You can find it by going to my company web site, www.swansonharp.com, and click on the ARTICLES page. It deals with all of the problems mentioned here. I've never heard of people getting nervous in a lesson. But the problems are the same as for any performance and the suggestions in the article should help.

    • Donna
      Donna O

      I want to thank everyone who took the time and energy to give me helpful suggestions and observations.  It's a relief to know this is not something that unusual.   I am going to try to utilize many of the suggestions.  I plan to share all this feedback with my teacher on Friday when I have my next lesson.   
      Carl,   I have read your article multiple times and refer back to it often and will probably read it many more times. Thanks for reminding me of it.  I love HarpColumn  and all the knowledgeable help you all share.  I always learn something.

    • Mira
      Mira Devi

      These are great responses. I just want to add that I go through the same thing. I play perfectly at home and then everything just falls apart in front of my teacher. I go to her house for my lesson and she has a totally different harp than mine, so all my kinesthetic body memory of playing the song goes right out the window. I always play horribly on her harp and it frustrates me and amplifies my nervousness. Also, my teacher has a different communication style than me. She has been playing music all her life and is strong on "auditory communication." I have no music background and am predominately "visual and kinesthetic." So when she merely explains a concept verbally, I often have no idea what she's talking about. I have had to work hard to build effective communication with her and let her know my learning style needs. I often ask her for visual demonstrations. She responds positively to this and shifts her teaching accordingly. When I understand her better, my nervousness decreases.

      Another thing I noticed is that my brain just loses focus sometimes during the lesson and goes into a kind of confused "black out" that often involves disproportionate fear: Fear of making mistakes, fear of not being able to read new music fast enough, fear of not getting the rhythm right the first time: All of which is totally, totally unrealistic for me, especially during a lesson. I had to realize that I am there to learn, so if I get confused I stop and ask detailed questions, I can slow myself down, I can ask my teacher for feedback, or I can ask for a moment to regain my focus. Sometimes, I ask for a few moments to just stare at and touch this foreign harp I am not used to. That helps a lot! If my brain gets really locked up, I ask to move on to a different piece and come back to the problem piece afterwards. This is really effective for me. Remember, it is your lesson. With intention, you can begin to command how you react to yourself and you can invent new ways of coping. Being aware of the inner self-talk is also important to monitor.

      I meditate before my lessons now, which totally improves my focus and calms my nervous system a lot. When I do this, I perform better and learn faster. It has been 2 years of lessons and I'm just getting to the point where I can relax more and try to have fun. I pretend my teacher is not there while I am playing the song. That seems to work well. When she does interject with critical feedback, I grow in my technique by leaps and bounds. So it is important to remember how much your playing will improve by putting yourself in the presence of the teacher. That adds to the excitement and joy of the lesson. It was important for me to shift my paradigm about the lesson: From fear to excitement of the opportunity and joy in learning.