Gareth Montanarello

Managing Performance Anxiety: Part 1

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

If you asked me to name what I thought was my biggest weakness as a musician, I wouldn't say tone, phrasing, intonation, or rhythm. I would say anxiety management.

Yes, anxiety management. Even when I say it it seems ridiculous: I've been playing music since I was a child, shouldn't I be comfortable performing by now? Realistically, there are situations where I can say "Yes, I am comfortable performing," but there are still several more where I say "No, I am not comfortable performing."

A Little Backstory

Third grade me shredding.

I've been playing music since I was in third grade. I started on cello, picked up guitar two years later, and finally switched to bass just before I graduated high school. I've always enjoyed playing music, but for the longest time, my performances were plagued by feelings of anxiety. These feelings were fairly mild in elementary school, but by high school they had morphed into a full-blown panic disorder that affected all areas of my life. I was unable to perform, attend class, take tests, hang out with friends, or even leave the house without the risk of a severe panic attack. I dealt with this for about five years until I finally developed the skills to manage anxiety and fight off panic attacks.

Weirdly enough, I stopped having panic attacks on stage before I stopped having them in other areas of my life. I'm now pretty comfortable performing in groups and I can quickly control nerves when they come up, but I still struggle during auditions or solo performances.

What Am I Going To Do About It?

Since falling flat on my face at two professional auditions about a year and a half ago, I have been exploring new ways to manage my nerves under pressure. I have read a few books and half-heartedly tried some centering techniques, but this semester I will be taking that exploration to a higher level. I plan on playing for someone that makes me uncomfortable every week for the next 8 weeks, and each week I will test out a new anxiety-management strategy. Everything is going to be documented here in an eight-part series. I hope that by the end of the semester, I will be a more confident, consistent performer under pressure.

The Process

I currently have two books that I am reading: Audition Success by Don Greene and The Audition Process: Anxiety Management and Coping Strategies by Stuart Edward Dunkel. Both provide good insight and coping skills, albeit in very different formats. I will share the techniques I want to try next week once I have finished reading the two books.

This bass player finally learned how to read.

Earlier I mentioned "playing for someone that makes me uncomfortable." I kept this definition fairly broad as playing for most people makes me uncomfortable, but I would prefer to play for faculty members at the Fred Fox School of Music (where I am currently a student). Faculty members, for lack of a better word, "intimidate" me more than my peers do, and I hope that after each performance they can offer advice on how to improve my playing or manage my performance anxiety more effectively. In the (likely) event of scheduling difficulties, I am open to playing for classmates instead.

It's been surprisingly difficult to decide on which rep to play but I am leaning towards this:

1. Ein Heldenleben: 9-6 after 12

- Challenging, ubiquitous, fun to play

2. Ginastera: Variaciones Concertantes, bass solo

- Exposed, deceptively tricky

3. Persichetti: Parable for Double Bass

- A great exercise in focus and rhythmic integrity

Total Performance Time: 8-9 minutes

I may change this list each week but it seems like a good starting place for now. Playing much more than 10 minutes seems presumptuous and I want to make sure I respect everyone's time. I also made a questionnaire that I will use to measure the comfort/anxiety levels I experience during each performance. You can download it here if you want your own copy! At the end of the 8 weeks, I am going to graph out the values from each questionnaire and share the results because graphs are cool.


That covers everything for now! I'm excited to get to work on this project as it's been on my mind for a few months and now I finally have an excuse to do it. I also hope that it will help breakdown some of the stigmas that surround mental health, panic attacks, and performance anxiety and get people talking about what helps them perform under pressure.

And as I mentioned earlier, this will be an eight-part series so please stay tuned for more updates! If you subscribe to my email list then you will get weekly notifications whenever I post an update!

Other Parts in This Series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Some of my popular posts:

-When Should I Take It Down An Octave?

-Why You Need To Practice In The Concert Hall


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