Performance Anxiety – Our WORST harp experiences!

Have you ever felt nervous before or while performing in front of people? It’s totally normal! The feeling is known as performance anxiety.

Whether you’re playing for one person or a whole audience, it’s something that a lot of harp players experience, even professionals. Your hands might start to shake, you might get sweaty, cold, or feel nauseous. You’re not alone if you’ve ever felt any of these before.

To show you that performance anxiety isn’t something to fear, Christy-Lyn and Stephanie Claussen shared their personal experience with us.

Stephanie is a professional harpist like Christy-Lyn, who she met in America in 2019. They became friends over their shared love of the harp. Stephanie is a harp teacher who likes to arrange her own music and enjoys performing in front of live audiences too. They’ll be sharing their personal experiences with performance anxiety to show you that even professionals get nervous!

What’s your personal experience with performance anxiety?

Over the years, Stephanie has realized that it’s not always the same. It can be hard to predict how that anxiety will come through. “Sometimes I feel my hands are shaking when I’m playing, but sometimes they’re very sweaty, sometimes they’re cold.” She experiences an accelerated heart rate too, and on occasion, can feel sick sometimes for hours beforehand, especially before a big concert.  

Christy-Lyn finds it strange that performing in front of a small ‘home audience’ can sometimes make her feel more nervous than in front of a much bigger audience. She finds it interesting to look back over the recordings of her performances and often surprises herself to see how different it looks on-camera compared to how it felt in person. “In the moment, it feels that it might not be my best, but after watching the replay, it might even be good enough to put on YouTube!” She adds that often the perception of your own experience can be so different from reality.

There are many ways to work through performance anxiety. Christy-Lyn covers a few of them in a separate YouTube video which you can watch here. She also got 12 of her harp students to share what works for them to overcome their stage fright in another video!

Do you enjoy the actual performance or is it always a form of mild torture?!

Christy-Lyn and Stephanie agree that it’s one of the most exciting things that they do. But it can also be a form of mild torture leading up to and during the performance.

Christy-Lyn even remembers a particular time when she was singing in the eisteddfod. “I can actually remember my kneecaps jumping!” But she says it doesn’t feel as torturous as it used to. Confidence comes from experience performing and getting used to the feeling of being nervous.

If you need ideas on where to practice your harp performances, Christy-Lyn lists a few in this YouTube video.

Stephanie explains that her least favorite part about being a professional musician is when you have a recital to wait for in the evening. “You have the whole day to feel nervous about it ahead of time!” It’s also important to realize that even as you become a better performer, you’re not necessarily going to find it easy. It’s still going to feel totally different on stage compared to what it feels like in your practice room.

How do you feel watching yourself perform?

Christy-Lyn and Stephanie thought it would be fun to share their reactions to old videos that they posted on YouTube where, in the moment, they felt extremely nervous during their performance, but it doesn’t necessarily show on camera. “Sometimes you see someone performing and it seems like everything’s amazing, but inside is where the nervousness happens”, says Christy-Lyn.

In this video of Stephanie, she was playing a tango, which was very technical with lots of pedal changes that made her nervous. Since she doesn’t enjoy watching people that look nervous, she trained herself to smile every time she made a mistake. Her family has caught on and tease her about it. “My dad always says anytime I’m smiling, I’m just making a mistake. Which is not true!”

In this video of Christy-Lyn, she shares her first-ever live performance after only 3 months playing the harp. She wanted to sing while playing and remembers two specific things – her hands were shaking, and her voice didn’t sound the way it should have. She remembers coughing quite a bit the week before, so she was terrified to perform. However, when she watched the recording afterward, she realized no one would have noticed!

What do you do if your performance goes horribly wrong?

This question came from somebody who had a performance experience go horribly wrong. She was so upset after performing because it didn’t go how she had expected. She messed up completely, which made it quite traumatic for her, and she was even considering stopping the harp. What do you do if that happens?

Stephanie says that it’s totally happened to her before! “I remember I was at a paid gig, and I just made a phenomenal mistake because I actually had my pedals in the wrong place. I was playing all the right notes, but the sounds that were coming out were just disastrous and I was just mortified!” When something like that happens you need to think about why you are playing the harp. Is it to play perfectly or is it because you love the instrument? If so, it’s worth trying again!

Stephanie’s advice is to be kind to yourself. “When you’re critiquing your own performance, you should critique it in the same way that you would critique a friend. Don’t speak harshly to yourself in a way that you would never speak to a friend”. Performing in front of people, no matter how big or small the audience, is very courageous. It takes bravery. It’s difficult and it’s something to be applauded.

Do you ever imagine your audience thinking badly of you as you’re performing?

Christy-Lyn says that she doesn’t worry too much about people thinking badly about her while performing. But, in the beginning, she did struggle with playing background music. “I felt like people weren’t listening to me and it made me feel like my effort wasn’t really worth that much”.

However, when she knows a video of her will be put on YouTube, she sometimes worries about people judging her hand technique. “Do my hands look weird? I’m a harp teacher! Are they going to see?!”

Stephanie had to train herself to ignore the voice in her head telling her that people weren’t enjoying her music. ‘This is a boring piece’ and ‘why did you choose this song next?’ are some of the thoughts that would pop into her mind. But then someone would come up to her and tell her how beautiful it was. They’d say ‘it’s exactly what we want!’ before asking her to perform for them at their upcoming anniversary party. “Then I’m like, ‘Oh Stephanie! They weren’t thinking those things about you’”. 

Just remember, people are not out to get you. You might be the first harpist they’ve ever heard in person. People don’t hear the harp often, so most of the time they’re just happy that they get to hear you play!

Do you visualize your performance beforehand?

Stephanie finds it helpful to recreate the performance environment. For example, she wanted to play really well for a particular concert and she knew the stage would be dark and painted black with a spotlight on her. To prepare, she went into her basement in the dark and shone a light on her face. “It was such a good experience because everything just looked a little different. It felt different. It sounded different.” What she recommends to her students is to try and change their environment often when practicing, because it’ll help you to adjust in the moment, and not get used to one performance setting. It can be as simple as turning your harp to face the other direction.

Christy-Lyn visualizes herself messing up but that it’s still okay. That way, if it happens, it doesn’t surprise her. “I even practice playing with my eyes closed”. This helps Christy-Lyn not rely on sight to perform the songs. She says that you never know if you’re going to get the exact spot that you’re used to playing.

It’s important to ask yourself ‘what do I have to lose?’ It’s not going to be the end of the world if you make mistakes or don’t perform as well as you’d hoped. As Stephanie says, “what is the worst thing that could happen? I could drop dead on the stage, I suppose… but I think that would be more traumatic for the audience than for me!”

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  1. It was nice seeing you again Stephanie. I was in your group during a zoom a while ago. Listening to both of you gave me courage to continue and to try playing at my church.

  2. Wonderful video – thanks so much for being vulnerable and sharing your challenges. It means a lot to know that professionals like the two of you can and do also feel jitters when performing.

  3. I was given advice recently when I attended a “Mindz Brainplay lecture primarily about how the brain reacts in different situations. I told the lecturer how I get performance anxiety badly and he said that professionals often do star jumps for 3 minutes before a performance which brings the adrenaline down, or eat something within 1/2 hour before performance. He wants me to let him know how it goes, but I haven’t tried it yet. I am not a professional only playing before family or friends, but I finish with my hair all wet from perspiration and my hands shake and sometimes in extreme situations I find my self notc able to read the music.

  4. Marvellous!! BRAVO. I never thought that stage nervousity could be a real concern for a professional harpists. I gave up concerting in front of people because I’ve been getting more nervous each time a performed. – Now, I will try it again after summer holidays. May first in a small group may for 1/2 hour.
    I will try more chord playing for songs they wish for, also…..I will have a look what the futur holds for me;-)

  5. I am a pianist and recorderist as well as a harpist, and my fear in doing my first harp-ensemble piece is that I will “mess up” for someone else. My recorder student composed a beautiful selection for 2 recorders and harp. I’ve had to do some adjustment of fingerings and even a couple of lever changes that were very awkward at speed, and as the performance gets closer, I do wonder if I will get confused. Are there any others who might have a similar reaction, and what is your good word for me? Thank you!!

    1. Hi Sue! I can totally understand your fear – it’s quite a big deal playing for someone else, trying to do justice to their piece and also to support them in the ensemble. My biggest suggestion would be that it is TOTALLY legitimate to (even dramatically) change an arrangement to make it suit you, to the point where you feel confident that it’s easy for you to play. Most of the time when people write a piece for harp and they aren’t harpists, they include a lot of things that aren’t comfortable to play on harp – it feels more like it’s written for piano. Orchestral harpists usually do a fair amount of adjusting of their parts, even when the pieces are written by famous composers. When playing with other instruments, it’s more important for you to be able to keep up at tempo, and play confidently, than to play every single note written in the sheet music. So the first thing I would do is to edit the piece so I’m comfortable at the correct tempo without hours and hours of practice. And then after that, I’d just do my best and prioritise keeping going without stopping, not worrying if there are lots of mistakes. Hope that helps! ♥

  6. I am playing at a wedding, for my friend to enter the church, and then for background music later. I want to absolutely do my best for this lovely couple, so I am going to offer to residential homes and a church cafe to get my performance practice in!