Learning to Play Better Under Pressure

A photo of Jeff Queen.

“I could play this at home!” “I had it last night!”

Ever said something like that in a lesson or rehearsal? I have too. The reason we could play it well at home or before your lesson is that there wasn’t any real pressure in your practice setting when you are playing by yourself.

When playing in front of others, there are suddenly expectations and accountability; you are under pressure to perform. Your heart starts beating faster, and you are probably a little nervous.

To improve your playing under pressure, play the game of “3-5-10” to achieve confidence and consistency. The goal? Make it through all three levels in one sitting.

Level 1: Three times in a row, perfect.

Play whatever phrase or piece that you are working on perfectly, one time. Then play it again. If it is perfect and as you want it, move on to the third time. If it wasn’t like you wanted it, go back to zero. Repeat the process until you can play the phrase three times in a row without any errors. Be sure to complete the phrase each time even if there are mistakes.

Level 2: Five times in a row, perfect.

Same process. By the time you get to the fourth time, you might find yourself distracted or thinking about not making a mistake, and more than likely, you will have made one. Back to zero.

Level 3: 10 Times in a Row. Perfect!

By now, you will have made a number of mistakes, learned how to recover from them, and hopefully eliminated them from your repetitions.

The stress or pressure that you may feel to advance to the next level is going to be similar to what happens when playing in front of people. In this “game” setting, you will learn to manage that stress and make it work for you. You will learn to stay focused and control your anxiety and nerves to be able to perform under that pressure.