Performance Anxiety!

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We’ve all been there. This is the first thing that many of us feel when talking about performance anxiety. It’s a topic that is often avoided because the more it’s talked about, the greater the discomfort and anxiety is felt. I, personally, prefer to use the phrase: Performance Layers. We have to peel off or dab on so much in order to go through the process of performing.

Sometimes we just need to:

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and let it all out. Even if it’s a silent scream.

Ultimately, we all look forward to the:

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for all our hard work and efforts to get up there, perform and enjoy the music-making that so many of us want to share.

Most of us want to play note-perfectly. We know that we’ve been able to achieve that in the practice room but it’s often not the case when nerves are thrown into the mix. It’s why I like the title of a book by William Westney: “The Perfect Wrong Note.”

When giving a class on performance anxiety, I usually demonstrate this by playing a short excerpt of a Chopin Waltz note perfect. I purposely play it in a very unmusical way. Then I repeat the demonstration by playing the Waltz with the correct harmony in the left hand but complete tone clusters in the right hand, outlining the melody. This second play-through is beautifully phrased, every nuance shaped despite the incredible dissonance of the tone clusters. My point is made right away because everyone prefers hearing the more musical version.

A quote by Erich Fromm helps put things in perspective: “The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure but to be able to tolerate insecurity.” Once we get past the needing-to-be-perfect-mode, the friction that we had been holding unleashes creativity and a willingness to play our hearts out.

Here are some things you can do to prepare yourself for a concert:

  1.  Reinforce how solidly you know the score by practicing differently. This will reengage your brain and allow you to “check” whether you have the music learned well. If it’s a forte passage, play it piano; if it’s legato, play it staccato; if it’s fast, play it slow, etc. Put your hands in different registers on the keyboard and see if you can still play the piece without a hitch. We don’t realize how much we rely on our hands to be close together.
  2.  Be able to start in any place on the score. At the very least, be able to start in every other bar.
  3.  Practice with audible breaths. Singers, wind and brass players have to breathe. As pianists, we tend to forget. Make a habit of breathing in the same place and it will carry over in your performance. The audible part in your practice sessions is a way to self-check that you’re doing it.
  4.  Remember, you’re in the hot seat, only you can change your path. Stay in the moment of the music. If you find your mind wandering, say “stop” immediately. Be very self-aware. Focus. No matter how many times a teacher tells you to relax or concentrate more, ultimately, you’re the only one who can change the circumstances. Be strict with stopping your wandering mind (ignore cellphones, email alerts, and other distractions).
  5. We all worry about when that first mistake is going to happen and then when you’ve made a mistake, we start reflecting back as to why we made it. Then we start thinking about other difficult parts later on in the score. Stay in the moment.
  6. Practice performing! So many people wait to surprise their audiences with their favorite piece. You can’t afford to do that. Have at least 3 dress rehearsals.
  7. In addition, play your concert piece at least three times through without stopping in the practice room. You want to know that you can concentrate for that amount of time.
  8. Do a few jumping jacks to get your heart rate up. Then sit down and play. It’s a good experiment to know if you can handle jittery fingers because your heart rate is beating faster.
  9. On concert day, wear appropriate clothes. If you’re prone to sweating, wear cooler clothes and if your hands tend to get cold, wear warmer clothes. I like to keep my hands warm so if I’m backstage, I’ll warm them up in my armpits.
  10. When you’re on stage, imagine that you’re in the comfort of your practice room. Use visualization techniques or whatever works best for you. Make your concert space friendly in your mind.
  11. Make sure you get good rest. This is key!
  12. Shift the focus off of yourself. Bury yourself deep in the mood of the piece and focus on bringing out the most musical performance you can muster.
  13. Memorize a measure of music away from the piano. This is especially good for people who say they can’t memorize. Now imagine the measure. Then go and play it. You’ll be amazed at how good you can get at this. It will help you visualize the music on the page a bit more as yet another tool to overcome strict tactile memorization. You can experiment with aural memory too. And, if you know some theory, utilize your skills to help you think of your music as well. For solid memory work, multiple skills are needed.
  14. It’s not my place to recommend medication (Inderal) but know that it’s out there and is used widely by many. Of course, be sure to consult a doctor before taking any prescription drugs.
  15. When practicing, ask a friend or spouse to distract you while you are playing your piece. See how well you can stay focused on the music despite lights turning off, clapping in all the wrong places, the fall board being closed gently on your hands, your music being turned at the wrong time, etc.
  16. Keep a good perspective of your playing. A couple of wrong notes is not a bad performance. I sometimes tell my students to count every note in their music. So, maybe they played a couple wrong. They still got a 99%!!!

Positive reinforcements to think about before you play:

  1. Remind yourself that you’ve put in your work. You’ve prepared as best you can.
  2. Remind yourself that you’re good and ready. Squash all negative thoughts. This is not the time to doubt yourself. Build up your ego!
  3. Remind yourself that you’ve practiced how to manage your nervous energy.
  4. Remind yourself that you have the confidence to do something that not everyone can do.
  5. Remind yourself that you have the courage to get up there on that stage.
  6. Remind yourself that you have learned how to concentrate and focus.
  7. Remind yourself that you are resilient. You will recover from mistakes. You have the will and the determination to get to the end of the piece because the show always goes on.
  8. Remind yourself to laugh at yourself when there’s a silly mistake, to get a little angry to rein your focus into the music again, to smile when you’re moved by the sounds coming out of the piano.
  9. Remind yourself not to judge yourself when things happen. Stay in the moment of the piece.
  10. Remind yourself to listen to how musically you can play something. Let that be your highest priority.
  11. Remind yourself to give yourself a pat on the back, to enjoy your efforts, to celebrate your accomplishments.
  12. Remind yourself that the piece does not end until the last chord or note has been played!

Here’s a little comic relief from this post, kindness of a Sonata Piano Camp Member. I read the labels to all of the pianists in attendance shortly before they all performed at a Sonata camp a few months back. We all had a good belly laugh. That, in itself, released some anxiety for many, peeling off another layer that can help us get through a performance.

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I’ll share some performance stories of my own which will include how I dealt with anxiety very soon. For now, I bid you goodbye with my favorite feel-good button:

That was…

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About Polly van der Linde

Pianist, teacher, director of International Piano Camps in VT, for adults and children of all levels of ability
This entry was posted in Performance anxiety, Practice, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Performance Anxiety!

  1. Helen Rabin says:

    Thanks very much for this, Polly. I’ll print it out and read it a lot! I like the combination of physical and mental tasks and strategies having to do with the music,together with dealing with the psychological aspects of performance anxiety. (I have work to do on all of it!) The way you’ve pulled it all together speaks volumes about your knowledge, experience and dedication.

    • pianessa says:

      Thank you, Helen! Glad that it’s meaningful to you. I forgot one other suggestion: record yourself in your practice sessions and listen to yourself. It’s tough to do but it helps you get a better perspective of where you are with your music. And, it is another “ear” listening to you as a mechanical audio audience.

  2. Ann Tartaul says:

    I am in a piano group and the stated objective is to “overcome” fear of making a mistake. I don’t understand that focus, but there are those in the group who play with deadly precision The performance is an intellectual exercise in CONTROL. A mistake for them is equivalent to’ making a mess’.

    • pianessa says:

      Yes, I understand. Consider mentioning the count every note exercise, I wrote in my blog post. It does form a better perspective of how many notes you actually played CORRECTLY! Intellectual control can be limiting because it holds you back from playing the way the music moves you. It’s important to take musical risks far more than trying to play accurately. One other thing, remember that performance anxiety is a real feeling, a real fear. Accept that and perhaps you won’t hold the fear so heavily.

  3. Pingback: From the bench : Preparing for performance (anxiety)

  4. Lin Evans says:

    Such a great essay on PA, Polly! I’m performing on Sunday. On Monday, I’m going to be part of a piano group which is going to dig into our performance anxieties by playing and stopping if and when nerves take over.. to discuses it with the group – should be interesting. And then on FRIDAY, I’ll see you at Sonata!!!!!!!! Life is very good! xo Lin

  5. Isabella Gonzalez says:

    I am a very young pianist. Even though I have played for six years, I still freeze up, turn red and sweaty, and get shaky every time I am aware that people are listening. This helped me a lot. Thank you!!!

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