There is a wonderful sequence in the film The Red Shoes where the prima ballerina is uncontrollably nervous before the performance begins and says to the director, “I don’t remember the opening steps. I can’t visualize them without the music” And the director replies, “Well since you are undoubtedly going to hear the music when you start to dance, there is nothing to worry about.”
Another story: Myra Hess, the famous classical pianist of the mid twentieth century, told of how each time she performed, her nerves threatened to undo her—right up until the time she sat down at the piano.
But after she launched the piece into the first opening measures, a calm came over her, as the beauty of the music had her in its spell.
So many fine musicians keep their talents hidden because of what they would describe as uncontrollable nerves, which create enormous stress just contemplating performance. But these feelings are normal, and everyone feels them—even artists at the highest levels. You can overcome them too.
Let’s take a look at where these jitters come from, and then explore some ways we can prepare so that these issues do not limit our performances, or our enjoyment generally of making music.
Many of our fears stem from early experiences (e.g., playing at teachers’ end of year recitals where we were embarrassed by how we played). Or from noticing how when someone walks into the room while we are practicing, we tighten up and can no longer connect with the music.
One thing we can be certain about is that nerves are experienced by every performing artist: the Shakespearean actor, the stand-up comic, the public speaker, and every musician.
Wherever there is an audience, make room for a whole panorama of uncontrollable sensations.
Musicians reach for the many books available now, which talk about the inner game of performing (much like a tennis match) or the books that describe how Zen and meditation can put you in the “zone.” Many musicians take beta-blockers or other drugs, if they need even more intervention.
If we could all be sure that this time would be a wonderful performance—everything we hoped for—we would relax. But we don’t know the outcome, we only know that wewant this time to be the best time, the most extraordinary performance of what we are about to do. What pressure, to try living up to that!
Even some people who love to perform can get so nervous that they will throw up before the performance, each and every time, and then go on stage and play beautifully.
Consider the mother of a lovely young flutist who remarked to me how her daughter always asks her serious questions just before she is about to perform, such as, “How did our dog die?” or “What happened to Grandpa?” Then, the inevitable tears flow, and she is ready to go onstage and play her heart out.
We are all a myriad of different personalities. That is why at student recitals, we hear some students play their pieces very nicely, while some play even better than usual because the presence of an audience brought out the excitement rather than the fear in that particular student, while the next student may have to deal with a musical train wreck.
Few musicians seem to actually have been taught how to prepare for performance, so perhaps the following suggestions may be useful.
1. Limiting Surprises
Let’s limit our surprises. The presence of an audience, whether one or two people or a roomful, will bring heightened awareness. This is perfectly understandable because while performing, there is a lot going on in our brains besides the music we want to play.
Your mind suddenly becomes crowded with inner and outer stimuli. You will become aware of physical sensations of nervousness, and also you will find that you have a new set of ears. Now, as you play, you will be listening to yourself as if you are part of the audience too. You become very critical of your performance. Expect to feel this way. It is natural, especially for first performances.
May I speculate that after a few such occasions, you will feel more prepared and not surprised by anything you might hear, see, or feel.
How can you be expected to play when you have all these new distractions? Tell yourself it is not about you but about the music. The audience really wants to listen to the music. They are rooting for you to turn in an enjoyable performance. Nobody except you is asking for perfection.
However much you have practiced your repertoire, it will never feel as if it was enough. Expect that too. It is probably not true, but then again, is there ever a time musicians feel that they have practiced too much?
Let’s talk about practicing.
Since you will never be sure you really “know” the piece unless you are playing it, you will find yourself at the piano, or your other instrument very often.
At those practice times, play it slowly twice for every time you play it up to tempo. What you are trying to achieve here is “finger memory” or “muscle memory.” It will happen by lots of repetition, and it is something you will need to depend upon.
We are not talking about playing from memory here, because lots of musicians nowadays use their music.But the piece still has to be yours, and so right now, we are focusing on the muscle memory.
The fingers need to know where to go once we put them in motion, with limited input from the brain.
3. Listening to Your Inner Ear
Now, we need to focus on the important aspect of the performance itself—assuming you have practiced the piece to your degree of satisfaction—what is most important now, once you begin, is to focus on what you want the music to sound like. How you want to present each phrase. Listen to your inner ear tell you what to do with the phrase line, the dynamics, the timing.
Never, and I mean never, ask yourself “What’s the next note.” Why? Because you haven’t the time to answer. The hand, being quicker than the eye, will have passed that beat long before your brain has conjured the answer.
Your fingers are in control of the notes. They have gone over them again and again, like the little mouse who has discovered the correct path in a maze and practices that path over and over. Your mind is no longer asking what notes, but how the notes should sing out.
4. Keeping the Beat
And now, we know that the most important thing you as a musician can do is to keep the beat. Never correct a wrong note! While we practiced, we did not allow wrong notes to remain uncorrected, but performance is not the time to practice.
Playing a wrong note and then correcting it, does not erase the note we did not want…and it actually creates a more difficult problem. The correction will add another beat to the measure and that will upset the rhythm. This is much more difficult to recover from. Our goal is never to disturb the beat, which our audience has been figuratively tapping their feet to since we began playing.
Remember, the steady beat will hold the whole piece together, but it is not easy to train yourself to not react, so I am going to suggest that as you practice for performance, you must train yourself not to react to anything extraneous—from the wrong note, to the cough in the audience, to a camera flash going off, or a fire engine whizzing by.
Train yourself not to react if a dog or a cat was to jump in your lap. Imagine that happening, and you force yourself to keeping going. A wrong note may throw you off for a while, but you will get back on track. It may take a measure, but as long as you account for each beat in the measure, the mistake will not disturb the music. It is amazing how quickly a wrong note is forgotten when a musician keeps going and maintains the integrity of the rhythm.
5. A Few More Tricks
And now some actual tricks that are helpful.
Many musicians practice the opening measures of the piece over and over. It helps them feel confident that they can “launch” the piece, which is after all, starting from a point of complete silence.
Along the same lines is memorizing the beginnings of each new section so that if for some reason you do get a little lost by your error, and worry that you will not get back on track, you can always jump ahead to the next section and resume as if nothing happened.
Just as the opening of the piece requires a few strategies for complete confidence, so too is the end of the piece in need of special attention. It just seems to be an unspoken fact that a lovely performance often gets a little “undone” as the musician approaches its final lines. Does the performer relax? Or, on the contrary, does the performer tighten up? Whatever the circumstances, a few strategies are in order.
Practice the endings over and over as you did the beginnings…but this time, also practice a little arpeggio and chord in the piece’s key, so that if you have a slip that seems hopeless to continue from, you can always default to the arpeggio and final chord in the key. Voila! You have come to the end. Without the final beat ending in the “home” key, your piece will never sound finished.
Also using a previous strategy of playing the ending over and over, as you did the beginning measures, so that when you get to the final lines of the piece, you can put your fingers in “automatic pilot” mode, if you feel yourself tightening up.
When you are approaching a passage that is tricky, complicated, and you feel yourself tightening up as you get close to it because it has always given you trouble even though you have practiced it again and again …hands apart and together… say to yourself, “Okay fingers, do your thing” and disengage your mind from the mechanics of those measures. In other words, think of something else or say to yourself, “My fingers know this, I will just let them play.” You will be amazed how your fingers can do it, while you in your distracted state are wondering “How is all this possible?”
A fine violinist when asked what he does when he approaches a formidable passage of devilish finger work, said, “I usually think of bagels and lox.” You get the idea.
There is also a matter of playing on strange instruments (pianists especially) or unexpected settings—more of those surprises we were talking about. Practice playing on a chair that is too high and also one that is too low, so you can somehow make the adjustment and know you can play even in that situation.
Also be sure to have a rehearsal in the clothes that you are going to wear. A performance is not the time to find out that your clothes are too tight, too revealing, or your shoes are pinching or too high.
In the final analysis, performance is about sharing your music with others and not a judgment of you as a human being. You are playing a piece you love, and you want the audience to experience the beauty of it too.
Be proud that you are able to make music and give such extraordinary pleasure to others.
Bravo to you for doing this.