Several readers wrote last week asking for advice on how to combat performance nerves and anxiety. They were disturbed and upset by the fact that they could practice a piece for months thinking they had perfected it, they then would perform the work and ‘go to pieces’. Performing is a huge topic and one that is often ignored. Students spend months learning pieces and scales, not to mention practising sight reading and aural, only to get into the exam room and totally forget everything they have learned.
Everybody gets nervous, including professionals, but the main difference between amateurs and professionals is performance practice. A professional musician has been performing in public for years, usually since they were children. They know how it feels onstage; they have become accustomed to being on show and knowing how to ‘think’ under pressure. This is an important point; it is crucial to use the feeling of absolute terror, a ‘negative’ emotion, and channel it into immersing yourself into the music, so in a sense you forget all about the audience. This takes years and is beyond the scope of most amateurs. However it is possible to take a few steps towards a more positive performance outlook, and, who knows, you may find that after a while, you really enjoy being onstage.
1. Once you have mastered your piece, practice playing it through to yourself several times each day without stopping or correcting your mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, and they are best forgotten and ignored whilst performing.
2. Learn how to concentrate under pressure. Start by tackling a piece that is beneath your usual level of playing. Something fairly easy that you feel confident about. Performing is all about building your confidence.
3. One effective way of practising is to imagine you have an audience every time you ‘perform’ your piece through to yourself. You might be surprised by how much this technique encourages you to concentrate. Another trick is to record yourself playing, but be warned, as this can be quite a shock. Performing has a habit of making you play faster than you think you are; stress can do strange things to your mind and your sense of pulse.
4. It is vital to practice performing regularly, and by regularly I mean every week. Whether to friends, family, teachers, pets or anyone who will listen! If you perform every week you will get used to it; it will become ‘normal’ rather than an occasional event that you dread. Its worth gathering together a group of piano friends so you can practice playing to each other, and then you will all suffer the same nerve-wracking scenario and will be more sympathetic towards each other’s efforts.
5. Try to focus purely on the music that you are performing; concentrate on how much you love your piano piece and how it makes you feel. This will hopefully be conveyed to your audience.
Always be kind to yourself after your performance even if you have made many errors. Each time you practice performing you will become stronger mentally and will cope with the concentration element more effectively. This can help combat negative emotions and will turn the “I can’t do it” feeling into “I can do it and I enjoyed it”.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.