Oct 022012

whimsical image of horowitz at piano clipped so his face doesn't show
The nervousness of performance is like distraction during practice, it doesn’t go away. However, some days are better than others. The trick is to accept the feelings of the day and ultimately use their energy to enhance the performance.

Cold yet sweaty hands, tremulous fingers, tight chest, and angst in the pit of the stomach — they all characterize performance anxiety. It’s not surprising everyone wants to get rid of these nasty sensations.

As we wait to perform, we feel the sensations are over the top. After all, we are adults and we shouldn’t be so blown away by this experience. We should be tougher than that. Having to endure this overwhelming onslaught of feeling seems childish and we really should have better control of ourselves than that. After all, piano performance is not a life and death confrontation.

We know the wonderful power of music in all its varied forms. Why are we so helpless to ally ourselves to that power instead of the power of doubt and insecurity?

So What’s to Feel Nervous About?

For some reason the body and mind react as if it really were a huge risk. I’m not sure what causes all this internal consternation but I think the root fear is one of public embarrassment.

It’s embarrassing to fail when we present the face of confidence so we apologize for failure in advance. “I’m not really very good,” or, “I haven’t quite learned this as well as I like,” or whatever we say to lower expectations.

It’s embarrassing and angering to publically expose something so important to us while our listeners act bored and uncaring. We’ve spent so much time and energy cultivating what we’re sharing.

It’s embarrassing to be emotionally demonstrative in public, especially if we are reserved by nature. The humiliation of showing strong emotion and having it laughed at is intense to say the least.

For some it feels presumptuous and embarrassing to perform anything so well performed by professional musicians on DVDs and in live performances. That fear really misses the point. As amateurs, we don’t take lessons to perform so we can be the best ever. It would be a nice surprise but that’s not really the motivation. For us, lessons represent our own inner quest on some trackless journey that has mostly to do with the process. Performance is part of that process.

Recently a student performed the first movement of Beethoven’s MOONLIGHT SONATA. A fellow amateur said to her, “You know, I liked that better than any professional performance I’ve heard.” Sometimes, in our naiveté, we render a fresh and authentic performance that professionals can’t do.

And yet, there are those who thrive on the experience of performance. Some people like to show off and relish the whole experience.
There are those who don’t care what others think and some who just don’t feel the risk. I remember a friend of mine saying, “Why should I care, I’m a dentist.” In that it was not a professional activity, he saw no reason to worry. Most of us envy those folks because it’s not where we live at all.

Interestingly, it usually has nothing to do with how well one plays. I’ve known performers blissfully unaware of the vast shortcomings of their efforts who are enthralled with what they’re doing. I’ve also known really fine performers absolutely paralyzed by the fear of performance.
Unfortunately, some feel guilty because they feel performance anxiety. They feel there is something wrong with them as though it were an ethical failing. Sometimes those who don’t have those feeling are not helpful. “Oh, get over it; it’s not that bad!” That feels infantilizing.

Solutions, Sort of

The usual answer is to try to feel no anxiety by being “in control” and focusing on the performance. That’s a terrific idea but finding the way there is hard, often impossible.

Our attempts to try to get rid of all those feelings just gives them more power. Each time we fail to control them we dread them more. Soon we anticipate the sensations of performance anxiety as if it were the performance. We then judge our performance by how much or how little we were bothered by anxiety rather than how well we played or how much others enjoyed it.

The best way to deal with performance anxiety is to accept it as a reality of the performance experience. Allow the sensations to be; don’t try to push them away. These reactions are biological responses to stress and one can’t do a thing about them.

By accepting these sensations, they don’t go away but they do begin to lose their power. An interesting therapy for this problem is to have performers see how much they can make their hands shake. When the hands are given permission to shake, they tend to shake less. In the same way, try to get as many wrong notes as possible in a performance — the performance is frequently more accurate.

With experience, one can begin to get to know these sensations quite well. In time, one can recognize them for what they are which is a huge release of adrenaline to provide energy for the scary task ahead.

The ultimate “control” of this experience comes not from having the sensations go away but from learning how to use this rush of energy and vitality to create a more intense performance.

Accepting Mistakes

It’s important to accept mistakes as part of performance as well. We hope all things will be right and wonderful but it rarely works that way.
When students talk about playing for others, I never hear them say: “I want to show everybody how perfect (or wonderful or powerful) I am.”

And yet, I suspect it is a secret part of our performance agenda unknown even to ourselves. Sometimes a good performance is neither wonderful nor awful, it feels like a letdown — is that all there is? When that happens, it’s confusing.

Learning to accept a good performance, one with a few mistakes and small surprises, is important. In fact, it should be one of the joys of being an amateur. That so many amateurs take on professional standards of performance is one reason performance becomes so burdensome.
Learning to accept abject failure in performance is important too. Nobody wants it or likes it but it will happen at some point. When this happens, be kind and understanding with yourself. It’s very hard but it’s a very important thing to do.

In fact, until you can accept yourself as a failure in performance, you will never be free to perform your most creatively; you will never be free to take the risks that make a performance rise above the ordinary. You will always be haunted by the fear of failure.

Strategies: Useful and Not

Frequent performance is the best strategy. By performing frequently you get to know yourself as a performer and know the particular sensations that plague you.

Often people think the answer is to be able to play so well nothing can go wrong. It’s not an effective strategy because it doesn’t work. Knowing the piece really well is only part of performance. You can know the piece inside out and still have a bad performance experience. Knowing the piece well will increase your odds of success and your confidence, which are both important, but not a guarantee.

Some confuse playing well with performing well. Knowing one’s self as a pianist is not the same as knowing one’s self as a performer. A beginning performer with an advanced piece can be a disaster. Each has its own line of progression. Pairing beginning performers with easy pieces is a good way to start.

Adults often think performance is only acceptable if the piece is long and difficult. This isn’t true. Lovely music well performed can be of any level.

A point worth noting is that a few people are terrific performers. They just love it and don’t reach their full potential until they have an audience.
Other Suggestions

  • Perform early in your study. It feels better to mess up Yankee Doodle than it does to mess up a Beethoven Sonata.
  • Don’t perform your hardest piece. You’re probably just hanging on and in performance hanging on tends to fall off.
  • Performing easier pieces allows some free energy to watch yourself during performance. This is how you get to know yourself as a performer.
  • Perform in comfortable situations for friends and/or others who know what you’re going through. (For such an organization in Washington, D.C., visit the Adult Music Student Forum site.)
  • Don’t try to control nerves with drugs (unless advised by a physician) or alcohol.
  • When complimented on a performance, always say, “Thank you.” Just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean the listener didn’t like it.
  • You really don’t have to tell everybody everything you thought was wrong with your performance. You need to know it for your own information, but some things are best left unsaid.

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