Some Notes on Performance Anxiety

Here is another brief excerpt from my upcoming Louisiana Music Educators’ Association presentation on solo performances.  This time, the topic is performance anxiety.

Dealing with Performance Anxiety
Nervousness or performance anxiety affects anyone who cares deeply about what he or she is doing, but rather than becoming a barrier to successful performances, the added adrenalin this excitement brings can add energy and focus to our playing.

Prepare to the utmost of your ability.
The most confident players are those who are the most prepared.  Make sure that you can tell yourself before a performance that you have put in the necessary time and done everything possible to work a piece of music up to a high level.  There will always be sections of music that you worry about more than others, but make it your goal to practice those sections until they become old friends.

Put things in perspective.
Remember why you perform – to share music with others!  A less than perfect performance (or rating) does not mean that you are a failure, simply that there were elements of your performance which needed improvement.  It is also helpful to remember that there are no mistakes, only pieces of information.  Every performance is an opportunity for improvement.

Take your time.
Our sense of time tends to speed up in performance situations.  What seems like an endless stretch of time is usually only a few seconds.  Before beginning to play, make sure that you are comfortable (sitting or standing), and that your music is arranged properly (open pages if necessary).  Empty your horn completely of all condensation, and make eye contact with your accompanist.

Focus on the music, not the notes.
It is important to remember that we must go beyond playing individual notes and create real phrases in our performances. Quite often we deliver our most accurate performances when we are not focused on just getting the notes, but are instead going after each phrase with a definite goal in mind. Coming up with simple one or two-word phrases to get in character for a specific solo or passage is a fun and useful way to improve accuracy and overall musicality.

Practice getting in the zone.
This tip is one of the more elusive concepts to describe, let alone teach. Professional athletes, musicians, and many other people who perform consistently at a high level have described the sensation of losing themselves in the task at hand, to the point where everything else fades into the background. Although there is no one quick and easy way to find this state of mind and body, numerous authors have written brilliantly on the subject.  See below for a brief suggested reading list.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial, 1990.

Farkas, Philip. The Art of Musicianship. Rochester, NY: Wind Music Publications, 1976.

Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis. Random House, 1974.

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I would add another item to that list, and that is to practice perfoming. Perform at every opportunity you can get. This doesn’t just mean set-piece concerts. Play your new piece to your parents, or to visitors.

Many private teachers run informal student concerts at the end of each semester – make sure you join in. These kinds of concerts are a great idea, as the younger pupils will get to hear what the older ones are doing – and will be able to do themselves in due course if they practice. And an audience of parents and relatives is pretty much guaranteed to be friendly and supportive.

A wise teacher will get a pupil used to the idea of performing before the pupil is old enough to realise that he is supposed to get nervous about it. Similarly, a wise teacher will have a quiet word with parents to make sure that in these early performances they don’t communicate their anxiety to their child. If the parents look happy and excited and encouraging about it, the child will unconsciously adopt the same attitude.

I’m lucky in this respect. i started the piano at the age of 5 and the horn at about 8 or 9. I come from a musical family, and there were always relatives and friends dropping by, and great opportunities for playing. So performing became something that one just did, and there was no big deal about it.


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