The title of this post sounds a bit threatening, doesn’t it? It’s as if your audience is about to pass judgement on you, and your fate will be decided. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is your audience actually loves you, expects that you are going to do very well, and is excited about the prospect of showing their love. (How many concerts have we been to where we, as sophisticated listeners, were amazed at the standing ovation and wondered if the rest of the audience was actually listening?)
However, you still have to deliver the goods! You owe it to your audience to deserve the love that they will shower on you. The problem is, if you get too fixated on deserving the applause you put yourself in that frame of mind I talked about above, and that makes it pretty hard to play well. So how do you prepare yourself to be conscientious and calm at the same time?
Part of the trick to this is accepting that you will be nervous. Some nervousness is a good thing. It proves that you care, it energizes you to give that extra 10% that makes the difference between an indifferent performance and a great one. It is also the result of excitement, and let’s face it, if you aren’t excited about performing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. You also have to pre-forgive yourself for making mistakes. You are not going to give a perfect performance. You’ll probably even make some mistakes. When students tell me that they are nervous about performing because they are afraid that they will make mistakes, I’m fond of saying, “Don’t worry. You will!” A somewhat different take on this came from Pepe Romero several years ago, when someone asked him if he was afraid of making mistakes when he performs. He responded, “No. I’m afraid of making mistakes when I practice.”
And therein lies the key. Good consistent performances are the inevitable result of good consistent preparation. Good preparation means that you practice to the best of your ability all the time. You don’t waste time with mindless practice that is counterproductive and only embeds bad playing while undermining your confidence. After all, just because you are going to be nervous doesn’t mean that you can’t be confident. You want to use your practice time to learn not only the notes, not only the nuances, but also to learn confidence. If you get it right every time at home, you know you will get it right on stage.
So it’s the day of the concert, and you have been working diligently. You get to the hall, you know you can do this, but your adrenalin kicks in, your hands begin to shake ever so slightly, you notice that your respiration is a bit shallow, and you begin to question your readiness. Now is the time to do some good self talk, reflection, and then some sort of ritual that will keep you in control. The self talk is a kind of pre-game pep talk, except that you are both coach and team. Then reflect realistically on how well you really have prepared, and how exciting this experience is for you. In your reflection, note that some of what you are experience is nothing more than excitement. Give yourself permission to be a little nervous, because, after all, pretending it isn’t there isn’t going to make it go away. And, acknowledgement gives you more ability to control how you will respond to the nervousness.
Finally, go through some sort of ritual. Ritual is reassuring. It is familiar, it focuses our minds, it helps us to prioritize. Some people do yoga. Others find that deep breathing is helpful (breathing is really important no matter what!) or perhaps some sort of relaxation technique. I’ve seen players pull out a picture of their spouses, kids, parents, or pets, someone who loves them unconditionally. Are you religious? Maybe a prayer for guidance, or better still, a prayer of thanks might help you. Christopher Parkening once told me that he doesn’t get too nervous because he is performing for and in service to God. I would think that this would take the ego out of the picture, and with that removed there is much less at stake!
The bottom line here is that your preparation is what makes or breaks your performance. That preparation begins in the practice room, and ends in the dressing room. With solid and consistent preparation you can walk onto the stage confident that you will do what you always do, your best.
Some really good blogs on performance anxiety can be found on The Bulletproof Musician, the website of Dr. Noa Kageyama, a doctor of psychology with a background in music, who is on the faculty at Juilliard, where he helps students prepare for orchestra job auditions. Another website that I have found very helpful is Search Inside Yourself, which was put together by Google under the direction of Chade-Meng Tan, and gives some scientifically based, data driven techniques involving self awareness and meditation.