Facing the fear

Performance anxiety is a familiar condition, and it’s rare to find someone who does not experience it, at least once in their life. And I am not just talking about musical performance: sitting an exam, giving a paper, addressing a conference, taking part in competitive sport, going to an interview. All experiences designed to crank the pulse up and set the adrenaline flowing through the body. The racing heart, sweaty palms, nausea and a whole host of other symptoms, are the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response to such stressful situations. I am sceptical of people who claim to feel no fear prior to a performance, because we need that “fear” to propel us out on to the concert platform, the stage or the running track. Of course, there are some people who simply cannot cope with the anxiety of performance: the great and eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould famously gave up performing, preferring to concentrate on recording.

I am continually amazed, and concerned, at how nervous my adult students are when they play for me. One or two are good friends of mine, confident and centred people who seem in control of their lives, but put them at the piano and ask them to ‘perform’, and they can go to pieces. One student tenses up so badly, her hands become rock hard and, as a result, her playing is lumpy and laboured. Another woman giggles hysterically, especially when she is playing well. Another simply berates herself for her poor performance, while I sit beside her, calmly assuring her that she has played well. All of them tell me they played “better” when practising at home. The children who I teach seem to suffer no such qualms. Many of them know me very well, are familiar with the set up in my house, and swan into my piano room for their weekly lessons with a brief “Hello-Fran-can-I-feed-the-rabbit-later?!” before launching into their music. I like to hope they treat their exams with the same chilled, relaxed manner.

When I took my final music exams (Grade 6 to 8), in my early teens, I can still clearly recall being very nervous on the day. The exams were held in the studio of a local professional pianist in Rickmansworth, a large room tacked onto the back of his house, reached by a corridor, in which the prospective candidates had to wait. The atmosphere was akin to the dentist’s waiting room, not helped by the fact that, like the dentist’s, we could hear what was going on in the studio. Once inside, there was no furniture but for an enormous black minotaur of a Steinway, and the desk at which the examiner sat. My then teacher offered no advice for dealing with anxiety: she assumed that I drew confidence from the fact I could play my pieces and technical work well, and had a good sense of the music. I was never taught the kind of useful focus and concentration techniques which can enable one to blank out the audience, the examiner, and all other extraneous distractions that can surround one in a performance situation.

One of the reasons why I started taking piano lessons again in my 40s, aside from a wish to improve and work towards a Diploma, was to try and understand the ‘psychology’ of the pupil, and of being taught, as an adult. I wanted to try and feel what my adult students felt: the fear of failure, of playing wrong notes, of not being able to play at all…. As adults, we are more fearful, more aware of our failings, less inclined to take a risk. All these factors, contribute to performance anxiety. I took a short Beethoven Rondo (Op 50 No 1) to my first lesson with my new teacher: I’d done quite a lot of careful work on it and I was quite pleased with it, looking forward to having my playing critiqued by someone whose judgement I trusted. I was nervous initially, but I was so enjoying playing on a really lovely piano, in an elegant sitting room in north London, that the nerves soon disappeared. The comments from my teacher were incredibly useful and positive, and thus we embarked on a 6-month programme to unpick all the bad habits I’d picked up in the 25 years when I was not taking lessons. Now, I actively look forward to my lessons (which happen, on average, about once a month), though I do spend the few days just before a lesson wandering round the house wailing “I haven’t done enough work! I haven’t done enough!”. But I never finish a piece I have played for my teacher with the words “I played it much better at home”. She is a sufficiently experienced teacher to know that, even if my playing is rather rough around the edges, I have done the groundwork, and she is very skilled at hearing improvements in my playing, big and small.

I was determined to play in her end of course concert in March, even though I had not performed in public since I was at school (I do not count playing for friends, or for my pupils and their parents as “in public” – since such impromptu concerts usually take place in my home). I firmly believe that performing a work in public endorses all the lonely hours of practise one has put in; it also offers it up for scrutiny and validation by others, and reminds us that music is for sharing. It is for these reasons that I encourage all my students to perform in my end of term concerts. Performing also breeds confidence, not just in musical ability but in many other aspects of life.

All the falseness of ego disappears when one performs, for to face, for example, a Beethoven sonata head-on, it is no longer about me, how fast I can play, how technically accomplished I am. It is about getting beyond myself, becoming ego-less, humble before the greatness of the music, trying to get so far under the composer’s skin that Beethoven’s ideas become my own, developing a sense of oneness with the composer. When we consider and play the sonatas, we speak about fundamentals: the meaning of life, shared values. And when sharing the music with others, one is debating, with the listeners, what it means to be alive, to be a sentient, feeling human being, the basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which remain with us still.

When one considers these aspects of playing the “great works” of the standard repertoire, there really should be no room for anxiety, for one should feel privileged to share these works with others, offering up this huge cultural gift, a gift to oneself and to those people who love to listen to the piano.

To be considered skilled enough to perform a Chopin Etude in public, albeit in  the drawing room of a house in Finsbury Park to a small audience of friends, family, and fellow students, was, to me, a huge honour, and a very levelling experience, not least because 18 months ago, I would never have considered myself capable of playing such a work. As well as helping me improve my technique and alter my practising habits so that I get as much as possible out of each and every practise session, my teacher has given me confidence and helped me to believe in myself and my abilites. I no longer consider myself “a Sunday pianist”, one who dabbles, a drop of Bach here, and smidgeon of Schubert there. Chopin’s Etudes, the Opp 10 and 25, are considered to be the very pinnacles of the piano repertoire, and by learning and performing them, I feel I am traversing the same musical pathways as some of the greatest pianists of all time. The Opus 25 No. 7, in C-sharp minor, was the first Etude I learnt, and by the time I came to perform it, I had been working on it for eight months. This helped ensure a reasonably nerve-free performance, for I knew the work extremely well. Before the concert, my teacher talked of deep-breathing techniques and ways to draw positive things from anxiety. As Barry Green says in his excellent book, ‘The Inner Game of Music’, what is the worst thing that can happen? One is not about to perform delicate brain surgery or disable an unexploded bomb, though performing does represent a highly refined task of physical control in its own right. The audience are not going to “boo” or slow-hand-clap if one produces a few smeared or incorrect notes. The trick is to accept the feelings of anxiety, and try to use them positively. The unpleasant symptoms are, after all, just a release of adrenaline to provide the necessary energy for the huge task ahead. And when it came to the moment to begin the Etude with that plaintive cello-like motif in the left hand, I saw only the music in the front of me, felt only my fingers and hands moving about the keys, heard only the sounds I was producing.

Coaching one of my adult students to perform a reduced version of Chopin’s A-minor Waltz for the summer concert, I encouraged her to learn the work carefully, which she did, reminded her that no one would boo or heckle her performance, and then, at the moment when she sat down to play, to take a deep breath in, and, as she exhaled, to allow her hands to float onto the keys. I remember doing this when I played the Chopin Etude in March, and whenever, during the performance, I felt my concentration slipping, I employed the same technique. It works wonderfully, because it both both calms and focusses.

With the Diploma recital looming reasonably large on my musical horizon now, I need to continually improve my performance technique. I have not taken a music exam for over 28 years, and I suspect that, come The Big Day, I will be nervous. But I also hope to counter that anxiety with the confidence that I have learnt my pieces carefully so that I am intimate with all their quirks and exigencies. Plenty of performance practice, at my own concerts and others, and impromptu recitals at home will all help.

Dinner guests: you have been warned! (Oh, and by the way, I don’t do requests – except Beethoven’s Op 27 No 2 for my always appreciative friend Nick.)