Piotr Anderszewski and the loneliness of performance

I was fortunate to catch James Naughtie’s interview with pianist Piotr Andersweski on Radio Four’s Today programme on Saturday morning. Anderszewski has just won the coveted BBC Music Magazine Recording of the Year award, for his album Schumann Humoreske; Studies for the pedal piano; Gesänge der Frühe. Now in his mid-40s, the reclusive Anderszewski has received much critical acclaim for his performances and recordings, in particular those of his countrymen Chopin and Szymanowski. (I am listening to his recording of Chopin’s 4th Ballade as I write – it has a beautiful lucidity in the introductory section).

During the interview, Naughtie asked Anderszewski, who is famously self-critical (he walked off the stage during the semi-finals of the Leeds Piano Competition in 1990 because he wasn’t happy with his playing) about performance anxiety and the loneliness of the soloist. Anderszewski’s responses reminded me of some paragraphs I’d written on this subject some years ago in a novel I wrote (unpublished) in which the protagonist is a concert pianist:

It was like dying, this masochistic art: you did it entirely on your own and no one went with you. And all that went before, the practise and preparation, was undertaken in lonely isolation as well, closeted, hermit-like, with that great box of a piece a furniture, the machine that was the piano. The audience sat in a state of complacent anticipation, applauding loudly, hundreds of palms coming together to acknowledge him, demanding brilliance, ignorant of the hours and days and weeks of preparation that made up a recital lasting just under two hours.

And on performance anxiety:

There was a dry nausea at the back of his throat, and the ache in his gut was worse now, compounded by faint, but noticeable palpitations and a throbbing forehead. Soon these symptoms would be joined by others: cold, sweaty hands, tremulous fingers, a tightening in the chest. All part of the deal, he thought miserably, but no less difficult to cope with for that. It was irrational and uncontrollable and, as an adult, he knew he shouldn’t still be blown away by this experience. In this culture of emotional restraint, having to endure such an overwhelming onslaught of feelings seemed childish and immature. It wasn’t a life or death confrontation. The feelings were excessive compared to the risk involved. He was not about to perform delicate brain surgery, or disable an unexploded bomb, though what he was about to do represented a highly refined task of physical control in its own right. Yet body and mind seemed determined to react as if it was a huge gamble; the feelings were real and demanded to be confronted.

This may be from a work of fiction but the symptoms described are very real: I know, because I have experienced them, and I have met musicians who suffer from similar symptoms. Some suffer very badly – in a recent blog article pianist Stephen Hough described how Adele Marcus (one of his former teachers) actually vomited on the keyboard because she was so overcome with nerves. Some performers find their performance anxiety is so great that they simply cannot perform at all (Glenn Gould, for example). Another pianist, whom I met some years ago while researching my novel, said he was “usually too busy” ahead of a performance “worrying about sandwiches, tickets and things” to feel nervous, though he did acknowledge that the adrenaline rush of performance anxiety is useful as it can “lighten” one’s playing.

Anxiety affects each of us in different ways, and we all have strategies for coping with it. I recently had to undergo a series of long and involved dental treatments to have a crown fitted over a broken tooth. The treatment necessitated root canal work, which, in the bad old days, could be painful and laborious. I am fortunate that I have very good teeth and, until this year, rarely had to have any treatment beyond a routine check up and clean. Despite this, I harboured a very deep and totally irrational fear of the dentist. In the past, less sympathetic dentists (all male, I might add) laughed at my fear, but my current dentist, a very kind and sympathetic Swedish lady, allowed me time to understand and accept my fear. Thus, when I went for the root canal treatment I was able to rationalise the anxiety and cope with it. In the end, the procedure, though long, was absolutely painless – and by the fourth visit to the dentist, I felt no fear whatsoever.

There is a lesson in this anecdote, and one which Piotr Anderszewski highlighted in his interview with Radio Four: acceptance. Here’s what he said: “Accept that there is no recipe……….The best way to cope is to fully accept that there is no way to cope.” He also explained that while one may wish to try and recreate that marvellous recital at Carnegie Hall last week, it is, of course, impossible to replicate a performance – because each performance is unique (this is why live music is so exciting). “The best way to cope with the loneliness and stress and pressure is to fully accept who you are this evening…..say, 8pm 20 April 2015. This is how I am, I am not trying to make it nice…..”

People say to me, “how can you feel nervous? You’re so good, you play so well!” which is all very flattering, but no matter how good you are, a degree of anxiety is inevitable, and normal. The symptoms of anxiety are produced by the powerful hormone adrenaline, which is part of the body’s acute stress response system, also called the “fight or flight” response. Without it, our ancestors would not have stood a chance against that sabre-toothed tiger!

As a performer, if one accepts the symptoms as part and parcel of the experience one can then use them positively. I was surprised in my Diploma exam how the adrenaline kicked in to make my performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat one of my best, despite the fact that the piece felt unstable and liable to run away at any moment when I was playing it. As my teacher said when we discussed the exam report, adrenaline can produce interesting effects on one’s playing, often allowing one to stand back slightly from the music and simply “let it go”.

My own strategies for coping with performance anxiety offer no “magic formula” but they work for me:

  • Ensure you are fully prepared. This was the most important lesson I drew from my Diploma experience. I was so well on top of the repertoire that small slips did not throw me or distract me during the recital exam. If you go into a performance situation – a concert, exam or competition – knowing you are under-prepared, you immediately set off negative feelings about yourself and your music.
  • In practice, get into the habit of “playing through” pieces without stopping to correct mistakes.
  • Learn how to concentrate. This may sound daft, but it is possible to train yourself to concentrate better. This will help enormously in a performance situation: audience noises, distractions such as a siren or other “noises off” won’t throw you off course.
  • Take every opportunity to perform your programme ahead of The Day. As I keep telling one of my adult students who failed her Grade 2 exam last summer because nerves got the better of her, the only way to overcome performance anxiety is to perform.
  • If you have been working on the repertoire for a long time, try to recall what excited you about it in the first place and what makes each piece special/important for you.
  • On the day: don’t practice too much, and whatever you do, do it slowly and quietly. Ensure body and mind are rested. Don’t eat too much. Allow plenty of time to get to the venue/exam centre etc.
  • Do deep-breathing (Pilates thoracic breathing) and some light exercises to loosen and warm up arms and fingers. Imagine the first few bars of the first piece, visualise playing them and hear them in your head.
  • At the piano: breathe in, exhale slowly and allow the fingers to float onto the keys for the opening notes. Keep breathing!

I also take Rescue Remedy ahead of a performance. It just takes the edge off my anxiety.

Remember – people come to concerts because they enjoy live music and they want to hear us play, not to spot mistakes and slips. Most people are amazed by and full of admiration for any of us who can get up on stage and just do it, at whatever level.

Hear the full interview with Piotr Anderszewski here

Stephen Hough on performance anxiety

3 Comments

  1. Great advice, Fran. I like that he says “The best way to cope is to accept that there is no way to cope.” (btw, I’d love to read your novel someday!)

    • Yes, I thought that was such a sensible – and true – thing to say. My teacher has always advocated this approach too.

      My novel was a sort of diversion, before I started playing the piano again seriously (I didn’t play for 10 years after I got married). While I was writing about piano music, I realised I should also be PLAYING the piano! I never really finished the novel, but I might go back to it one day…..

      • Funny how our lives took similar paths. I also stopped playing for years while my kids were growing up and I wrote spec screenplays for a while. Nothing sold but one was a contest finalist. Then dove back into teaching and only now just now coming back to playing!.

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