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Anderszewski’s responses reminded me of some paragraphs I’d written on this subject some years ago in a novel I wrote (unpublished) in which the protagonist is a concert pianist: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

OVERCOMING PERFORMANCE ANXIETY

At my recent kids’ masterclass, the class leader, pianist Graham Fitch, likened playing in different situations – at home, for teacher, in a festival or exam, in a concert – to walking a tightrope. When practising at home, often alone, or with the family getting on with their own things around you, the tightrope is easy to negotiate, very close to the ground, and should you fall off, you won’t hurt yourself. When you play for your teacher, you may feel a little anxiety initially, but once you start playing, you settle into the music and look forward to your teacher’s feedback. The tightrope is still manageable, not too high, not too scary, and not far to fall.

However, when we put ourselves in more stressful situations, the tightrope is suddenly yanked up, and is sometimes dauntingly vertiginous. We view it with trepidation, and the nerves may well set in from the moment we receive the exam date, book the concert venue or send off the competition application form. Dealing with performance anxiety can be a major issue for many musicians and is, for some, the reason why they choose not to perform at all (most famously, perhaps, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould). As I prepare for my diploma exam (mid-December), coping with anxiety on The Day has been up there at the forefront of my mind, along with ensuring my repertoire is ready, my programme notes are accurate, the page-turner is primed, and my dress is appropriate for the occasion.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with anxiety, but there are some well-established strategies which can help, from physical exercises, deep breathing, sensible diet and rest, to psychological activities to help encourage a positive outlook on the event, and thorough preparation. For me, anxiety manifests itself mostly in physical symptoms: dry mouth, racing heart, trembling hands, feeling hot, feeling cold, headache and light nausea. Lately, I have learnt how to counteract this with positive thinking, Bach Flower Rescue Remedy and the “piano pilates” exercises from my teacher.

In preparing for a concert, exam or similar situation, where one knows one’s playing will be held up for scrutiny, it’s important to set that tightrope slightly higher, even if one is working in the relatively stress-free environment of one’s home or piano studio. This past week, my practising has incorporated recording myself playing, using a neat digital recording device (Olympus LS-5). It’s amazing how just having that little machine behind me as I played has upped the anti: knowing that there is an extra pair of “ears” listening has either made me play better, or caused me to crash through my repertoire with all the finesse and poise of a grade one schoolgirl. I posted the recordings on Soundcloud, and have been surprised at the positive feedback. It all helps!

It is also important to present one’s concert or exam repertoire to an uncritical audience ahead of The Big Day. Playing for friends, in the informal surroundings of one’s own home (if space permits), can be very useful. Ply the friends with coffee and cakes, don’t expect them to sit in hushed reverential silence, and just play for pleasure. You know you’re on show, but no one’s going to boo or slow hand-clap you.

Ahead of the event proper, try on your concert clothes and ensure everything fits and is comfortable. As a female pianist, it is crucial (for me at least) to have shoes with a heel which is comfortable on the pedal, and will not slip (much as I love high heels, they are impossible for playing the piano). Match your concert attire to the venue and time of the concert: you don’t need to wear evening dress for a lunchtime or early evening recital. Find out how to get to the venue well in advance, especially if you have to rely on public transport, and work out a route that will ensure you arrive in good time.

Even in the concert setting, on The Big Day, you can engage in psychological strategies to counteract the nerves. Imagine yourself walking across the stage, greeting the audience, sitting at the piano and placing your hands on the keys. Visualise the opening page of the first piece you will play and hear the music in your head. Take a deep breath and as you exhale, allow your hands to float onto the keys ready for the opening measures. Deep, thoracic (“Pilates”) breathing can also help when you are playing: in our anxiety, or extreme concentration, sometimes we do actually forget to breathe (I know I do this in the second half the Schubert Impromptu Opus 90 No. 2 – I have marked a reminder to myself on the score!). A deep breath in and slowly exhaled can help refocus, and can even have a softening effect on the music, especially during sections where a bugbear error has always cropped up in practice, or which are just plain difficult. Remind yourself that you are well-prepared, that you are ready,  looking forward to sharing your music with others, that you fear nothing, and that the experience will be fun, exciting, and instructive.

When helping my students prepare for our end of term concerts, we talk about performance anxiety and I remind them that playing the piano is very hard. The audience (parents, grandparents, siblings and friends) is sympathetic, nay, gobsmacked that anyone has the guts to get up on the stage and play. My own mantra in this situation is “I can do it. And you can’t”. Bullish? Egocentric? Of course – but you need a degree of chutzpah to drive you out onto the stage in the first place. And it makes you play better.

It is adrenaline (the “fight or flight” hormone) which causes the unpleasant symptoms of performance anxiety, but it can also be harnessed to create the right excitement, daring, poise and sprezzatura to perform – and perform well. My teacher has a lovely anecdote about her daughter, who was taking part in a school drama show. The child asked her mother excitedly “I wonder if I’ll get adrenaline on The Day?”, knowing that it would enhance her performance.

On a more prosaic level, it is important to go into a performance or exam situation well-rested and properly fed. Don’t hammer through your pieces on the morning of the concert or exam. Do gentle practice, eat a light lunch, preferably not overloaded with rich salad dressings or carbohydrates which will make you sleepy, take a nap, prepare your concert clothes, put your music in your brief case. At the venue, familiarise yourself with all the key entrances and exits, and facilities (including fire exits). Move calmly and quietly. Avoid too much conversation with venue staff, house manager etc. Get dressed and warm up. Now, start to think yourself into the music…..

The Inner Game of Music and The Mastery of Music, both by Barry Green, and The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein all contain sound, sensible, and reassuring advice on how to prepare for a concert, strategies to overcome performance anxiety and how to “become a performer”. The accompanying Musician’s Way website is also extremely helpful.