I wrote these notes for my adult students to help them overcome their anxiety about performing in my forthcoming concert. They are coming to my home a couple of days before the event for an evening ‘soirée’ of music and wine – an opportunity to play their concert pieces in (I hope!) a non-threatening environment, amongst friends.

First, it’s ok to feel nervous! It is normal, and it is a sign that the body’s “fight or flight mechanism” – i.e. the production of adrenaline – is working properly. Performance anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways; the most common physical symptoms are:

  • Dry mouth
  • Moist hands
  • Trembling hands
  • Nausea
  • Palpitations

I find Pilates-type deep breathing (“thoracic breathing”) very useful for dealing with anxiety. The physical act of breathing like this calms you down. It also forces you to focus. When I am playing and I make a mistake, or I find my concentration slipping, I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. This helps me refocus.

Learning to deal with performance anxiety is a useful skill, and will make any kind of public performance, musical or otherwise, easier to deal with.

1.    Before you perform, take time to remind yourself that you have practiced to the best of your ability, that you know the piece intimately, and that even a small slip is not going to put you off. Confidence comes from knowing the piece intimately. Before the main performance, play it for family and friends and imagine yourself in a concert situation.

2.    Do not be self-critical. Do not pre-judge the event or draw conclusions about what just happened or what might happen. Self-criticism is pointless because it destroys your focus and takes you out of the here and now. Rather than judge your playing, simply observe it without saying anything. Do not over-analyse, play from the heart.

3.    Avoid inner dialogue. Do not distract yourself with the “what ifs” and the “maybes”. Focus on the music. Hear it in your head and imagine your fingers on the keyboard.

4.    Do not pre-judge the audience’s reaction. Remember, no one is going to boo, slow hand-clap or heckle. Most people who go to concerts, whether given by professional or amateur musicians, are full of admiration for anyone can get up on stage and do it. Everyone who comes to our concerts is there because they want to be there, to support the performers and to enjoy the music.

5.    When you go to the piano, acknowledge the audience – without them it would not be concert! – but then try to blank them out: look straight ahead at the score.

6.    When you sit down to play, take a moment to compose yourself. It is up to you when you start – the audience must be patient. Think about where your hands should be on the keyboard. Get acquainted with the look of the piano – if it’s an unfamiliar instrument.

7.    Just before you begin, take a deep breath and breathe out slowly. As you exhale, allow your fingers to float onto the keys – and then begin. Remember to breathe when you’re playing – it’s amazing how many people hold their breath when they are playing! If you feel your focus slipping, use the deep-breathing technique to help you.

8.    When you have finished, let your hands float off the keyboard. Wait for a moment and then stand and acknowledge the audience again

Cue rapturous applause!

synergy syn·er·gy (sĭn’ər-jē)
n.
The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.

“those three minutes of perfection – when time stands still and the music just washes over you….”

This was Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen, talking on Radio 4 on Saturday morning about playing and performing, in an interview broadcast to coincide with the release of his book and a new album ‘Promise’, and the re-release of his album ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’.

Those of who play and listen to music regularly known what The Boss is talking about: that moment when one is ‘transported’, taken out of oneself; where the experience transcends the norm and seems to take one to another plane of consciousness. I felt it on Monday evening at the Wigmore, while listening to Messiaen’s transcendental ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.  Such moments can be rare, and so they must be cherished because they can be fleeting and soon forgotten.

When one is playing music, it is even harder. In order to achieve such a state, one must work hard, for one must know the music intimately – and such intimacy only comes from repetitive work and thoroughly immersing oneself in the music. One must also possess purpose and focus, trust in one’s musical self, have a highly-developed ability to concentrate, blanking out all other distractions, and be able to stand back from oneself and the music.

I used to find it hard to concentrate on my practising; my piano is in the conservatory and I was regularly disturbed by birdsong (the famous Bushy Park parakeets usually start their daily squawking at about 4pm), a dog barking, a road drill, my neighbour mowing his lawn. Gradually, I trained myself to ignore these sounds; they merged into the background, becoming a foil for the music instead of competing with it. Sometimes the sounds of nature are helpful: working on Debussy’s ‘Voiles’ in the summer, with the French windows flung open, I listened to the wind in the bamboos in my garden, and drew inspiration from that sound.

Some days, when I’m practising something for technique alone, a passage of Chopin, for example, which is just fingerwork, purely mechanical playing, before the shaping and finessing begin, I can let me mind wander, but not too far because there needs to be a degree of engagement to ensure the fingers land in the right place each time. This kind of practising acts as an exercise, to strengthen the fingers and to train the muscular memory to achieve accuracy. As Vladimir Horowitz said “From the moment one feels that the finger must sing, it becomes strong”: it is at this point that one stops playing mechnically and starts to play musically. Pianists, who draw so much information from the tips of the fingers, transmitting it to the brain and back to the fingertips again – almost as if one has “eyes in the fingertips” as my teacher put it once – can feel when that moment is achieved. Rather like a runner or cyclist being “in the zone”, reaching that point of perfect synergy between body and mind, when all limbs, lungs and heart seem to be working properly and the action becomes fluid, comfortable, beautiful.

When one plays in this state, it seems as if everything has fallen into place. Sometimes, it even feels easy! I have the sensation of observing myself, standing back from the music, and myself, watching myself playing. There is a sense of having “let go” – and yet, it is at this point that one is concentrating most furiously. One has also done all the groundwork: learnt all those notes, assimilated and acted upon those dynamic, articulation, tempo or stylistic markings, understood the composer’s intentions. At this point, one feels one has created exactly the right balance between spontaneity and structure, technique and inspiration

In his excellent book ‘The Inner Game of Music’, Barry Green (a professional double-bassist) talks about us having two Selfs: Self 1 is critical, cautious, doubting, sensible, interfering. It gets in the way, telling us what we should and should not be doing; it predicts successes and failures, and talks of “if only”. Self 1 can also be extremely distracting. Self 2 is intuitive, tapping into the vast resource of our nervous system and drawing information from non-verbal cues, and our vast memory-bank of past musical experiences: everything we have heard, learned from others, or experienced ourselves. Self 2 is more creative, and is connected to an earlier, childhood state – that wide-open, receptiveness that exists in children until they are about eight years old, ready to absorb whatever comes before us. As we grow up, subtle changes occur as we begin to collect information, ideas, attitudes, and form our own conclusions. We also become more cautious, more risk-averse, more fearful of the consequences of our actions, and the gap between our “critical” self (Self 1) and our “creative” self (Self 2) widens. The ability to spontaneously tap into our intuitive resources of Self 2 disappears, as Self 1 takes over. It is possible to train oneself to let Self 2 back in, to master what Barry Green calls “the inner game” (a technique borrowed from tennis coaching), and to reduce mental interference which can inhibit the full expression of one’s musical (or sporting) capabilities.

Choosing to ignore Self 1’s commands, its “what ifs” and “if onlys” is an important process in learning good concentration skills and teaching us to trust our musical selves. It is also crucial in helping to overcome performance anxiety: as I say to my adult students (who are currently in a collective paroxysm of fear about performing in my forthcoming Christmas concert), “What’s the worse thing that can happen?”. I assure them that no one will boo, nor slow hand-clap, nor heckle. Indeed, most people in the audience are full of admiration of anyone who can get up on a stage and perform. It is no surprise that most of the children I teach, especially the younger ones (8 – 10 year olds), are eager to perform and love showing off what they can do. They don’t worry about making mistakes or stopping mid-performance; they just get on with it, demonstrating that their Self 2 is more powerful than Self 1 at this point in their lives.

So, those “three minutes of perfection”, which Bruce Springsteen talked about, that moment of perfect synergy, are a true product of one allowing Self 2 to take over, driving out the doubts and fears of Self 1, letting one’s true musical self play, and permitting one’s fingers, hands and body to make the decisions.

 

Resources:

Green, Barry: The Inner Game of Music. Pan Books. London, 1987

—————- The Mastery of Music. Macmillan. London, 2003

Rink, John: Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding. Cambridge University Press, 2002

Westney, William: The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. Amadeus Press, 2006

Bernstein, Seymour: With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery Through Music. 1981

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.)