The euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the act of performing, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it.

And then, suddenly, it is all over…..You wake the morning after with a sense of deflation, the euphoria of the previous night now replaced by ennui.

This is in fact quite normal and the explanation for these feelings is simple: you’re coming down from an adrenaline ‘high’.

Anxiety is a natural part of the performance experience and should be accepted as such. While many of us may dwell on the psychological and emotional symptoms of anxiety (the fear of making mistakes, memory slips, negative self-talk etc), most of the symptoms we feel ahead of a performance are in fact physiological, the result of the release of adrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter which is produced when we find ourselves in stressful or exciting situations. Known as the “fight or flight hormone”, it works by stimulating the heart rate, contracting blood vessels, and dilating air passages, all of which work to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs. This gives the body an increased and almost instantaneous physical boost. In a performance situation, the side-effects of adrenaline pumping through the body include racing heart or palpitations, sweating, breathlessness, nausea, and trembling or shaky hands, arms or legs. It also brings a heightened sense of awareness and increased respiration which can make one feel light-headed or dizzy. Understanding the physical symptoms of performance anxiety can go a long way to managing the unpleasant feelings, together with deep practising and good preparation, which can remove some of the psychological stress. We do not need to “fight the fear” but simply accept that these sensations and feelings are normal and common to us all – even musicians at the top of the profession.

The symptoms of the release of adrenaline do not leave the body the instant the stressful situation ends, and when one is not actually in a genuinely dangerous situation, the effects of adrenaline can leave one feeling jittery, restless,  irritable and sleepless. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, you may continue to feel excited, “on a high”. Many people find it beneficial to “work off” the adrenaline rush after a particularly stressful situation (the clichéd example perhaps being the rock star trashing a hotel room after a gig!). It can take several hours for the body to settle down and the day after the concert, one can feel very flat as adrenaline leaves the system and one’s hormonal levels return to normal.

In reality, there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness. There may be another concert to prepare for, new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revived and finessed. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. The performance is what endorses all the lonely hours of careful practice and preparation.

“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

Stage fright? Blame Liszt – article by pianist Stephen Hough

Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No. 20 in A, D959, is my sonata. Never mind that I’ve heard Imogen Cooper, Daniel Barenboim, Piers Lane, Andras Schiff and Richard Goode, amongst others, perform the sonata, and have listened to countless recordings (including Shera Cherkassy, Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Inon Barnatan and Krystian Zimerman), all of whom might claim that it is their sonata. Schubert’s D959 is my sonata.

Why is it ‘my’ sonata? Because I spent many hours, days and months studying, learning and eventually performing this work, and through that meticulous process I acquired a sense of “ownership” of the music.

Taking ownership of one’s music, literally making it one’s “own piece”, is something that musicians strive for. A strong sense of ownership connects one to one’s music, and also creates a special communication with the audience.

Ownership is hard won, however, and comes from close study and deep knowledge of the score to fully acquaint oneself with the composer’s message and intentions. All the explicit information contained within the score must be processed, understood and acted upon –  the notes, dynamic, rhythmic and articulation markings, tempo, expression and character directions, and all the technical aspects of the music; in addition, implicit directions need to be considered and factored in: a rising passage may suggest a slight crescendo or stringendo, rests and fermatas suggests breathing space, a doubling of octaves may indicate a more orchestral sound or texture. The ability to process and interpret implicit directions comes from the musician’s own musical knowledge, training, an understanding of historical contexts and performance practice (in, for example, Baroque music), experience, maturity and personality.

Such disciplined learning and study gives one the confidence to play the music convincingly and to create one’s own personal vision of the music. I have been to concerts where it is evident that the music is well learnt, all the details taken care of, but it doesn’t communicate, or touch one’s emotions. A non-committal performer may tread the middle road, providing an inoffensive range of dynamics, expression and so on, but without a real sense of conviction which robs the performance of that special edge of excitement. Audiences can certainly feel this and may leave the concert satisfied but unmoved.

So, ownership is about having done the detailed work on the score to give one the confidence to perform the music convincingly. But there’s more: ownership also creates spontaneity, freedom, originality and sprezzatura in performance – the impression that everything one does is effortless. As a performer, one does not want to show the audience what one cannot do; instead, the performer reveals, through their ownership of the music, not only mastery, but also freedom, ease and delight, playing ‘in the moment’…. Performers who have these qualities, and who have complete ownership of their music, are prepared to take risks in performance, secure in the knowledge that one never plays the same piece of music the same way twice. Such performances are thrilling and memorable.

 

Guest post by Samantha Ege

“Remember it’s about connection not perfection.”

Those were the words of my coach and mentor Deborah Torres Patel. I had just told her about one of my first international lecture-recitals. The lecture had gone well, but the recital had been an absolute disaster. Actually, that wasn’t true—it wasn’t a disaster at all. Yes, my playing had been more nervous than usual, but “disaster” was definitely an exaggeration. I had received sincere compliments, encouragement and gratitude for my scholarly and pianistic contributions. But in my post-performance ritual of dramatizing the worst, re-imagining all the ways in which I could and should have played perfectly, and re-living all of the ways in which I did not, it was an absolute disaster.

About a year after this experience, a video surfaced. It was the trailer for the 2018 Women Composers Festival of Hartford where my lecture-recital had taken place. The trailer contained a short excerpt from my recital that cut to the lyrical second theme of Florence Price’s Sonata in E minor (first movement). It wasn’t bad! Festival Director Penny Brandt showed me the yet to be released full film that featured more of my playing. There was no sign of the disastrous performance I thought I had delivered. In fact, I heard my playing quite differently to how I had experienced it in the moment. Time had allowed me to zoom out and actually appreciate what I brought to the music in that performance. But I wished I could have felt this appreciation back then, and not just in retrospect.

I thought about Deborah’s words again. “Connection not perfection.” What kind of anticipation might I have built pre-performance if I had truly prioritized communication over self-consciousness? What kind of delivery might have unfolded if I had centred my connection to the music over the perfection of the notes. How might I have experienced the immediate aftermath of the recital if I had fully absorbed the audience’s response rather than becoming entangled in a web of personal disappointment? The idea of connection bore so many implications and in this moment of reflection, I was inspired to dig deeper and explore its many layers.

As a pianist-scholar who champions music by women, it is my goal to do the music justice and leave a lasting impression upon the listener. As much as I enjoy the academic side of writing and research, I feel that my work is not complete until I bring the music to life through performance. In those moments, I hope to perform in a way that captures how I felt when I first heard Althea Waites play Florence Price, or Virginia Eskin play Vítězslava Kaprálová because it was connection rather than perfection that drew me in and inspired me to make this repertoire my own.

As I look back on past performances, I try to apply what I wish I had known or felt then to the present. There is something so daunting, yet so liberating about playing repertoire that doesn’t carry the weight of heavily scrutinized performance histories. Indeed, the daunting side always seems so readily present while the liberating side requires a lot more pursuit. Still, they go hand in hand: the repertoire is daunting exactly because it is liberating. In championing under-represented composers, I have found incredible freedom as a pianist; oftentimes, my performances present first-time listening experiences for many, and even world premières—no pressure! But I know that this freedom will not transpire in the moment of performance unless I remember “it’s about connection not perfection.”


Samantha-16Samantha Ege is a British scholar, pianist and educator. Her PhD (University of York) centres on the African-American composer Florence Price. As a concert pianist, Ege’s focus on women composers has led to performances in Singapore, Australia, the UK and the US Ege has also championed Florence Price’s repertoire alongside violinist Er-Gene Kahng with duo recitals in Singapore, Hong Kong and the US.

Ege released her debut album in May 2018 with Wave Theory Records, entitled Four Women: Music for solo piano by Florence Price, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Ethel Bilsland and Margaret Bonds. The album featured the world première recording of Bilsland’s The Birthday Party, which led to Ege preparing an edition of the suite, now published by Faber Music. Four Women has been described as “an impressive collection…performed with virtuosic assurance.” Ege has also been commended “for her goal to bring the music of these composers to greater public awareness.”

Website: www.musicherstories.com

Guest post by Howard Smith

Like many adult learners, Howard Smith found it surprising that he would suffer that most debilitating of all pianistic ailments: extreme performance anxiety. He explained to me that this came as a big surprise, having been a confident keynote speaker at many large events during his long career in the IT industry. Now semi-retired, Howard is working hard to lead a new creative life, focussed on the piano.

Members of the London Piano Meet Group (LPMG) guided the initial development of Howard’s collation of collective wisdom.


Confronting my fears and learning ways to reduce and manage them is empowering. I can become a more confident performer.

There are two kinds of performance anxiety:

  • Irrational anxiety: fear for no good reason!  If I am well-prepared, it should be possible to overcome irrational anxieties.
  • Rational anxiety: insufficient practice and preparation. Maybe I was just lucky playing at home in the practice room? Under the spotlight, things fell apart.

The combination of sufficient practice and building resilience under emotional stress can help to reduce performance anxieties.

Technical preparation is the bottom line. Stiffness, awkward movements and poor technique become completely dysfunctional during a live performance; my mind and muscles won’t be able to cope.

I must develop a narrative of success and avoid a narrative of failure. A series of poor performances can result in a vicious cycle of negativity. Avoid at all costs.

Consider using techniques from NLP and CBT to turn negative messages and the ‘toxic inner critic’ into positive affirmation and confidence-boosting messages.

1) Adopt the Right Mindset

Accept yourself for what you are. How well you perform is not a determiner of your self-worth.

Nobody is perfect. A few mistakes are OK. Most audiences won’t notice, and many are non-judgemental.

Accept that a degree of nervousness (butterflies) is healthy. It is natural and affects most everyone. If you are not nervous or are overconfident, something is wrong. Adrenaline can be useful but needs a channel.

To build a narrative of success, seek out a graduated series of low-threat performance opportunities. Start with a video camera or tape recorder. Treat this session as if it were a real performance. Stand up and address your imaginary audience. Keep going, even if you make mistakes. Try to maintain the tempo. Then move to the next level: a trusted friend or musical associate. Then a few more friends. Etc.

Each time you perform, think about what you found hard. Consider what new coping strategies may be required.

2) Choice of Music

A successful performance of any piece of music boosts your confidence and increases emotional resilience in readiness for your next performance.

Choose music safely within or below your grade: ‘easy for you’ pieces with which you are entirely comfortable. Hard to say, difficult to do.

Play at a tempo at which you can be confident.

Performing less well-known repertoire can be helpful. Familiar or iconic music can attract higher expectations from audiences, heightening your natural fear of being ‘under the spotlight’.

3) Prepare for the Performance

Be well prepared. Practice. Practice. Practice. Eliminate anything and everything that can go wrong. Practice until you cannot go wrong.

Tip: A few days before your performance, identify the one bar (one) that you find the most challenging. Experience shows that this simple, practical solution seems to ‘clinch’ the sense of confidence after all else is said and done.

Perform whenever and wherever you can. For example, find a piano in a public space. Play when your friends come round, whether they want to hear or not. Tell your ad-hoc audiences to accept your performance for it is: the practise of practice! Doing so will help you feel what it is like to be nervous. These ‘safe’ performances reveal whether you have sufficiently practised.

Also, practise in front of your teacher. Take their advice but ask them not to obsess about tiny details. It’s too late for that. Ask them for their input on the entire sweep of the performance.

Work on controlled breathing, and meditation. Relax. Find the mind tools to redirect thoughts when they turn negative.

Be healthy. Exercise. Eat properly.

4) The Day Before

Limit stimulants. Get adequate sleep.

Practise yes, but avoid over-practise. Focus on the big picture.

Take a walk, jump up and down, shake out muscles, or do whatever feels right to ease any anxious feelings. Repeat nearer the time.

5) At the Performance

If possible, warm up beforehand by playing a few scales.  At least try to feel the piano keyboard in advance. Play a few notes and chords. Don’t forget the pedals.

Remind yourself that you are well-prepared. Don’t over-think what could go wrong.

Foster a ‘safe space’ for yourself in which to perform. Get into ‘the zone’. Centre yourself.

Adopt an aura of confidence. Visualise your success. Face down your anxiety.

Think of the audience as your friends. Connect with them – smile, make eye contact.

Shift the focus from your vulnerabilities, towards the music itself. Close your eyes. Imagine your audience enjoying the music.

Aim not only to perform correctly but also to communicate the emotion of the music (sadness, joy, profound feelings).

As you start to play; play with confidence. The success of the first few bars is essential to your continued confidence throughout the performance.

Breathe. Don’t hold your breath. Relax your facial muscles.

Play with passion! Play joyfully. Play as if you are giving a GIFT to your audience, instead of focussing on what may go wrong or being over-critical of yourself. Perfection if not the same as beauty. Moreover, leave your ego at home!

As you play, listen but do not analyse. Focussing too closely on finger and hand movement is not going to help at this stage. Communicate the expression or ‘story’ of the music rather than its technical aspects.

Allow the music to flow through you, imagine yourself as a conduit for it, rather than deliverer or controller.

Be in the present. Play in the moment. Don’t anticipate difficult future bars or upcoming tricky passages.  Avoid thoughts such as ‘I must not get that tricky chord wrong’ or ‘I must not trip up at bar 25’. Avoid all such negative thoughts.

Tip: Imagine the music is a music roll ticker-tape, inexorably moving forward. Let the music carry you along. Declutter your thoughts from the mechanical details of performance.

Bring your mind and hands together as one, not as separate machinery. Concentrate as you play. Do not allow stray thoughts to enter your head. Chase them out.

If you make a mistake, pick up, recover and carry on – with the least amount of fuss. Keep going. Maintain tempo. Whatever happens, try not to re-start.

Have fun!

5) After the Performance

Don’t dwell on what happened during your performance, other than to learn from obvious mistakes.

Plan for your next performance, right away.

Postscript: Additional Thoughts

Minimise distractions. Find a fixed point in the distance. Focus on whatever makes you feel comfortable. This point could be your music stand, the keyboard, or somewhere beyond the piano itself. Wherever or whatever it is, ensure that your focal point is below eye level.

Be deliberate. When you step up to the piano, how exactly do you intend to sound? What, precisely, do you intend to communicate to your audience?

Build the appropriate mental image of the way you would ideally like to perform. Tell yourself that you are going to perform brilliantly, with passion and clear dynamics. Think about positive words such as light fingers, smooth playing, even shifts, fluid movements, strong chords, quiet, calm, ease. Breathe from the diaphragm.

Avoid shallow, rapid, chest breathing. Performance anxiety creates muscle tension. As you breathe, focus on each group of muscles, releasing tension as you exhale.


 

Howard Smith
instagram.com/howardneilsmith

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The concert pianist cuts a romantic, almost mysterious image: alone on the stage with only a shiny black minotaur of a concert grand for company, the pianist exists in a place other than ours, elevated – both physically and metaphorically – before us. We invest special heroic qualities in the pianist, knowing that he/she must convey supreme mastery and complete oneness with the music by playing from memory. Pianists are like Himalayan adventurers, scaling the highest peaks without a safety net: Triumph or fail, they do so in the very public sphere of the concert hall.

A concert is not called a “performance” – and its participants “performers” – for nothing. Like an actor inhabiting a character created by a playwright, so the musician takes on a special role for the duration of the concert. Like actors, they also wear special clothes for the occasion, which further defines their role, and the occasion occurs in a special building, often in darkness or semi-darkness. Thus the concert becomes an experience outside the realm of daily existence – for audience and performer.

Every physical act you do when you’re on stage is part of the drama of the performance. Playing a concert is theater. It’s one of the reasons I think we should have a different costume for playing a concert, as opposed to listening to a concert. It doesn’t have to be tails, but I think we need to emphasize that this is something that’s not of the everyday.

– Stephen Hough, concert pianist (from an interview with Pacific Standard

Milton Court, London after a concert by America pianist Jeremy Denk
The mystique of the performance begins as the house lights dim, the unspoken signal to the audience to fall silent. A palpable sense of expectancy permeates the concert hall, and the shared adventure of the performance begins as soon as the pianist crosses the stage. The applause, the audience’s way of greeting the performer, and, in return, a bow, the performer’s way of acknowledging the audience. There is no enmity: for the next few hours we are, to quote British pianist Stephen Hough, “all friends”, sharing in the experience, our many differences forgotten for the duration of the concert.

The moments before the performance begins resembles nothing else. One has a sense of the awesome formality of the occasion, the responsibility, the knowledge that, once begun, a performance cannot be withdrawn. Silent, poised at the piano, at that moment the pianist has complete control over our reactions:

I sit down, and I don’t move a muscle. I create a sense of emptiness within myself, and in my head I count up to thirty, very slowly. This causes panic in the audience: ‘What’s happening? Is he ill?’. Then and only then I play the G [of Liszt’s Sonata]. In this way, the note sounds totally unexpected, but in an intentional way. Clearly, there’s a sort of theatricality about this, but the theatrical element seems to me very important in music. It’s essential if you want to create a feeling of unexpectedness….

The unexpected, the unforeseen – it’s this that creates an impression

– Sviatoslav Richter (from Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon)

The best performers (and I don’t necessarily mean the most famous or technically assured) are the ones who take us into their confidence, creating an unspoken mutual connection through music. They weave stories for us, create magic, transport us to another place and allow us to forget ourselves and the tedious minutiae of our daily lives.

The pianist’s mystique and the ritual of the concert create a unique connection in time and place between the performer, the music and the audience.

Today, when presenting classical music seems to be all about “accessibility”, the mystique of performance can be lost in the desire to “connect” with the audience “extra-musically”, so to speak, by talking to the audience, for example, to break down barriers. It’s great to enjoy classical music in a more relaxed setting; it’s interesting when the performers introduce the programme, discuss their particular connection to the music, or why they selected it. This can work especially well in smaller venues where the audience and performer are in close proximity. But talking to the audience pre-concert in a big hall is problematic without proper amplification, and the big venues almost naturally lend themselves to a more formal, mystical concert experience. And I think audiences like performers to actively create a sense of mystique – because we know we are mere mortals in the face of such superhuman ability.

The most startling thing can be meeting a concert pianist “off duty”, so to speak. Years ago, long before I started writing this blog, I interviewed a concert pianist at his fairly modest home in leafy suburbia. I have always been fascinated by pianists (still am, as this blog testifies!) and I had an overly romantic image of the “concert pianist” (this was some years before I took up the piano again and learnt how to be a performer myself, which gave me an understanding of what goes on on stage during a concert and the curious psychology of performance). The mystique was dispelled the moment the pianist answered in the door. I remember he was was wearing navy socks of the type one can buy in M&S, and his piano room was not some Lisztian salon, as I had imagined it might be, all crimson swags and a bust of the composer for inspiration, or an ascetic monkish cell, but a tidy “office” equipped with the tools of his trade – a grand piano and a career’s worth of scores neatly lining one wall. The virtuoso at home. This person had kids, and a friendly cat, a mortgage to pay and a car to service: in truth, he was disappointingly ordinary. I had imagined something, someone, more esoteric, and his very ordinariness was a shock – he regarded the fine art of creating beautiful music for others to enjoy as nothing more than something he did day to day, nine to five, just like any other job. In fact, most of the musicians I have met via this blog and my Meet the Artist series, and of course after concerts, are normal people – and they “normalise” the incredibly artistic and highly intellectual thing that they do on stage in order to function day to day and get their work (practising) done. Because for them, music is their job. But of course what marks them out is their ability to transform the normal into the beautiful, the transcendent, the magical……and if we want to preserve that mystique, maybe it is better we don’t meet our pianistic heroes and heroines.

…the further a performance must travel to reach the origin of the music, the more the artist demonstrates the measure of both his conscience and his genius

Mark Mitchell, Virtuosi!

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British pianist Stephen Hough in concert

The psychological and emotional reasons why musicians perform and why we feel a need to connect and communicate with audiences is a broad and complex subject. For many musicians, performing is their raison d’être – the need, the will to play, to perform for others, in public, sometimes so overwhelming that it engages them entirely, body and soul.

Perhaps the primary motivation is the desire to share one’s music with others: in discussing the question “Why Perform?” with musician friends and colleagues, the majority of respondents cited “sharing the music” as a significant motivator. Sharing music in concert celebrates common cultural values (identity, history) and performing can be regarded as a “cultural gift”, a gift to oneself and a gift to those who love to listen to music. It brings pleasure to performer and to audience – both in terms of pure “entertainment” and also the pleasures of intellectual stimulation and challenge, or being emotionally moved. Alongside this, performing gives voice to the human condition and the meaning of life, and examines and confronts shared values in ways which transcend spoken language. Through sharing in a musical performance, we can celebrate togetherness and common purpose.

By performing the great works we share in something which is so much greater than ourselves, celebrating and appreciating brilliant human beings, like Mozart or Beethoven, Wagner or Mahler. Performing is a form of conservation or “curation”, by keeping these great works alive; it also looks after and inspires the next generation – musicians and concert goers.

On a more personal level performing satisfies an inner, more selfish need – the need to be valued and appreciated, the need to impress, to be loved even. It gives us something to live for and to work towards. Performing is a very special form of self-expression and fulfillment, creating experiences that only exist “in the moment” of the performance and then resonate in our individual and collective memories. A performance offers audience, and performer, a single, one-off interpretation of or “variation” on the piece, remembered and/or preserved only as that interpretation.

From a practical point of view, performing endorses and validates what we do in the practice room, and confirms that we have done our practising and preparation correctly. It holds the music up for scrutiny and offers insights about the music and the music-making process which simply cannot be obtained in the practice room, and keeps us in touch with that process from beginning to end. A successful performance demonstrates that we have practised deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand fully what is meant by “music making”. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”? 

Performances are unique occasions where we live in, and for, the moment. They should never be like rehearsals and for a succession of fleeting moments, the music lives beyond the written score. For those of us who perform, at whatever level, it is probably the most challenging, and satisfying, thing we will ever do.

making an audience feel something profound, moving or incredible never gets any less wonderful and it’s the best job in the worldHeather Bird, double bassist