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.
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.
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