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Performing: Horrifying or Heartwarming?

With the winter holidays come many joyous events – from presents to parties and the chance to spend quality time with our families. One mixed blessing for many musicians is the proliferation of performance opportunities. As we bid a fond farewell to the holiday concert / recital season, let’s take some time to consider the experience of what many believe to be a holiday horror; performing in front of an audience.

It’s important for our students and children to learn that, with the right preparation and attitude, it is possible to enjoy and even look forward to performing opportunities. More advanced musicians may need to be reminded of that fact from time to time, as well.

The phenomenon known as Musical Performance Anxiety has been addressed in many articles and books over the years. One of my favorites is an in-depth exploration of the issue in ‘Overcoming Performance Anxiety’ by Dr. Benjamin Whitcomb; a 2008 article in American String Teacher magazine. Visit Dr. Whitcomb’s website here -

Here are some ideas based on that article that will help you (or your students or children) to remain calm and focused during your next performance.

Prepare thoroughly

Make a practice schedule and stick to it so that you are in the best possible shape. As a student, I would often slack off right before a recital. Looking back I see that it gave me an excuse if I played badly. “Oh, I didn’t really practice this piece that much.”

Practice performing

Make a video of yourself playing the work that you are preparing as both a tool for improvement and a good way to practice playing while nervous. Although you won’t be as nervous as you might be during a live performance, you will still be under some pressure.

Find places to breathe. We often breathe shallowly when nervous. Find places in the music where you can collect yourself, relax and breathe.

Leave extra time between phrases and sections. Things tend to rush when you are nervous and this is a good way to build in some space.

Don’t stop if you make a mistake. Practice recovering. The audience will forget a few wrong notes. They will take more notice if you make a disgusted face or stop and go back.

Learn to improvise. It may help you if you experience a memory slip.

Build your performing chops

Learn to cope with the inevitable adrenaline rush by performing frequently.

Start in low stress settings like retirement homes or as background music at a party.

Perform with others.

Play music that is comfortable for you. Don’t pick something that stretches you to your technical limit or that you’ve just learned.

While performing

Be an actor. Walk on stage with confidence. Connect with your audience. Look at them and smile. If the setting is appropriate, talk to them about the music that you will play or tell them something about yourself. This is a good way to work through some nervousness before you start.

Think about the music while you play. Listen to yourself. Focus on bringing out the musical aspects of your piece. If everything comes together at the right time, you may enter ‘the zone’. In the zone, you are totally focused and thoughts have stopped popping up. You are feeling the music and playing it seems effortless.

Move (a little) to loosen muscles.

Breathe. Remember those places you found in the music where you can collect yourself, relax and breathe.

Don’t stop if you make a mistake. If you practiced recovering as suggested, this should now be second nature to you.

After the performance

Accept compliments from others graciously without self-conscious comments.

Remember that everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you handle them that matters.

Rework and learn from problem areas so that they will go more smoothly next time.

Focus on the high points when you think about the performance and allow the mishaps to fade from your memory.

Why perform?

Do it for others and for yourself. Music is one of life’s pleasures. Not many can play an instrument. If you are one of the few who can, give others the opportunity to hear live music. Experience the satisfaction of setting a goal, working toward it and achieving it.

Enjoy your next performance!!

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"I've never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music itself is not going to let you down."  - Virgil Thomson

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