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The Real Truth About Performance Anxiety

Is that it’s probably not going away, and we should be grateful for that. The nervousness and excitement before a concert is what gives us that edge as a performer–it’s what makes interpretations exciting and keeps us coming back. In the audience, the feeling of a live concert is entirely different from that of recordings. I would suspect that little bit of unpredictability combined with the performers anxiety and energy is what makes a live concert the experience it is.

Truth: Successful Performances Breed Successful Performances

When someone asks advice on performance anxiety, the common advice is, “you need to perform more!”

That’s true. But let’s add a bit to that advice, “you need to perform the same thing more.”

Too much of our energy goes into a one time performance of a piece. In undergraduate programs around the country juniors and seniors spend a year preparing a recital that will only be heard once. At my school, graduate performance students are only required to give one recital!

Performances do get better with time, but there has to be more controlled. Live with a piece for a while and playing it feels like put on your favorite t-shirt: familiar, but you like wearing it because you look good and feel confident. Performances improve only when you showcase a piece in front of an audience multiple times: the piece is familiar and comfortable, but you know with out a doubt that you’ll do well. That calm assurance and confidence only comes after a piece has been performed many times. Playing a piece for an audience more than once makes it better.

When I chatted with Steve Aron after our interview, I mentioned that I had several concerts booked in the coming month. He said, “That’s great! by the third concert you’ll wish you had 15 more.” He was right. By the third concert, all of the issues I had were exposed and practiced, and that third concert went really well (so did the fourth and fifth).

Performance is the Ultimate Indicator

Music is a performance oriented business. Even the strictest of hobbyists should seek out performance opportunities.

A performance is a test to see how well your practice really worked. Did your phrases end well? Did you convey the overall mood you wanted to convey? Did that tricky part go well? Were there memory slips? Sometimes things will go badly that never have before, exposing an issue that needs work.

In short, a performance can provide a new set of goals on which to work. Then when the next performance rolls around, the previous issues have been fixed (though new ones may arise!).

We need to abandon this idea that a performance is a one time thing. Live with repertoire for a long time. Perform it often.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. 2010 April 1

    100% true.. One of the wrong perceptions I think performance majors sometimes take from their music school training (in my opinion) is that they are ingrained with the thought that they have to have a new concert program every 5 or 6 months…They spend a huge amount of time preparing these works and concertize very little with it in proportion. At some point the main practice room has to be the stage.

  2. 2010 April 1

    Look at the greater names of our instrument. They all have more than one good reason to go on tour with the same pieces … sometimes even for years. Nevertheless… I am always thrilled to include new compositions to my repertoire on stage… simply because there is so much unplayed beautiful music that I want to share with my audiences. And I feel, that it helps much to handle performance anxiety or stage fright, if you really have fun to communicate your music to the audience.

  3. 2010 May 7

    Good point – it is curious that we spend most of our time learning how to learn music, and comparatively little learning how to perform music. A bit like learning how to speak a foreign language, but never actually using it, no?

    Great blog, by the way – I thought your post on musicians and computer skills was well-put. I look forward to the day when there are more classical musicians out there blogging and actively creating their own “brand”.

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