It’s funny how piano practice becomes so much more important when you have a performance looming. No matter whether it will be for one person – an examiner – or in front of an audience of family, fellow students and friends, the prospect of performing in public is going to change the way you think about playing the piano. It might fill you with excitement or dread and I’m going to try to suggest ways of managing your feelings so that you can play at your best and enjoy the experience! I have recently been watching a series of interviews with professional musicians, educators and psychotherapists on the subject of performance stress. While the experience of a professional musician who has to perform several times a week is obviously different from the piano student who has two or three opportunities in a year to play in public, some of the observations made are relevant to everyone and I have included the most useful advice below.
When you are going to play in public you have to be well prepared, and the first preparation is making sure you know all the notes in your piece! Is there a difficult passage or bar that you need to work at more than the rest? A bit that could go wrong? That’s the bit you need to practise more, not having a run at it from the beginning of the line (or piece) but isolating the problem and practising slowly, hands separately first of all, until you can play it easily. Aim for ten times perfectly at speed – and that means ten times WITHOUT MISTAKES. Are you playing from memory? Can you play hands separately without looking at the music? With your eyes shut? Once you know your piece, have a run through with family sitting down and listening to you – it’s quite a different experience from someone hearing it from another room. And the only way to practise playing in front of people is to play in front of people.
Then there’s the preparation leading up to the performance on the day. This is not the time for last minute practice to fix things! You should do some exercises to warm up your fingers and rehearse your piece, thinking about the music and how you want it to sound. Eat something – you need energy and you don’t want to play when hungry. You might want to be quiet and think about the performance ahead – or you might be happier distracting yourself by reading a book or playing a game. Avoid dangerous activities that may injure you and make it impossible for you to play – however tempting that might seem!
Nobody’s perfect! You want to do your best, and if you’ve worked hard and are well prepared, there’s no reason for you to ‘fail’. Your audience – even if it is an examiner – wants you to play well; it’s much more enjoyable if the performer is having a good time and sharing music with the listener. Music doesn’t exist as notes on the page: it’s there to be played and to be heard. Think of playing to an audience as a positive experience, not a scary performance test – it’s your gift to whoever’s listening. And because nobody’s perfect, things may go wrong from time to time. You may play a wrong note, or lose your place. So what? It’s okay to make a mistake! Try to keep going, or if you prefer, give a quick apology and then carry on. I once went to a recital by a well known pianist who had a memory lapse, and kept apologising for the rest of the concert. We, the audience, would have forgotten all about it if he hadn’t kept going on about it. You may want to dedicate your performance to one person in the audience – and that person can be yourself, someone who is sitting in good view or someone who’s not even there. It doesn’t matter – just play for that one person and you’ll be letting others listen in as well.
Some of us are temperamentally more suited than others to performing in public, but even apparently confident musicians experience a degree of anxiety before walking on to the platform. We’re only anxious about things that matter, and if you’ve been practising your piece(s) for several weeks or months before the performance date, that piece will matter to you. Anxiety and excitement are closely related in the body, and the symptoms are similar: sweaty palms, body shaking, butterflies in the tummy. You might not be able to cure the feeling of excitement but you can deal with the body’s responses: try breathing deeply, deliberately relaxing your shoulders if you are getting tense there, carrying a handkerchief or small towel to wipe your hands.
Remember, you are not your performance. It might be the culmination of hours of practice, but you have a life outside this performance and if it doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped, you are not a failure. Try to switch to confident in your brain: say to yourself I am going to play my best, I am well prepared, I love this piece. There are different techniques you can try to manage your feelings before a performance. Picture yourself walking up to the piano and enjoying playing the piece that you can now do easily. Breathe deeply. Or try silent screaming – emphasis on the silent! Imagine you are going to scream, like you did when a baby. Screw up your eyes, open your mouth wide and shake your head, just as if you were about to emit a VERY LOUD NOISE – but without sound. You might want to check who’s watching you before trying this one! Further advice and factsheets are available from the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, which you can see here. Smile when you walk up to the piano to perform. It’s a lovely piano and you’re going to enjoy playing it. When you are enjoying yourself, so will everyone in the audience. You might not feel ready (although see Preparation above) but then perhaps you’ll never feel ready, and you just have to get out there and do it. The audience is not a sea of sharks waiting for you to fall in! Focus on the music and try to convey the composer’s intentions. Sometimes it’s easier to play your own music than another composer’s. A pop star from the 70s, Lynsey de Paul appeared on a television chat show many years ago, intending to play a Bach prelude – she’d even cut her fingernails for the occasion – and she couldn’t go through with it. This was a pop star who performed her own songs to thousands every night.Good Luck! You’ve worked hard, got through the difficult stages of learning your piece – now go out there and enjoy it!