Performance Anxiety and the Art of Story Telling
I can still remember my first public performance, walking on stage and hearing people clapping and cheering. As I walked to my seat, I felt my arms shaking and I recall asking myself “how does my piece go again?” After a deep breath to calm my panicked thoughts, I brought my hands to the instrument knowing that I had prepared well, and trusting that if I just started, the music would prevail and my fingers would find their way.
Much of the performance anxiety I have experienced has come from critical self-talk that I picked up in the practice room. One of the best ways I have found to help myself counter this is by keeping my practice positive and including performance elements in each practice session. For example, after working on a specific passage, I will set aside time to play through the piece imagining myself in the hall or space that I expect to perform in. I picture the excitement I will feel on stage as I use my instrument to express the colors and characters hidden within the music. My job as a storyteller is to reveal all the special elements hidden within a piece for my audience to enjoy as well. When I give myself a chance to discover the music free from critical internal self-talk, it is easy to trust that my audience will love it too.
While performing is primarily a mental game, it follows the technical aspect of preparing to the best of your ability for every opportunity in order to feel secure. On a fundamental level, this means that you are comfortable in the knowledge and application of the notes, fingerings, bowings, rhythms, dynamics and articulations in your piece. Once you are able to play through your piece with these elements worked out, you can start counting repetitions toward a goal of playing it 100 times. Playing a piece 100 times is one way to make sure it is in your fingers. This is called the “hundreds” method and is a great tool for tracking where a piece is at in the polishing process. I also use this method to discover how many quality repetitions I need in order for a piece to be “performance ready”. This number could be anywhere from 20-50 repetitions. The exact number of repetitions needed prior to a first performance depends on the difficulty of the piece and the performer’s comfort level. When I am counting hundreds, I play through with a recorded accompaniment to get comfortable with the ensemble as if it were a real performance. Listening to and watching performances of your piece by professional musicians also provides inspiration for phrasing and stage-presence.
When picturing your audience, it helps to remember they are all on your side rooting for you because they want to enjoy the music as much as you do. No two performances will be the same, and one of the best ways to get more comfortable on stage is by doing it a lot! It may be scary at first, but having consistent performance opportunities helps musicians become familiar with the atmosphere and environment of sharing music in a public setting. Having many opportunities to perform takes the pressure off any single performance. You can do this by hosting living room performances for friends and family, performing regularly in monthly performance classes or recitals your teacher puts on, playing at school, or offering outreach concerts at churches, retirement homes, and libraries. Practice performing with distractions! This is always a fun game to play to see if you can stay in the music and ignore any distraction that might come up. Let go of what you can’t control: if the lights are too bright, or the room is echoey, or someone is sneezing, or a door opens while you are playing. Remember that performing is about sharing beautiful music with your audience. Your audience will enjoy the music if you are enjoying it too.
Finally, remember that our job as musicians is not to present a “perfect” performance (this doesn’t exist!), but rather to communicate the music to the best of our ability, so that our audience feels something and experiences the characters and spirit of the music through our performance. We are storytellers, after all.
Tatum Hodgson and the StringTime Family