Recital anxiety - How do you deal with recital nerves?

Discuss the joys and pratfalls of performance

Postby 73-1078374881 » Fri Mar 12, 2004 9:53 am

I was wondering: what do y'all do when you're extremely nervous onstage? What do you do to keep from getting that way in the first place?
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Postby 81-1074658942 » Fri Mar 12, 2004 10:31 pm

Just so you know, there is some discussion on this topic in the "Length of Recitals" thread.

Basically, before I go onstage I just try to sit very still and quiet, and I try to make sure I'm calm mentally. I just think about what my reason for performing is. I think about what the music means to me and what I want to give to the audience. And I try, at all costs, to avoid thinking about technical aspects of a piece. By the time you get to a performance, your technique should have become automatic, and thinking about it only messes things up.

Once I actually get onstage I really try to breathe slowly and deeply so that I stopd shaking. Then I just go. I try to sing and speak and breathe through the piano, and it just makes all the difference in the world. Rubinstein used to tell his students that they HAD to be relaxed because the only way to play musically was to let your sould flow through your hands and into the piano. A lot of times having some sort of idea, phrase, or image to hold onto when your nerves start to take over is really helpful.

The only thing is that I have this weird habit of looking to the left when I perform. I don't really know why I do that.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sat Mar 13, 2004 9:19 am

My question of several days ago seems to have disappeared, so I'll post it again: how do you all deal with the 800-lb gorilla NERVES when performing? We've already had a couple of posts, and I have some ideas too which I'd like to throw out for comment.

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Postby 81-1074658942 » Sat Mar 13, 2004 10:36 pm

I hadn't really thought of distinguishing fear and nerves, but I guess what I have a problem with would definitely be nerves. I'm pretty clear headed, but my hands shake and my hear beats a zillion miles and hour. I already posted what I do in that situation. What are you suggestions, Dr. Bill?
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sun Mar 14, 2004 3:49 pm

I hadn't meant to distinguish between fear, nerves, and anxiety--I just meant all those awful things that can happen to our insides when we have to perform in public.

Quidam's ideas about taking time and forming good mental images onstage are good advice, and each one of us can find our own best ways of doing this. What I'd like to toss out for comment, though, are some of the things we could do long before the public event takes place; they can all be grouped under one of two categories--Preparation and Experience.

Obviously, we have to prepare well, but I think a lot of students have some misconceptions here. One common mistake--and this is one made by a lot of teachers, not only their students--is to concentrate on just a few pieces and try to practice them to perfection. Although this works up to a point, it severely limits the sense of musical style that can only be gained by studying broader repertoire, and this in turn narrows the ability to be flexible and adjust to all the variables that inevitably occur in performance, such as playing a different piano, playing in a larger space, distractions from the audience or from backstage, glare or disturbing shadows from the lighhting, and so on. (I swear there's a baby who has followed me around for fifty years, waiting to scream at the softest place in the slow movement.) Endlessly repeating only a few pieces also tends to make the playing progressively more mechanical and uninteresting, and thus negates the whole purpose of performance, which is musical communication.

I think the most important overall goal in practicing has to be redundancy. By this I mean preparing more than you think you need. If I had a nickel for every time a student has said to me "...but it went great in the practice room!" I wouldn't need my Social Security. You can't practice just enough to play great in the practice room--you're not under any pressure there! You have to practice enough to be able to play under the stress and distractions of a lesson or a recital, and there are many ways to do this.

Our biggest hurdle is usually memory. (It always ticked me off, when attending student recitals at the university, that only the pianists and singers had to memorize. All the trombone, flute, tuba and other players got to drag a music stand onstage, spread their music out, and blow away with the notes right in front of them, even at their Senior and Graduate recitals.) But we can cope with our memory burden if we do it right. This post can't be a long treatise on memorizing techniques, but I can suggest some good ways of testing your memory in the practice room that will pay off in performance. Learn to play tricks with a piece: make yourself start in different places instead of the beginning; play it in different tempos and at different dynamic levels; bring out different voices in the texture, or play the left hand louder than the right; play staccato passages legato and legato passages staccato; play the left hand by itself, from memory. In short, find every way you can to subject the composition to varying conditions while still keeping your head straight; you will find not only that your memory is more secure. but that your technical control is getting better, because your performance is not dependent solely on mere muscle memory, which gets thrown off when you're nervous anyway. Slowing the tempo way down is best: try crawling through a piece to see if you really know it in your head and not just your reflexes.

That brings up another valuable practice technique--playing AWAY from the piano. Go through the piece mentally, seeing your hands on the keyboard (some like to visualize the printed page, which is fine also--I like to imagine the keyboard because that's where I'll be looking in performance).

Another thing that's important is to play the same piece in as many different places, and on as many different pianos, as you can find. The sound of a different piano and acoustical space, and the unfamiliar touch of a different keyboard, are distractions that can interfere with your memory, so it's important to get used to them. Try to throw yourself off by simulating these distractions.

Something else important, one that should be obvious but isn't, is this: know what's on the page!! I mean EVERYTHING. It's easy to memorize something and then practice only from memory from then on, without bothering to look again at the music. But are you sure you haven't learned only the notes, and missed a lot of other things? Play your piece in the practice room and suddenly stop somewhere, anywhere. Then ask yourself, "What's the dynamic level here? What's the tempo indication? Am I louder than I should be? Did I start the crescendo too soon or reach it's high point before I should have? Am I really LISTENING to what I'm doing or just banging out the notes? Do I really know everything the composer has marked for me?" (Folks, this isn't even redundancy--this is the minimum!)

Here's another thing we all do when we're preparing a piece. There's this passage that just keeps messing up, even though we go over and over it. But finally we get it right once. So what do we do? WE GO ON! We've done it ten times wrong and one time right, and it's still ten to one against us, and we go on to something else! Do you think it's cemented in place? What we should do is sit there and play it ten times RIGHT (minimum!) so that it has a fair chance of going well in the recital. (What? You don't have the patience? What in the world are you doing trying to learn how to play the piano if you don't have patience?)

The other overall category I mentioned is Experience. Naturally, the more we play in public the better we get at being able to handle it, but for most students they are rare events. But you can simulate the performing experience by yourself. If you have a piece or a group of pieces close to performance level, go into the practice room, walk to the piano, turn and bow, and then PERFORM it. Don't allow yourself to stop anywhere--you're in performance and you have to keep going, no matter what. If you get into trouble you have to work your way out of it. Do this at least once every day. You'll be surprised to find that you can actually make yourself nervous by doing this, and it can be immensely valuable.

Another thing: tape your playing. Not only will you have to keep going, but you'll have to listen to it afterwards. That can be ego-deflating, believe me ("Was I going that fast?"), but wouldn't you rather do that in private than on the stage?
Try to play for friends, too--fellow students should be willing to exchange mini-performances. Even a small audience is a great help.

Finally: don't try to talk yourself out of being nervous; it can't be done. What you have to do is play well in spite of being nervous (Horowitz was a wreck before a concert), and it will get tolerable and lessen with time.

And I absolutely guarantee that if you bomb a performance (as the greatest artists have ALL done), the sun will still come up the next morning and you will have another chance.

Dr. Bill
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Postby Mins Music » Sun Mar 14, 2004 4:29 pm

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:I hadn't meant to distinguish between fear, nerves, and anxiety--

Sorry Dr Bill; I did. Maybe Quidam had picked that up from my post. Is that right Quidam? I had said there was a difference, and gave my two cents on nerves, not fear. I have had students who have experienced real 'fear', and others who have just experienced 'nerves'.

Perhaps I will paste my comment in this thread ... if I can find it again.... :D
"I forget what I was taught, I only remember what I've learnt." - Patrick White, Australian novelist.
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Postby Mins Music » Sun Mar 14, 2004 4:32 pm

Oh, and some great advice there too Dr Bill!
"I forget what I was taught, I only remember what I've learnt." - Patrick White, Australian novelist.
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Postby Mins Music » Sun Mar 14, 2004 4:40 pm

"Let's talk about performing itself, and its 300-pound gorilla of a problem: FEAR!

What do you guys do for nerves and stage fright? Let's get some ideas and then I'll stick in my 2 pennies worth.

Dr. Bill, Moderator."
[I]


And this was my response (from Recitals - how long)

Sometimes fear is manitested in nerves. I don't get frightened, so I can only talk about nerves.
I think nerves are brilliant. I DON'T think people should ever try to not have nerves. I think people MUST channel their nerves, use it it their benefit.
Nerves, or being nervous, wobbling, jittering, shaking etc, put very simply is a form of energy. We need energy to give a good performance. What we need to learn is how to control that energy, focus the energy. I have lots and lots of tips for my students (- singing is even harder than the piano if you cannot control those nerves, so it's an essential part of every day lessons) but I'll only give two, because I too, am interested in what others have to say.

1. Before your performance, talk to people. The worst thing in the world you can do before a recital is bottle every thing up (this suggestion is for students who have not yet mastered wonderful techniques of meditation etc) Use that excess energy and release it slowly by talking. If there's no one to talk to, mumble under your breath 'red leather yellow leather' as fast, but precisely as you can. Try to use up all of your breath before taking another.
2. Do lip rolls. What are they? It is blowing air between your relaxed lips so that they vibrate against each other. Pretend you're a motor boat. The lip roll stops if your breath is not 'blown' evenly. Its a great way to begin to use up that energy, so it's easier to 'tame'.

Anyway, that's all for now. What suggestions do you have?
"I forget what I was taught, I only remember what I've learnt." - Patrick White, Australian novelist.
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Postby Mins Music » Sun Mar 14, 2004 5:07 pm

Another thing I try and teach my students (in fact some of them have to write a short essay on) is 'getting out of ego'.

Our brain has the capability of doing many things at once. However, it works best when we 'focus' on one thing. If you make it try and focus on playing the piano AND think about the audience and what's going on in their heads AND wonder how you're rating in their eyes, (or rather 'ears' hee hee) AND worried about mistakes, then something is going to suffer. You will continue to feel 'jittery' and in fact, divided.

How to prevent this? Well first of all, do everything Dr Bill has mentioned above. These suggestions really do work!

What I would add is the psychology of it all. You MUST have belief and confidence in yourself and your abilities. You MUST believe that you have something you can offer the audience. You will have better success if you believe that what it is you are offering is a presentation of somebody else's remarkable work - whether it be Beethoven, Stravinsky or Martha Mier. You have a personal responsibility to this work to give it your best. You MUST believe you have accomplished that.
Of course, the only way to arrive at this belief is to do as Dr Bill stated above. Be prepared. More importantly, FEEL prepared.

Now, you're on stage. All the work is done. You can do little about it now. It's time to 'bring the hard work to life'.
STOP thinking about the audience. DON'T play the 'what if' game ... you know the one, 'what if I lose my place ... what if my hair sets on fire during the recapitulation'. This game should have been played long ago and to it's full conclusion so that you KNOW the answers to those questions and you are confident of HOW to implement the answers.

The key to doing this is learning how to focus internally, not externally. That's another reason why we sound so VERY good by ourselves ... we have no other worries for our brain to contemplate. We're listening to ourselves. Most of the time we're enjoying ourselves, we're 'feeling' the music.
Next time you're by yourself getting 'carried' away with the brilliance of the music and in fact your own abilities, remember what that felt like. That's what you need to capture when you're on stage.
"I forget what I was taught, I only remember what I've learnt." - Patrick White, Australian novelist.
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Postby presto » Mon Mar 15, 2004 9:38 pm

I just wanted to mention that I have the problem of getting nervous before performances...wildly beating heart, profusely sweating palms, shaking knees, worrying about what people are thinking, worrying about playing on an unfamiliar (and, by the way, hard to press) piano, worrying about the lighting...you name it, I've probably had it. (Now that I read back over I wrote, it almost sounds worse than it is, but I think you get the point.)
All of the above advice sounds like a composite of nearly everything I've discovered so far about how to cope with the jitters that accompany a recital. You've done a very good job of it. Keep those ideas coming! :D
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Postby 73-1078374881 » Tue Mar 16, 2004 12:23 pm

WOW. Awesome, advice, Mins, Dr. Leland, and presto!!!! The only time I really get nervous is when I haven't prepared the piece very well. My motto is "Prepare, prepare, and prepare!!!" (took me forever to memorize that :p ) If I KNOW that I probably won't mess up because I've worked out all the kinks, then there's not much reason to worry. Now, if I DO get nervous anyways, (I don't knows if this will work for everyone because my mind works very differently :D ) I just think about anything other than the fact that I'm performing-what is burning on my stove at that moment, the big bang theory, just anything. My fingers kind of take over...

A while back, I made a list of elements in a performance that were the most important, in order of descending importance.
1) Staying conscious
2) Breathing (interchangeable with #1)
3) Tone quality
4) Intonation (okay, that doesn't really apply to piano, sorry!)
5) Technical
6) etc....

While I'm up onstage, I first make sure that I'm doing the first two. Then, the next important element, and the next, and so on. I've heard people who could play every fast note perfectly, but their tone quality was horrendous. So this makes you think, "What do I really want that audience to walk away remembering?" Well, I'm starting to ramble, so later!
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Postby 110-1079111554 » Tue Mar 16, 2004 5:52 pm

I am a very nervous performer in exam situations. In fact when given an audience I can rise to the occasion, play to my strengths, fudge my weaknesses and simply perform with a sense of almost arrogance if you like. But sit me in front of an examiner and I become very self aware, very nervous, and I feel that I simply do not belong there. I feel that having an audience allows me to hide behind an ego - a false sense of confidence which is larger than life. Exam situations are indeed a true test of my abilities, and I really feel that my weakness are suddenly exposed. My only way of coping with the stress of any performance - in particular exam nerves is to simply practise & prepare in massive doses. I have felt in every exam so far that I could & should have practised more - those passages which you thought difficult but secure suddenly become completely insecure & impossible to play. I had learned a great deal from my earlier exams by the time I took my grade 8 - and I subsequently then practised every spare minute ( although not easy when you work full time, play in a band, have families etc ). My grade 8 was the first exam where I felt adequately prepared, and I am hoping now that with only 2-1/2 weeks to go before my first diploma I am doing enough to prepare this time.
All of the practising tips listed in the above messages are very welcome, however I would be grateful for any further thoughts on exam preparation.
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Postby 81-1074658942 » Fri Mar 19, 2004 10:04 pm

I just performed today. [Mozart sonata, first movement K 310] "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" comes to mind with regard to that performance.

The only person I was playing for was a judge. [HA no pressure there... right...] It went very well, but for some reason I had some nasty memory slips on the first part. I don't know why. The first part is easier anyway and I know it like the back of my hand. [no pun intended] O well... just pretended that it was intentional and kept the melody going until I could move on. :O Maybe I have some sort of mental disorder! I have things memorized really well, but then they fall over dead when I perform them! nerves or not. Because I really wasn't feeling nervous at all, and my hands weren't even shaking.

There were no problems at all with the second section of the piece. Weirdly enough, the hard part is what I do really really well on and the easy part disintegrates a little. The second section was probably the best I've ever played it.

Evidently I recovered well, because I got a very good score and some nice comments from my judge. I'm glad I'm not my own judge. I think I would be terribly mean to myself.

I've had recurring problems with memory slips. They're worse when it's something important. When they happen, I jsut take it in stride, but I'm thinking "O shoot... I was afraid this would happen." Maybe I'm just derranged or something? :p
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Postby 73-1078374881 » Tue Mar 23, 2004 4:04 pm

No comment on you being deranged, Quid (and I can get away with saying that because we're good friends in real life!). :laugh: Congrats on getting a great score!!!

Memory slips are a nightmare! I don't really have much advice to give... If you'd like to read what I've written on it before, go to http://www.geocities.com/rofinvincibili ... aria2.html
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Mar 23, 2004 5:55 pm

Hey, Quidam, that quote ("It was the best of times", etc.) opens a book which ends with the hero going to the guillotine! Is that the way you feel when you have to perform???

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