Tips - Performance
by John M. Zeigler, Ph.D and Nancy L. Ostromencki
Most of us in the music world have at one time or another dealt with music performance anxiety (stage fright). Here we address this issue from the standpoint of a teacher and regular performer. All of the suggestions for how to cope with performance anxiety are from my own personal experience of what has or has not worked for me. If performance anxiety is a concern you share with me and many other performers, remember the three P's: preparation, planning, and presence. You can keep your anxiety under control if you practice the three P's regularly before a performance. Even if time runs short, you can help yourself control your worries and fears of performance by applying them even in part.
I have found that the times I have the most performance anxiety, both before and while performing, are the times when I really knew deep down in my heart that I was not fully prepared for the performance. I did not give myself enough time to learn the music properly, trying with one month or less at times finally to get serious about learning and memorizing the repertoire. The end result was a horrible, poorly prepared performance which fell apart after about 15 minutes.
The "bad" ways of learning things included cramming the memorization process of an entire sonata into one afternoon, doing all of my practice at the piano at break neck fast speeds, and having absolutely no concept at all of the structure, form or even an idea of the harmonics of the piece of music. In other words, I did anything and everything to insure a poorly prepared performance and then had to deal with being alone on stage and getting through the performance.
Having some control over yourself in a performance situation really is a consequence of having control of the music. This control comes from thoroughly knowing the music inside and out and giving yourself all the necessary time to be able to achieve that goal. By knowing the piece, I refer to knowing the harmonic structure, grasping the form of the piece, and anticipating where each phrase begins and ends. All of this knowledge is best gained through a relaxed unhurried approach to learning. Time and patience are needed to go through each step of the way without rushing the process.
I have found that once you know the piece from the inside out, you know exactly what musical ideas or messages you want to communicate. Having all the technical problems of the particular piece of music under control will also help with giving a relaxed performance and cut down on the pre-performance anxiety. Sure, we are all going to drop some notes, perhaps mess up an arpeggio or two, but if you feel that you can comfortably control the technical problems of the piece, you have a big comfort zone to rely on once you are actually performing the piece. Of course, to get this technical control takes hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice time, starting at slow speeds, being able to play the technical areas successfully at a slow speed before moving on to a faster speed.
As the technical spots of the piece get smoother, don't forget to keep in mind that there are also musical ideas to get across to your listening audience. Start developing these musical ideas early on, and as the piece gradually gets faster, see if these ideas will still work.. Usually, they do, if you took the time and effort to figure them out before you started your work.
The worst possible practice to get involved in is what I call the "MOTION TO THE OCEAN" practice, that is where you depend on the speed, the momentum of the particular technical spot, or the entire piece to get you through. This type of practice usually involves lots of over-fast practice, and nothing else, depending on the muscles to remember the notes, rather than your brain cells to remember the patterns and musical ideas. The lessons learned in this type of practice will easily fall apart in a stress situation. Small variables such as the differences in key surface texture, different light reflections on the keys, and audience noise will cause the "Motion to the Ocean" learning to disintegrate.
Another trap we all fall into, is the idea that we must always do a piece of music at the exact metronome speed indicated in the music and not a notch slower. It takes forever to get across to students and parents alike that the idea of a controlled, musical performance at a slightly slower than indicated tempo is far superior to a breakneck tempo, where little else is communicated except the fact that you can wiggle you fingers fast and furiously. To paraphrase that old commercial, "Where's the meat of the piece," where is the music? As a competition judge, I have wholeheartedly awarded a better prize to the student who exhibited control and musicality over the one who played the exact same piece of music at a break neck speed with little or no understanding of what the piece of music was about.
Many people start a more balanced diet many months prior to performance, including eating more fish, cutting out all caffeine and alcohol. To help further relieve any stress many people strongly engage in a regular rigorous physical workout, aerobic or otherwise. I find it is just great to hit an aerobics class and jump around and get the nerves out; when I return to the piano, my focus is improved, and my body feels so much better for having moved in different directions to counteract sitting on the piano bench and practicing. The choice of what to eat or how to exercise is up to you many people find that it helps a great deal, both in the preparation stages of performance and up to actual performance day.
It is very helpful to know what you want to do musically with a piece, before you actually perform the piece. Do research on the composer, the particular style of the piece you are wanting to perform, and on the history and culture of the time of the piece you are playing. Very often knowing these issues will help you understand more of the times and events of the day and provide you with a lot of insight as to what the composer was trying to get across to you and the listener.
Once you feel that you have a good technical and musical grasp of the piece, let the memorization of the piece continue, with no hurry to get the piece memorized, but taking the time to know the score from the inside out. Without the music in front of you, can you close your eyes, and see the exact spot in the music where you are now playing? Can you sing the left hand part while the right hand plays alone? Can you sing the next melodic phrase while the left hand plays (if the left hand has the accompaniment)? I have found from my own experiences that if I can do the above things, I am quite secure in my memorization of a piece and know it from the inside out. Often to check it out, I will give myself a phrase quiz on a piece of music. I will divide the piece up into phrases, literally physically identifying the different phrases in the music with assigned letter names, color codes, etc. After I do that I will ask myself to play from memory all the phrases identified as "A" then jump to all the phrases identified as "C" etc. I have found that this really helps me identify the similar phrases and to know the differences between the phrases and their order also. If these memory quizzes didn't work for a specific piece of music, then I knew that I really didn't know the music from the inside out, but was depending a bit too much on the sound of it, rather than knowing "IT".
Before I do the final performance, I try to have performed my material at least 6 times in front of audiences, before the BIG EVENT. With each performance, I grow and learn. I learn which spots of the piece I really don't know yet and which technical spots still need a lot of slow practice to get the control I need. Actually, I like to think of all of these smaller performances as BIG EVENTS too. Not in a negative sense, but where I strive to achieve my best, and rather than beat myself up when I make a mistake or something goes wrong, look at it as a chance to learn and improve.
I'd like to share some thoughts and ideas with you about those days just prior to a performance, they are just as important as all the careful practice days that you have already done. First off, if you have done all the careful preparation, then you will not need to do any sudden death overtime practice sessions. You know the music, and just need to do slow, relaxed practice, to remind yourself of the musical ideas you want to convey and to listen to your sound. DO NOT SPEND HOURS AT THE PIANO THE EVENING JUST BEFORE A PERFORMANCE, OR THE ACTUAL DAY OF THE PERFORMANCE. Focus more on getting rested, and getting your mind calmly adjusting to the goal at hand: To convey musical ideas in a controlled manner, keeping the technical aspects under as much control as possible, and to listen to what you are playing. This focus of the mind is what we mean when we talk about presence.
It is essential to get a good rest the evening before a performance, and to also rest a lot the day of the performance. For parents of younger students, there is nothing wrong in saying NO when they ask to have a sleep-over the day before a contest or recital, and there is nothing wrong with saying NO to their requests to attend a sleep-over. The same goes for skiing trips planned the day before a recital or any type of sport activity which might involve muscle straining (or limbs getting broken!). Your "ritual" may be different from somebody else's, but the point is to do those things which are restful and help you focus.
The actual day of the performance, it would be wonderful to have totally devoid of outside stresses of the world, but for those of us who do travel from state to state performing or have to deal with life as it comes, little things can get in the way of your focus. It helps to have a good support team around you to deal with airline problems and driving to and from rehearsal halls/ concert halls. I have found that it helps me the most to have these details taken care of the day/evening of a concert. I'm also well within my rights to ask family members and/or friends to give me some space. Since life sometimes does not allow us the amount of time we need to really prepare as much as we would like to, we may not always be as prepared as we would like. Nonetheless, planning and presence prior to the performance can reduce stress significantly and make the performance more enjoyable for all.
Some professional and amateur musicians have recently advocated the use of drugs such as beta-blockers to help with performance anxiety. If you wish to pursue the idea of using beta-blockers to deal with performance anxiety, do as much independent research on the idea as you can, and then CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR. Many people swear by them, others find them not to help them that much. The choice is yours. My personal opinion is that such drugs are totally inappropriate for children. In addition, they cannot be taken safely in combination with a variety of different prescription drugs or by people with certain health problems, so a consultation with your physician is essential.
We are not picture perfect robots or computers, we do and will make mistakes both in our music we are playing and in our life that we lead. A few wrong notes or a slight memory slip is not worth blowing an entire phrase or forgetting all the musical ideas you might have had, and getting so mad at yourself when you play these wrong notes that you pitch a fit instead. The great gods and goddesses of piano performance have dropped many a note or two in their days of performance, the performance still went on, the MUSIC continued and the earth did not open up and swallow them because of some missed notes.
When on stage, take as much time as you need between movements of a sonata or between works, for example. Never feel that you have to rush into a piece of music. Take the time to get your focus and presence back if you lost it for a while when walking across the stage or up to the piano. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Get the piece of music you are going to perform mentally directly in front of you, remind yourself of the ideas you want to convey and when YOU are good and ready to start, then do so. I refuse to play when people are talking or squirming about, and take as much time as I need to make sure everyone, including myself, is settled down.
The best performances I have done have been where I felt comfortable with ALL the aspects of the piece of music I was going to do. I had done enough performances prior to the performance so that it wasn't such a big deal; it was another chance to play my music and share my ideas with people who came not to judge me, but to listen. If your preparation is not what you would like it to be, you can control your anxieties by planning and presence of mind both on and off stage. With a little practice, you can take control of performance anxiety and turn it into energy that benefits your performance and your audience.
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For me and for my students, solid memorization is a process which begins as soon as the study of a piece begins. What is its key, form, and structure? Where are the imitations, sequences, and repetitions? What are the chord progressions most commonly used at the cadences?
Start with the last or most difficult section of the piece, and talk aloud through the intervals, patterns, and chords you've identified along the way. Many of my students resist the exercise of talking aloud, but find that it makes the learning process more deliberate, and, therefore, more accurate. Spend the extra effort to repeat 3-6 times at a sitting the most difficult passage in the section. After you're confident that you've analyzed and executed both note and finger patterns securely (hands separately), integrate the rhythm by playing the RH with the LH, counting out loud as you read through the section.
Choose the next most difficult section and repeat the process. You'll find you've actually memorized each section as a result of having learned it in this way! You're freer, then, to add what I call "finishing touches": dynamics, articulation, pedaling, and tone/technique. Have the sections numbered, and test your memory by asking a friend, relative, or teacher to call out the numbers - out of order, of course - to see if you can respond with the finished version of each section.
How secure will each section be - really? Here's a laundry list for other ways to test your memory in the later stages of learning a piece:
You'll be surprised, too, at how important the next steps are to setting the stage for a more enjoyable performance and fewer memory slips:
Unfortunately, no one is exempt from memory slips, but we can always improve our memorization techniques and the ways we handle memory slips when they do occur.
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Choosing to compete is a commitment, not only to perform on the day of the contest, but to do the months of daily practice and preparation that successful competition requires. If the student prepares too little and too late, competition can be scary and even embarrassing; if the student is properly prepared, competition is fun and exciting. All contest music should be learned, memorized and performed at least three times before an audience, no later than six weeks prior to a contest. Repertoire is usually available to all competitors anywhere from one year to at least six months before a contest. By using all the time available to prepare for a contest, the music can be solidly learned, and of most importance, memorized. It is strongly urged that the music be performed from memory in a home concert or formal recital situation at least three times, before it is performed at competitions; the more performances in front of an audience prior to the actual contest date, the more opportunity is available to get the bugs worked out, and to work on overcoming stage fright and performance anxiety. The old adage in the music world, that of getting better by doing it more often, is true. The worst scenario is to wait until the last few weeks before any contest. Trying to learn the notes, dynamics, phrasing, and pedaling, memorizing, getting the piece of music up to speed, and then expect it to go perfectly in performance, without a home concert, or recital to test the music out is simply unrealistic and unreasonable. That will spell a tense situation for all, perhaps bordering on the brink of disaster. Allowing adequate time for the needed preparation is the safest and by far the most agreeable way to prepare for a contest.
Many variables will be completely out of our control in a competition. Piano students, unlike violin or clarinet students, have to perform on instruments that are new to them. The piano will probably be much stiffer than your own piano at home. Certainly it will have a different feel and sound. The acoustics of the hall will be different from what they have been able to hear during their practice sessions. One of the challenges of competitions is discovering the music that can be drawn out of an unfamiliar instrument in an unaccustomed hall.
Adrenaline will certainly affect responses and technical control. Because your child may play faster than usual, encourage them not to overstretch their technical limits. See that your children get sufficient rest the night before the contest and eat an appropriate meal a few hours before they play. Pick out an attractive but comfortable outfit, comb their hair, wash their hands, and arrive at the contest location with plenty of time to spare.
If you have ever read the reviews by two critics who have heard the same concert, you realize that different people listen for different things and may even disagree in describing what they hear. When two basketball teams compete there is a winning team and a losing team. Points are posted on the scoreboard throughout the game, and the winners simply accumulate more points by putting the ball through the basket more times. The contest is clear, straightforward, and easy to understand. The winner of a music contest is not so clear cut, though, and the scoring system may be difficult to explain to young musicians. Judges will be listening and watching for many different qualities, such as technique and musicianship, that can only be judged subjectively.
Adjudicators will expect to hear the music performed at an appropriate tempo, one that matches the mood of the music but still allows the piece to sound technically under control. The judges will pay attention to the notes, rhythms, dynamics, touch distinctions, and use of the pedal, making certain that the performance matches the composer's intentions, as indicated in the score. They will listen for playing that is rhythmically stable, but not rigid. They will want the various musical ideas to be clearly differentiated and yet all belong together in a unified whole. They will expect the melodies to have a shape, but not bumps and lumps.
Usually, the judges will be sensitive to the children and find something encouraging to say about every performance. They will try to remember to smile at the students and to make them feel a bit more comfortable in a new situation. The judges will be listening intently for the expressive quality of the performance-for the music that says something, lines that have direction, and sounds that communicate. They will be seeking performers who listen to themselves. It is possible to play all the correct pitches and rhythms and still present a performance that is dull, mechanical, and unmusical. It may be difficult for children to understand the difference between this type of performance and one that is expressive. For more information on the judging process and how best to use the results of the judging, see or article Making the Most of Piano Competition Judging
When you listen to your child, try to remember something about the music to share with them afterwards. ( "I really like the way you brought out that bouncy section. It made me feel like giggling.") If you are disappointed with your child's performance under pressure or about the results of the judging, try to keep your disappointment to yourself. No matter what happens, your child is a winner; it will be up to you and your child's teacher to be sure that you children leave the contest location feeling confident that they are.
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A master class is generally taught by a recognized performer or music educator in connection with a visit to the area for some other purpose. The insights that these individuals can offer about performance, technique, and music in general can be invaluable, because the master is teaching from long experience of making music at a professional level. Most such master classes will involve piano students of all ages, although usually the more advanced students in a given age group will perform simply because they are in the best position to learn the most. However, such classes are often so stimulating that anyone with an interest in learning to play better can benefit enormously from just sitting in the audience. For this reason, you should try to attend master classes even if you are not playing yourself. Attendance at the class is usually free, although there is often a nominal charge for those actually performing for the master.
At a typical master class, the students perform from memory the music that they have prepared. The master teacher usually listens either on stage or seated in the audience following the score (music) while the student performs. It is customary after the student performs and before the teacher begins to work that the student takes a bow. After the student performs, the master teacher will either stand by the student or be at another piano and start to work with the student, basically giving them a lesson on the music while in front of an audience. Often the master teacher will ask questions about the music, and the student should be able to verbally communicate to the teacher. The master teacher has his/her choice of things to work with the student, perhaps technical suggestions, perhaps interpretive ideas. The teacher will most certainly always have the student play certain parts of the composition again, trying to incorporate the new ideas or suggestions. The student is expected to try to the best of their ability to digest and perform the music using the new ideas or suggestions. It is urged not to argue with the master teacher; as that is courting death! In the overwhelming majority of cases, the master will be gentle in offering constructive criticism and effusive in praise, so the experience of participating in a master class is not something to be feared but eagerly anticipated. We might not always agree with the master teacher, but getting another perspective and opinion of a work of music is always worth it. It is a good idea for the student to know all the written terminology in the music, as well as the key the music is in, as well as some biographical information about the composer and his music. This way, if the master teacher should ask questions about these subjects the student is prepared to answer the questions intelligently and coherently.
It is good protocol that, after the master class is finished, the performing student shake the hand of the master teacher and verbally express thanks and appreciation for the time spent. If the class is free for participants, chances are that the organization sponsoring the class has paid the teacher's fee. In that case, it is a good idea to thank the sponsor in writing so as to encourage more such classes.
Originally the name "chamber music" was applied to music which was meant to be for a small group in a room (da camera - in chambers), as opposed to a large group in a concert hall. Today, it is usually applied to any music performed by a small group including strings and piano. Chamber music involves two or more musicians performing music. Usually in performance of chamber music, the written music is used, and all musicians are usually seated while performing. One big disadvantage to solo piano music is that we tend to get lonely spending hours by ourselves practicing our own music. Chamber music is a lot of fun because it involves practice and rehearsal time with other musicians, which can be a very rewarding experience. Because chamber music is so inherently intimate and cooperative, playing it is considerably different and, in some ways, more rewarding than playing solo. It does require a bit different approach, however. As a pianist chamber music teaches you to keep on going, even if you miss a note or a beat. It also makes you really aware of keeping a consistent beat, because the piano is usually the heart-beat of the composition, a pianist also learns to be aware of the other musicians playing and to respond spontaneously to another person's musical cues or flubs.