It is the million dollar question that all students will ask you at one point during their education: “How can I stop feeling nervous about performing?”.
Performance anxiety is natural and students deal with exams and concerts in different ways. Some students embrace the pressure that comes with it, while others need a helping hand.
Today, we welcome Roberta Wolff back, this time to share with us her methods for dealing with performance anxiety and nerves. Roberta is a highly acclaimed UK music educator who we featured on the blog earlier this month. See her insights on How to Use Concerts in Your Piano Studio.
Take it away, Roberta!
“A bird does not sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.”
Before we grapple with ways of dealing with performance anxiety, it is important to understand why musicians perform. The above Chinese proverb encapsulates why everyone who plays should perform without apology.
There are many good reasons to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and perform. In my experience, an upcoming performance focuses the learning process. Musicians not only get to know their piece better but they get to know themselves better. The opportunity to master one’s own internal dialogue, with a focus on mindfulness and self-compassion, is a truly priceless life skill.
Feeling the vulnerability of performance is positive, we express our humanity, bring joy to others, and open ourselves to new experiences and new friends.
Although every student should be encouraged to perform, care should be taken to create a positive performing environment.
This is one which supports the student and allows them to develop, rather than just feel scared. Students also need to be taught how to perform.
There is no easy way to deal with performance anxiety. Every student approaches performing differently and will have varying experiences.
To build confidence in performing, we need a process to rely on when nerves threaten to throw us off track. Here is an easy way to remember those steps:
P – Prepare. Practise smartly and leave some time for the piece to settle in before the performance. Do several practise performances, sort out page turns, outfit, shoes and stagecraft.
E – Establish expectations. Your performance will feel nothing like playing at home and so should not be compared to your home version. Set success criteria which guarantee you will have at least one reason to feel good post performance. For example: “My performance will be a success when I communicate my music,” or “when I reveal any weak sections which need more work before my next, bigger, recital.”
R – Regulate your breathing. Whilst we must not aim to eradicate nerves, “resistance is futile”, we can practise calm acceptance. By taking deep slow breaths we begin to learn how to channel nerves in a more useful way.
F – Foresee the outcome you wish for. Visualise your composed entrance, comfortable position at the piano, utter concentration and absorption in the music, your warm audience and a fabulous finish.
O – Observe. Don’t judge, just observe and accept. If a slip occurs or if a negative thought enters your mind, simply let it pass, and focus on the job at hand.
R – Relish. You have worked hard to prepare, and you have earned your moment. You can change nothing now so you may as well enjoy it!
M – Move on. Find something to feel good about after your performance and beyond that don’t dwell on it. Later, in your next lesson, it will be useful to reflect, objectively, on what you have learnt from the occasion.
While we can aim for lots of things in a performance, it is entirely unhelpful to aim for perfection.
For starters, it is not possible.
Secondly, a perfect moment arises out of many more circumstances than those within the control of the performer.
My top ‘perfect moments’ in the audience all have one thing in common, the special element that set them apart had nothing to do with note accuracy and was not created by the performer. They include atmospheric weather, feelings I took with me to the event and sharing in something larger than just myself and the music.
When performing, we don’t know what our audience carries emotionally to the event and we can’t begin to imagine the many ways they might be touched by our playing. Let’s use this to take some weight off students’ shoulders. It is not all down to them; other factors also influence listeners’ enjoyment.
“What you think affects how you feel, and how you feel affects how you perform. If you can change your thinking, then you can change how you perform.” David Buswell, Performance Strategies for Musicians
Through a small change in outlook and by considering these steps, we can help our pupils change how they think and eventually feel about performing.
Nerves are a natural part of any musician’s pre-performance emotions. Learning how to control these nerves is important for your students so they can be motivated for exams, recitals and other concerts.
How do you tackle nerves and performance anxiety with your students? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!
I am a piano teacher, mentor and writer based in Surrey, UK. I am also author of the "highly recommended" Music, Me, Piano Practice Resources. My students cover a wide range of ages and abilities; there is something new to be learnt from each of them. I love finding unique ways of inspiring each musician I meet and sharing ideas with others. You can visit me at my website by clicking here.
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