Stage fright anyone? Or should I say stage fright, everyone? We’ve all been there. Those sweaty palms and sick stomachs are things all performers experience. And I do mean all of us. Not just musicians. Actors, Dancers, Athletes, and Public Speakers have all experienced stage fright. It’s a human thing. We all want to do well and be accepted by people.
It is not a wonder that getting up in front of others and letting them see us doing something we really care about can feel really scary. For some, it is downright debilitating, yet others overcome the fear of performing. I’d like to share my journey to confident performance and how I help my students face the fear of playing for others and learn to enjoy sharing music.
What Causes Fear?
In order to overcome stage fright, we must understand what causes it in the first place. Why can it be so frightening to get up in front of others and play music? Is it the music itself that’s so scary? The fear of having a memory slip (forgetting everything in the middle of a piece) or making a mistake? Maybe. But I don’t think these things are the main reasons for stage fright.
I think the reason for stage fright goes much, much deeper. I believe how nervous we feel about performing directly correlates to how much we care about what we are doing.
For example, I am a pianist (no surprise there) I may get nervous about playing the piano, but if someone handed me a trumpet and said “Now play this” I wouldn’t be worried at all. I would probably blow a few toots and laugh it off. After all, who cares? I’m not a trumpeter, I haven’t put a drop of effort into the trumpet. But the piano, that’s another story, another story indeed.
The piano is my life…
I have devoted a major chunk of my existence to the 88 keys, I care about my piano playing. The very idea of a bad performance makes me nervous, I know many can relate to this. The fear of performing comes from putting that which we care about most up for the scrutiny of other people. The fact that music is art, that it involves emotion and personal creativity makes the situation particularly disconcerting. In addition to the fear of rejection or the ridicule of others, most of us who are drawn to the study of music, where the demands for excellence are so incredibly high, are also very critical of ourselves. So it would seem there is a lot a stake when we sit down to play.
A Lesson Learned
I learned to overcome most of my performance fears by being well-prepared for performances. For me, this was key because I used to try to do everything. Whatever anyone threw in front of me I thought I had to play it, even if it was too difficult or there wasn’t adequate preparation time.
I learned an important lesson from my friend and duet partner Nancy Porco. Nancy was a first-rate pianist. She held a Master’s degree in accompanying from the Manhattan School of Music and had played all over the world. I was honored to be her duet partner.
But I noticed whenever she was asked to do something she’d say “Where’s the music?” She would demand that she had the right music, and had it in plenty of time to learn it well. Much to my surprise she regularly turned down jobs. As a result, she was calm and she always came off as a winner!
Once I came to my senses and adopted this philosophy, my own stage fright decreased by 60 percent. I dropped another 20 percent or so by not taking myself too seriously.
That leaves 20 percent. That 20 percent is here to stay and I’m glad. Because it means that I care, and it keeps me on my toes.
How I Help My Students Overcome Stage Fright
Now it’s time for me to help my students deal with stage fright and feel good about performing for others. I take my student’s performances very seriously. So much so that if they don’t play well I feel that most of the time it’s my fault (most of the time, not all of the time). Here are some of the things I do to help my students have a good experience playing.
First I make sure that I choose appropriate repertoire. I choose review pieces or pieces that I know the student can handle WELL. My students are required to keep a list of three or four pieces current so that they are always ready to play. If the piece is new I make sure that the student has ample time to prepare the piece to be played. This means that recitals and auditions are set months in advance.
Pieces are learned carefully, especially with regard to fingering (to ensure accurate muscle memory). The music once learned and memorized, it is practiced in sections. I have the students jump from section to section. Sometimes I take the student’s hands off of the keys to simulate a memory slip. I then have them jump to the next section. I teach them NEVER TO GO BACK, always jump ahead. I have seen many a student go back in a piece after a memory slip, only to have the same problem in the same spot.
We work on ending the piece gracefully in case of disaster. We do a lot of “dry runs” in the studio. I have the students play for each other and I encourage them to play for friends and family members often. The city where I live has several coveted arts programs for which students must audition. I usually make the audition piece the recital piece as well and have the recital first. All of these things help students to overcome stage fright.
Feel the Fear…and Do it Anyway
Understand that feeling nervous before a performance is normal.
Even some of the world’s best pianists have suffered from performance anxiety. Including Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin! So I tell my students if they feel nervous join the club! This is all part of the game.
You are not your feelings. Stagefright is just that, a feeling. You can accept it and move ahead in spite of it. Just get up there and play.
Or you can even embrace it!
Words have power!
I am always harping on this because it’s true! Instead of saying the words scared, nervous, anxious, or using the terms stage fright, or performance anxiety. I like to substitute the words excitement, and energy, or remind my students that because they are experiencing these emotions they are becoming true musicians.
I tell my students to “get realistic”; we are musicians, not physicians! If we mess up nobody gets hurt. Sometimes if a student is particularly stressed I might show a YouTube video of a funny performance mess-up. Or even relate some of my own stories. (Yep, I have a few of those)
The bottom line is don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s gonna be ok no matter what happens
A Good Experience
The perception of playing well at a performance builds confidence making it easier to perform in the future. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If a student feels as though a performance went badly it will likely cause anxiety in the future. The effect of this is cumulative. A series of good experiences will make performing become easier, and a series of difficult or bad experiences will make performing more and more frightening.
For this reason, I reserve the authority to take a student out of a performance. If I think that a student is not ready I generally won’t let them play. When this happens, I explain to students and parents that I care deeply about their musical education and I want to ensure that they have a great experience.
Because I want to make sure that my students have practiced well and are ready to play at performance time. I require that all students have their pieces performance-ready two weeks before a recital, evaluation, festival, or audition.
No matter how much practicing and preparation students and teachers do there may still be mishaps. Mistakes, flubs, and memory slips can and do happen. There’s always an element of risk. After all, that’s really what makes the live performance so exciting.
I explain this to my students over and over again. They can all finish this statement,
“Playing the piano is not easy if it was easy…Everybody would do it!”
If a student feels that their playing has been less than perfect. I encourage them to press on and get past it. While the performer may be very upset about his performance it’s unlikely that anyone else is thinking about it. Plus, there will always be another time to try again.
Most of all I want my students to have fun playing for others. I teach them not to take themselves too seriously. I tell them “We’re musicians, not physicians if you make a mistake nobody gets hurt”.
I teach them that it’s all about sharing the music. About the joy of playing the piano.
I help my students realize that they have accomplished something amazing whether or not they feel that they have had a great performance. They have faced their fear and got up and played anyway. This is something many people have never done. Something to be proud of and to celebrate!
This post is written in memory of
Nancy DeCicco Porco 1959-2002
How do you help students overcome stage fright? Leave a comment below.
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