Piano performance is far from easy, and there will be setbacks as well as rewards along the way. Strong emotions such as excitement and disappointment are part of the story.
For performance to be successful, our goals need to be realistic and achievable – and we need a detailed plan in place to realise them. Unwavering commitment is a prerequisite, as is intense concentration in the practice room.
Some players are adrenaline junkies and relish being on the stage, but others are less confident. For them, how do we deal with the drop-off in quality from practice room to concert stage or examination room?
Traditionally, we have been taught to over-practise and prepare ourselves to be 150% ready (knowing that 50% is going to fall away as soon as we walk onto the stage). I’ve said it time and time again, but I don’t mind saying it again – there is no substitute for solid, thorough and painstaking preparation.
But it is possible to over-practise, and when this happens we risk not only things getting stale but also a type of overuse where the playing starts to get ropey and ragged, as though it has gone passed its prime.
Nobody has time to waste, so let’s aim to practise enough to get the job done but still keep the piece sounding and feeling fresh.
If we tend to over-prepare, might this be because we fundamentally doubt our abilities?
Perhaps we don’t trust ourselves, or don’t believe that our work can ever be enough. These negative thoughts may be so habitual that we don’t even know we are thinking them, little realising that they are actually running (and ruining) the show from a distant hum at the back of our mind. If we allow anxious thoughts into our minds as we practise, we are effectively ingraining them. As we prepare for our performance, we are sowing the seeds of anxiety.
I am actually dreading this performance, because I don’t think I am ever going to be ready in time.
My old teacher is going to be in the audience, and I so want to impress her and show her how far I’ve come.
I can’t see myself ever memorising this piece!
Have you noticed how a stray thought that might have nothing whatever to do with the music you are practising can easily recur the next time you practise? Once when I was practising I remembered I needed to make an important phone call. Eventually, the thought became so distracting that I had to get up from the piano and actually make the call. The next day when I got to that spot in the piece, the memory of the previous day’s phone call came back to me along with the feeling of urgency I had about it.
Then I wondered, could we choose to plant a specific thought in our consciousness as we practise? A positive thought that would empower, encourage and support us? We could then do our work in an atmosphere fragrant with positivity, calm and self-belief.
Affirmations are simple, easy to use and can be very powerful. If we are able to identify the negative thoughts that interfere with our serenity during a performance, we can turn these around to our advantage.
Try switching unhelpful thoughts to positive ones by using the technique of affirmations.
Affirmations are statements that we say either out loud, quietly to ourself or write down on paper. We affirm to ourself whatever it is we want to happen, and whatever we verbally repeat to ourself will influence our thoughts. All we need to do is repeat an affirmation over and over again over the course of a few days and it will quite naturally have an effect without our having to worry about it.
Some people like to do this while they are exercising – you can even say, mutter or think an affirmation rhythmically as you are jogging.
For more help using affirmations, click here
We can get out of the way of our ego by finding a source of inspiration that has nothing to do with the music, and bring this into our performance in the spirit of playfulness.
By focussing on the image of a flower, for example, we might encourage ourselves to play in a softer, gentler way. An external image of an object or an icon deflects attention from our anxieties.
I once dedicated a performance to a dear friend who had recently passed away, and holding her in my imagination as I played took the focus away from myself and enabled me to play better.
If you find yourself getting overly anxious about performing, you might want to reflect on your original goals – your passion for music, your love of playing and your desire to share this wonderful music with others. This is often enough to get the ego out of the way.
We have seen that self-doubt and anxiety are impediments to successful performance, no matter how talented the pianist or how much time and effort have gone into the preparation. Neither practising hard nor practising excellently will guarantee success in performance if we question ourself or doubt our abilities. Our own thought processes can either help or hinder.
We need to accept that anxiety may be a part of performance, and that anxiety does not have to be negative – we can use it to our advantage! There is such a thing as good adrenaline – the rush of excitement we might get from being on a roller coaster or bungee jumping (not that I’ve ever actually tried bungee jumping). Next time we feel the adrenaline starting to course through our veins we might turn it around, tap into our pleasurable associations with this state and actually learn to enjoy it.
Nearly 18% of respondents in my survey Performance Anxiety Among Pianists who answered Question 4 (“If you suffer from nerves and performance anxiety, what do you usually do to combat this?”) ticked the box with the response “I use the nerves to my advantage – I feel the adrenaline gives my performance an edge”.
As I was researching for Part 4 of my ebook series, I came across the work of Professor Glenn Wilson, an expert in the psychology of performing arts.
Professor Wilson’s lecture The Psychology of Performing Arts: Stage Fright and Optimal Performance is available for us all to see, and I think you’re going to find it extremely helpful.
For a printer-friendly transcript of Professor Wilson’s lecture, click here.
Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4
I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).
The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.
If you would like a video introduction and more information on the contents of Part 4, please follow this link.
Buy Practising the Piano Part 4 Now
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