How often have we heard it said after a performance that didn’t quite hit the mark: “But I can play it perfectly well at home”?
When we play for ourselves in the comfort of our home space or in an institutional practice room, there is nobody there to witness our performance or to judge it. There are no obvious consequences of making a mistake, or even stopping to make a correction or two.
The experience of playing for ourselves is so vastly different from performing in front of others, all sorts of unforeseen factors come into the picture. What felt easy and natural when we were alone might suddenly become treacherous and untrustworthy when in the presence of others. And it doesn’t seem to matter much whether the audience is knowledgeable about music or not. Even professional pianists are rarely completely happy with their performance – there is always something you wish you could have done better.
Survey – Performance Anxiety Among Pianists
If we have done our work in the practice room, surely we have earned the right to walk onto the stage and allow it all to happen? If only it were that simple.
The trick is to trust ourselves, to let go of fear or self-consciousness and fully embrace the occasion, but many players suffer from performance anxiety. The range of anxiety can vary from mild (where adrenaline can be a positive influence) to severe (where performance is compromised or is not even possible).
To help me write Part 4 of Practising the Piano, I conducted an informal survey Performance Anxiety Among Pianists. I found that around 43% of pianists admitted that performance anxiety was a real problem, with nearly 53% who answered the question about what sort of negative experiences of performing they experienced reporting uncontrollable physical symptoms (such as sweating, shaking, etc.). Fear of memory lapses is also very common (around 55%) as is fear of making mistakes and not being able to recover (around 56%).
Many thanks to all of you who took the time to complete the survey – the results were most interesting!
For an overview of the survey results, follow this link to Part 4 of my ebook (click here)
Nowadays, musicians are learning a lot from the field of sports psychology. Have you wondered what happens when elite professional golfers or tennis players prepare to take a shot? They are running an imaginary movie of the shot in their head, seeing exactly the intended outcome in vivid detail. Only after this mental rehearsal do they hit the ball.
For musicians, studies have shown that the combination of mental rehearsal and physical practice achieves better results than physical practice alone. Mental rehearsal allows us to imagine an ideal sound or the perfect performance in the future. This may include imagining exactly how we want to phrase a passage, or shape and colour a whole work. We can imagine doing this in our practice room, and imagine ourselves doing this (perfectly!) in performance.
The good news is that in addition to imagining the ideal sounds, we can also encode a sense of physical and mental calm by picturing ourselves in full control of our instrument – playing in an easy and relaxed manner.
Kinaesthetic imagination is when we imagine the position of our body in relation to the piano: the way the arms feel after we play a strong chord, the way the hand caresses the keyboard in a leggiero passage, the way the wrist flexes and the pad of the finger squeezes the key bed as we produce a deep legato, and so on. We can imagine all of these physical sensations in addition to the sounds of the music, to create how we want to sound and feel on the day of the performance.
Actually, the more of all our senses we can incorporate in the visualisation, the more vivid it will be. If we once had a particularly successful performance in a hall with a polished wood floor, for example, recall the smell of the wood as we visualise. If this event took place on a sunny day, recall the sunlight streaming through the windows. We can also imagine specific moods or emotions evoked by the music as it goes along in our mind, as well as a storyline, scenes or characters as we imagine them. This does not have to make sense to anyone else; it is our personal story of the music in 3D and full technicolour.
Except for the primary motor and sensory areas of the brain, many of the other regions of the cortex normally active during actual piano playing are also active during virtual practice, or visualisation.
I first became interested in the application of neuroscience to piano practice with George Kochevitsky’s excellent book The Art of Piano Playing. Because I have no medical training, I would refer you not only to this book but also to the wealth of material that has since been written. Martin Lotze’s article Kinesthetic Imagery of Musical Performance is very interesting and well worth reading.
For a list of more resources, please follow this link to Part 4, Vol. 2 of my ebook (click here)
Using Visualisation for Wellbeing on Performance Day
Many people who suffer from performance anxiety find that by regularly practising the technique of visualisation, they create a self-fulfilling prophecy – the performance comes out as they have imagined it because they have imagined it thus! Confidence levels are raised and anxiety levels lowered. Like anything else, doing it just once or twice is not going to be as effective as setting aside regular times during the week.
When I work with visualisation techniques, I find early in the morning works best. It is not always easy to summon up the right frame of mind for constructive visualisation, so here is a process I highly recommend:
- Sit comfortably or lie on the floor. Obviously, you will need to sit if you are using the score, but if you are visualising from memory you might find it easier to relax lying on the floor.
- Spend a few minutes relaxing the mind and the body by doing the diaphragmatic breathing exercises, and/or progressive muscular relaxation exercises.
- When you are fully relaxed mentally and physically, imagine yourself getting out of bed on the morning of your performance. Induce feelings of excitement about playing later that day – your work has been done, you can relax in the knowledge that you have done all that was humanly possible to prepare yourself for the event and now you are going to enjoy it.
- Fast forward to the green room in the concert hall half an hour before you go onstage (or the waiting area outside of your examination room). You are completely calm and relaxed, looking forward to sharing the music with your audience who are all eager to hear you play.
- Imagine the walk from the green room to the stage, see and hear your footsteps as you walk towards the piano, and see yourself taking your bow, beaming at the audience.
- Now imagine yourself playing through your first piece in real time, including as many of the aural, kinaesthetic, smell (if appropriate or meaningful), and feelings as possible. If you have difficulty combining these, focus on one or two elements and go back over the piece again, this time shifting the focus to others.
- Above all, imagine yourself as calm and relaxed in your mind and your body as you play.
- Be very aware of your bodily sensations – if you notice muscles tightening (especially in your stomach or your jaw) as you mentally rehearse a particularly intense or anxious moment of the piece, rewind your video and replay until you can visualise it completely free of tension.
Enjoy this process by zooming in and out of the scene, as a cameraman would do. You can also vary the speed, and visualise yourself practising a particular spot you had trouble visualising perfectly.
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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