The recital day had arrived. It’s a mix of emotions- excitement and anxiety. A few minutes before the recital began, a mother came up to me saying, “Sam is refusing to play. He’s too nervous.” I immediately thought back to how hard he had worked to learn this song. He was playing it just fine a week ago. What can I do to calm his nerves? I tried talking with him, but it was evident that his emotions were too high. I ended up skipping over his name in the program during the recital.
How can one perform well with such elevated levels of emotion? When we practice piano pieces at home, there are no hormones disrupting your physiological state. It starts while you’re waiting for your name to be called. Hands get sweaty, heart beating, legs trembling, and suddenly…I can’t feel my fingers. How can I finish my song when I can’t control my body? Can I train myself to suppress a stress response? Or do I have to learn to deliver an excellent performance with pressure?
Meeting high expectation in front of an audience can cause a nervous reaction that inhibits fine motor functioning. When you’re overwhelmed, it’s hard to do one thing correctly, let alone three or four things at once. Thoughts such as “I have to play it perfectly” “I can’t make too many mistakes” “If I mess up, then they won’t think I’m good” and “I only want them to see how well I can play”, resembles an individual that is struggling with performance anxiety due to high expectations.
I decided to interview a few students that seemed to have no nerves on recital day. They performed their piece to the point of perfection. What’s their secret? Well, I asked and here’s their response (keep in mind they are 13 years old and under):
“Practice in front of other people- 5 or more. Do it a couple times until you are comfortable”
“If you mess up, just continue, because it doesn’t matter. People don’t always know”
“Just keep going, don’t worry about the mistakes”
“Imagine that no one is there. Like I’m in my room practicing, I don’t think of the people watching me.”
“Pretend everyone’s just wearing their underwear”
As you can see from those responses, it’s a style of thinking that will determine your success. To be able to perform well, one will need to prepare their mind for the big day. Here are some tips to that will promote confidence and help minimize the pressure of a performance:
1) Muscle memory beats anxiety
A performance piece demands hours of practice and repetition. After a while your fingers play on their own and there’s no need for the brain to concentrate on reading music. You become very proud in this moment, because you don’t feel like you are “working” anymore. The song has molded as a part of your body. Muscle memory saves a many performances.
2) Practice in front of an audience
Sometimes it just takes 1 person to start the nervous reaction. Invite your family, friends, or neighbors to come watch you play. Another tactic I use with my students, is filming them. It can help set the stage for the big day and the more you practice performing in a stressful setting, the less intimidating it will get.
3) Have a Plan B
When you can’t regain feeling in your fingers or if you can’t get past a difficult part, know how to finish the song on a good note. There’s usually a part of the song that you know very well and are confident in, so practice easing into that part and tying it into the song finale.
4) Accept the worst
First, ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen? Whatever that is, you will free yourself if you can accept it. If the worst is not being able to complete the song, or making multiple mistakes, and it happens during your performance, the best thing you could do for yourself, is be okay with it. You might be surprised at how much energy you’ll find in that moment.
Know that it is better to try and gain some type of experience versus gaining none. Sam wasn’t mentally prepared, but I believe if he had been willing to work on these four steps, he could perform his song well.
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