Thursday, May 8, 2014

How to Manage Performance Nerves {Guest Post}

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A little over a week ago, my mom and I combined our piano studios to do our annual Spring Recital.  As usual, we were busy with cookies, punch, setting up, getting the piano where it needed to be, reserving seats for students, etc.  Let me tell you, those recital duties are way less stressful than actually playing in the recital.

As a child, I was a nervous performer.  I don't necessarily think anyone would have known though.  I tried to keep it to myself and most of the time, I still played pretty well in performance settings.  But most performances didn't come without a lot of mental freaking out beforehand.

I started out with a very strict teacher who required a lot of me (in lessons, in contests, in recitals).  While I was more than prepared for everything ever did, I still struggled with feeling confident and not letting my nerves get the best of me.  The height of my nervousness probably happened sometime in middle school.

I remember going to a contest as a teen, walking into the judge's room, sitting on the bench, and completely blanking on how to start my piece.  I looked at the keys and it was as if I'd never seen a piano before in my life.  The judge was sweet and allowed me to go take a few minutes in a warm-up room to reset.

It was kind of terrifying - knowing that a very well-practiced and well-memorized piece could completely leave my brain.  But my nerves were behind all of it.  For some pianists, being nervous just isn't a thing.  For me, it was.

(To clarify - I don't consider playing in church or playing/singing my original songs or playing with my band as "nerve-racking" kinds of performances.  I'm strictly talking about solo piano performances.  I have a feeling a lot of musicians would agree.)

It all starts with the anxious thoughts.  What if you lose your spot?  What if you can't keep going?  What if you blank?  What if you don't remember how the piece ends?  Then you notice your hands are cold.  You know you need them to be warm so you nervously and quickly try to warm them up.  In doing that, you freak yourself out more.  Your heart rate rises.  Your hands are maybe warm at this point, but now they're shaking.  Shaky hands are the worst for pianists.  And the bad part is - if you have shaky hands, you'll most likely have a shaky foot at the pedal.  That's the 2nd worst.
In high school, I was on the road to figuring out how to manage my nerves, but still wanted to feel more in charge of them.  Once I got to college as a Music Education major with a piano emphasis, I had no choice but to figure this out.  At OBU, the music department is designed to give students an abundance of opportunities to perform whether you want to or not.  Aside from the hours of daily practice and hour-long lessons each week, there were studio classes, piano seminars, and general recitals.  You couldn't escape performing.

Because I was performing often, I had to fight my nerves often.  I discovered things that helped me play successfully and feel great doing it.  Here are a few tips or pieces of encouragement I would offer to nervous pianists:

We are created to get a rush of adrenaline in situations when are emotions (stress, fear, anger, excitement) are exceptionally strong.  It's normal to feel a little on edge.  This extra energy allows us to be at our best.  However, being nervous or anxious beyond what's "normal" doesn't have to be your normal.  This is something you are in control of and you can change.

Our minds are really strong - stronger than we think.  They can convince us of a lot of things, good or bad.  When thoughts come into your mind that are not positive or beneficial to you, fight back with what you know.  Tell yourself the truth of the situation instead of dwelling on the small percentage of what might happen.  ("I have practiced this piece for a year and I have every reason to believe I'm going to play well today" instead of "But what if something weird happens and distracts me and I lose my spot and totally screw it all up?!?")  You may have to pep-talk your way through performing and that's okay.  Allow your mind to be strong.

Sounds obvious, but it's true.  You can't expect to not be nervous if you really just don't know your piece.  Be prepared for your performances.

Know your piece well.  Know what key you're in.  Know if and when the key changes.  Know the sections (or chapters, as my mom calls it) of your piece.  Break it down and write things in on your music (in pencil, of course).

This saved my life.  Find spots in your piece that you can quickly and immediately jump to in an emergency.  It will make you feel so much better knowing that you can hop to these spots if necessary.  Be able to start your safety spots from memory and at any given time.

Find some way to connect with your music.  Maybe this is easy for you.  Maybe you're an emotional person and connecting your emotions to a piece of music comes naturally.  Maybe you just love playing it and truly find enjoyment in it, emotional or not.  But maybe it's not your favorite.  Maybe you kind of hate it.  If that's the case, you're going to have to make it fun.  Making a story out of it just may be the best way to connect with it.  Just find a way to feel like you and the piece are on the same page.  (No pun intended.)

This can look different for every pianist.  Are you a person who likes to run through a scale as a warm-up?  Does it help you to actually play through the entire piece?  Maybe you like just playing through the first few measures and the last few measures.  Maybe you want to run over the sections that are the toughest for you.  Maybe starting all of your safety spots is a good idea.  Find what works for you and do it.  Bottom line -  do something to warm up!

You may not realize you're taking short breaths before you play, causing those shaky hands and nerves to happen even more.  Breathe deeply, in and out.  There were many times I would focus on just this one thing before I performed.  It really does make a huge difference.

The only way to get better at performing is to keep performing.  Play your pieces in front of small groups.  Maybe gather some friends and family to come listen to you.  Play in front of people as often as you can.  You will get better at overcoming your nerves, I guarantee it.

Parents, encourage your children to overcome and work through their nerves.  Don't play it down because it really may be a big issue for them.  Help them find a way to become a successful and confident performer.

I've played a small share of team sports and danced in a few recitals in my lifetime, but for me, none of that challenged my mental strength and nerves as much as sitting alone at a piano on a stage in front of a perfectly quiet audience.  But even though it can be hard, it's so worth it.  I'm so grateful to have pushed through with the help of friends, family, and teachers.  It's so important to have the confidence to share your gift of music with others!

Claire blogs at

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