Overcoming Stage Fright (Part 2)

So we explore the biological response why people are nervous while they play. Here are more practical steps so we can evolve from the experience. Adrenaline is an interesting thing: it can bring down the performance or build that hard-to-get spontaneity that artists are looking after. With some knowledge on how to concentrate, the chance to arrive it is a lot easier. So let’s explore further:

  1. Build the sound in advanced
    I sometimes throw the student a curve ball on one math question: “how much is 4 + 9?” None of them told me the answer without any pause. So why would play music be any different? Too many times we focus on getting the right note than the right tone and expression. But to get the right note is a never-ending battle because it’s built on the assumption that you ARE going to miss the note. So you fight very hard to stay right all the time. It’s a self-defeating battle from the start. Without any mental idea how your tone is going to sound BEFORE you play is like going to a battle without any idea how it’s going to turn out. The success rate will be depending on the luck and we all know how often that happens. Even when it happens, no one could predict the outcome of the next performance, hence creating inconsistent performances. All pros have already the expression and the tones they want in their head. Oddly your hands and feet will find a way to produce the sound your ears hear BEFORE they are played. I have a logical answer: ears are connected to the brain much closer than your fingers and feet (for the pedal). I have one student told me after I said this and it cracked me up: “So you mean I have to think before I play?” After all these time, he was counting on finger memory and not thinking what sound he wants to make.
  2. Listen intently without criticism
    The human brain has two spheres. One controls logic and facts (quantitative elements), the other side controls emotions and abstract (qualitative elements). Many tasks we do in our daily life involve logic and analysis. One does constant evaluation on how successful the completed task is so we can do better next time. However, it’s different when one plays music or performs. Music making uses both sides of the brain at different stages. Initially when we learn the notes, phrases, harmonies, tone nuances, we rely on logic and facts gathering skill of the brain. When that process is near completion, then we need to start engaging emotion/abstract side of the brain sphere. Problem is that it’s hard to tell when we are ready for which stage. Many got stuck in the fact gathering stage. After all, how can one move up to the next level without completing the first ones? The secret is to think about both in the beginning fact collecting stages. All you need to do is to summarize the kind of expression on each section and make a note of it. Proceed to learn the notes until you can master it. Then go back to apply it. It’s why the professional can learn a piece very quickly. As we stated in last point, you cannot play without knowing what kind of sound you want. You can still get there if you separate the two stages, but it will take twice amount of effort. And many don’t see the fruition. Having a sensitive teacher to help you identify the stages you are in is essential if you are not experienced. The reason I say “sensitive” is that not everyone is created equal in the sensitivity level. Unlike being an engineer or an accountant, when one plays with numbers or hard-to-change facts, everyone will have almost the same answer. Arts are very subjective and vary greatly from one person to the next.
  3. Lose the expectation. Focus on the presence and enjoy!
    Ok. So we all have some technical weakness or tone color that we don’t like. Even all the notes and rhythm are correct; one can always find some flaw in their playing. Or one can go to the opposite extreme: we had such a good performance at lesson or at home, we try to produce the same outcome thinking it’s going to turn out the same way. Either scenario put one at the position in the future or past, none of them helps you stay in presence. Going back to the time factor at the previous article, we need to express one phrase at the time and not rushing through the process. Drop the to-do list for a minute and just enjoy what you do (You have plenty of time afterwards to complete it). Many students do well in the beginning. But as soon as they were cheering for that success on the difficult spot, they start to miss the note. And it just goes downward fast from that point. Keep your expectation zero: no failure and no success (it’s harder on this spectrum). That way you can enjoy every small detail with surprising spark that it never happened at home or lesson. If it didn’t come, that is ok too. At least you have a good time and not sweating over it.
  4. Slow practice at home prior to the performance
    It sounds redundant enough but why don’t people do it? We all have this experience: the doubt of not knowing the piece creeps in as soon as we perform. But it never happens when we practice at home. As a matter fact, we were impatient with it. As we stated, the concept of time slows down when one performs. That means that we now all of a sudden have time to exam every little detail as it happens. To avoid it we rush as result. But over the year, I have seen the other extreme: one slows down by over compensation. That takes a small percentage of the performance. Often times it happens on people who are quite experienced. Whatever the case it is, it prevents us from delivering a satisfactory performance. The first step to quiet the mind about the self-doubt is to know every note. What better way to play the piece slower? And not just slower, it should be 10% slower than what you do at normal tempo so you don’t over or under estimate the tempo that you need to play. Engage with every note you play so you can play with confidence.
  5. Start small!!
    I have one mom calling me on the phone telling me that her son will not attend the annual recital because of a family camping conflict. She told me honestly: I have to choose between a family gathering opportunity vs. my son ONLY plays a 2-minute performance. So I chose the former. I end up lecturing her importance of this “2-minute performance” can turn into 5, 10, or 20 eventually. It’s not just a recital; it’s his growth process each year. At the end I told her by showing up to his 2-minute performance, you prove to him that you care. Action speaks louder than word. All the artists who play at significant venues start at local level. That is why conservatories arranged so many opportunities for the students to hone their performance skills. I arrange workshops for my students according to their age group and level and I make it mandatory even it they don’t go to the recital. And they must play three times for each piece they perform on stage. Only at these informal settings you find out your weakness and learn to pay attention later at home. And these seemingly stupid mistakes won’t happen unless you are pressured in a performance setting. The famous artists we hear at the concert have already played the same piece at least 50 times to feel comfortable. If you play one time per year, you will be just as nervous as your first time. The suffering is the same. So start small and do it often to practice. No matter what the set up is, breath and enjoy the sound you make. Be proud of the hard work and dedication you put in.

Overcoming Stage Fright