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It is important for performers to seek methods to deal with the feelings accompanying fear and nerves. The following are several simple methods to alleviate mild nervousness.
1. Before performing, you must first remember that you have practiced to the best of your ability and remind yourself of this. You have used your practicing skills in the most effective way you know. Of course, there will always be things you look to improve in your playing, but given all the circumstances that have led to this moment, you have worked hard as you can. Now the practicing is over. What you will do now, is to use your “hook point”, (what?) something you would have encountered during practice sessions. The hook point (hp) is at work, for example, when you learn the fingering for a piece. When you repeat and reinforce the new patterns, the hp is the moment where your brain starts to recognise the pattern and become familiar with what your fingers are doing, usually after many repetitions. The information from this process is retained, so that when you go on to practice other areas like articulation/dynamics, you don’t have to think too hard about the fingering. The most comforting aspect of the hp is that when it is time for you to perform, what you do is recall what/where was the hp, or areas you played easily during practice. Usually, once your ear recognises a passage you’ve practiced many times over, your brain will trigger the familiarity that the fingers developed in practice.
2. Do not draw conclusions about what just happened or what might/might not happen. Self-criticism while performing is pointless because it takes you out of the here and now and destroys your focus and physical actions.
Whatever the criticism, it introduces a verbal aspect into an activity that is most successful when it is non-verbal. Reserve judgment for after the performance, preferably after you have listened to other people’s reactions. Rather than judge your playing, simply observe it without saying anything, and play from the heart. For example, when you are about to make a crescendo, go for it and then feel it as you are doing it. There is nothing verbal about this process. You are, rather, putting intention into action – that is, motivating.
3. Do not second-guess the audiences reaction to your playing. When performing we become mind readers and believe we know exactly what the responses to our playing are. More often than not, these thoughts prove to be completely, wildly inaccurate and only serve to further distract us from our aim. An example: I was once playing a recital, with only twenty people in the audience. As soon as I came out to perform, I noticed a guy who looked familiar, but whom I could not quite place where I had seen him before. For most of the first piece, I was only partially thinking about the music, the other part, wondering who he was and (even worse) what he thought about the playing (crazy I know).
Finally I remembered that he was a respected piano teacher and accompanist I once met at a music shop near where I live. He was undoubtedly going to listen to the music on the program with a keen attention to detail and pick holes at the whole performance. Throughout the entire time, I was preoccupied with these thoughts and not surprisingly, the whole experience became gradually uncomfortable for me. Afterward, when he came to speak to me, I discovered that this piano teacher was, in fact, a jazz and pop specialist rather than a connoisseur of classical music and was very complimentary of my performance. Later I thought, “what an incredible waste of mental energy!” How remarkable it is that the vast resources of ones imagination can be used for such futile, self-destructive mind-games! You probably have had similar experiences.
Trying to imagine what the audience thinks of your playing is useless and distracting. You must please yourself first.
Ugo Onwutalu is a musician and piano teacher, also playing the guitar and organ. He is the founder of Grade Music Tutors, a UK music tuition production and entertainment organisation based in London. Visit http://www.grademusicworld.com for information on everything music-related, from learning an instrument and preparing for your exams, to getting a job in the music industry.
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