Performance

All students feel nervous about performing, some feel painfully nervous and shy. This is normal and students need to understand, accept and deal with nerves - even to manage weekly piano lessons. This means giving them an explanation about why they feel nervous and some useful ways to deal with these feelings.

Performance nerves are a normal emotion that everyone experiences – just like happiness, surprise or sadness. Performance nerves are the feelings we have in unfamiliar situations or situations that we can’t completely control, when we are aware of other people watching us. The mind reacts to the things we aren’t sure about by producing adrenaline. The adrenaline makes us feel jumpy, makes our heart beat faster and can make us forget to breath. All of this happens automatically. It doesn’t mean anything bad is going to happen. It isn’t a sign of how well we are going to perform or of what people think of us.

Performance nerves need to be dealt with by developing familiarity with the performance situation and by encouraging the mind and body to rest. Practicing performance skills and having plenty of experience helps reduce nerves over time. It gets easier to play in front of others, especially if performances involve fun or reward and lead to affirmation. Until then, we need to manage the feelings and the situation.

Preparing to play:

Managing the situation involves being properly prepared to play. When it comes to exams and recitals, for more advanced players, preparation begins months beforehand, from the first moment a piece is analysed and read. From here, the music needs to be understood fully and learnt accurately to foster confidence. For all players, confidence comes from really knowing the music you are going to play.

Sing the music to yourself away from the piano.
Know the music very well so you can start from any place.
Know the last bar from memory so if you forget your place or get too nervous to keep playing, you can stop playing while sounding like you have actually finished.
Think about what you want your audience to hear – what ideas do you want them to have after listening to your playing?
Practice the music at slow and fast speeds, but always try to be expressive.

Important Preparation Rules:

It is often tempting for students to practice a piece in the last minute, the day before or even on the day of an exam or recital. This last-minute practice only tires the student and risks nerves escalating and performances falling apart.

Some basic ground rules should be established: play as much piano as you wish the day before the recital. This playing should be for fun – no actual study. Only play the recital pieces through twice = carefully and at an easy speed. Finish by playing as slowly as you can manage.

On the day of the performance, if you are more anxious by not playing, read through pieces at a comfortable speed and not more than twice. The final practice should be very slow, and very careful. Be strict about this - last minute nervous mistakes can be irreversibly learnt very quickly.

The Performance Situation:

Other aspects of the performance situation can be controlled and predicted. This prevents the more intense level of nervous feelings. Here are some guidelines:
At home and in lessons, practice the entire performance (days before the event), including sitting at the piano and bowing afterwards, so you know exactly what you are going to do.
Choose your clothes before the day of the performance. Wear these in your practice the day before – so you know how they will feel when you are playing.
Play for other people before playing in the recital.
If possible, play the recital piano before the recital day. Find out everything you can about where the piano will be, what the lighting will be like, where your audience will be sitting, how much you will see of the audience, how you will know it is your turn to play, what the weather will be like, who else will be playing, etc.

Managing the feelings:

The final issue is management of stress responses - dealing with those nervous feelings once they are there.

Make sure you are not over-tired. Have a relaxing day the day before, doing quiet things that you enjoy doing – and try to have a good night’s sleep.
Do not drink or eat stimulating foods for 24 hours – that includes caffeine, chocolate and lots of sugar.
Spend time with your eyes closed, thinking about breathing slowly and deeply. See yourself performing and actually smile while you are picturing this. (The smile, even when it is pretend, tells your mind everything is going to be OK.)
When you go up to the piano to perform, slow down. Close your eyes and put your shoulders back. Take a deep breath slowly and let it out. Relax. Be comfortable before you think about starting to play.
Think about how the piece is going to sound when you start playing. Hear the music in you mind. Feel the piano keys under your fingers before playing the first note.

Helping very shy students:

It is important that students understand that their feelings are normal and that they are not an indication of how well they will perform – they are just feelings. Be calm and soothing, lead them in relaxation and breathing.

Affirm your child’s courage for trying – while not ignoring or giving in to the feelings. Walk them through everything that will happen from the time they stand up to go to the piano to when they have finished. Focus on the fun and rewarding parts of the event. After the performance, praise them and mention specifically the things they did that were good, including self-management.

Making Mistakes:

Nobody is perfect; we all make mistakes – and the best performers make mistakes in concerts and recitals. If you make a mistake while playing, take a deep breath and keep playing. If you can’t remember what to play, make it up – but try and keep the rhythm going. Try very hard not to stop.

The audience won’t mind if you make a mistake – and probably won’t even know that you have done it if you can keep the music and rhythm going. If you really can’t keep going, play the last bar and finish as if you meant to end then. Once you stop playing, sit at the piano for a moment before getting up and taking a bow. Probably nobody else will even know you made a mistake, so enjoy the applause for a job well done.