“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Stage Fright

   A contributor to a pianist's forum writes: "Stage Fright! How do you deal with it? Tips?

As much as I believe that getting over stage fright is a personal thing, I'm wondering how you help your students get over debilitating stage fright."
One way to zap performance anxiety is to walk out onto the stage secure in the knowledge that you are technically aware. I call this having a good conscience. This is not just about putting in enough hours; it is about solving problems of movement at the keyboard, not just by mindless repetition but by understanding how the body works. Have you ever stood back stage wondering if this time that passage will go well? This is the sort of thought that comes from not quite understanding how you do it. Horowitz famously reported that he didn't teach because he didn't know how he did what he did. I wonder if this is partly to blame for his psychotic behavior, resulting in a 12-year absence from the concert stage. 
Fears of memory lapses can contribute to anxiety, but what may seem like a memory slip is more often than not the result of some deficiency in the technical preparations—the playing apparatus hasn't completely worked in a particular solution. Memory issues in slow passages can be the result of not quite understanding the musical point, the harmonic progression or any number of other memories that are not related to muscle memory. Butterflies never go away completely, but there is no better feeling than knowing exactly how it is that you do, physically, what you are about to do. 
     At the moment we walk out on the stage,
secure in the knowledge that we know our business, the focus should then be on the first musical points—what is this passage about? What does it fell like in my hands to produce the sound I want?
     Another contributor felt that the answer was insufficient, pressing the point further: "What makes some people function under stress and pressure so well, and some go to ruin, [both] on and off the stage."
     Well, I responded, this is, it seems to me, taking the discussion to a different place. Heretofore, I assumed that the student in question felt an innate desire to perform. 
      There are performing personalities.
These are the ones who crave the lime light and failure is not something that crosses their minds. I know some of these and I'm not one of them. This is one extreme of the spectrum. There are other types of personalities all along this spectrum, including those who love the music, the study of it, the playing of it, but perform mostly because that seems a reasonable outcome of the study. Learning to perform reliably
becomes for these people a study in itself. I'm more like one of these, someone who has performed a great deal largely because in the beginning, at least, others thought I should because I could. 
The "thing(s)" that help these latter types of personalities achieve a point of reliability in performance hinges on a thorough understanding of what it is that they are doing when on stage and on building a positive basis in experience. Another way to express this is that their concentration skills need to be developed. A person who "falls apart" is probably allowing his focus to be taken to the audience: do they like me? what if I forget? what will they think of me? The successful performer is able to draw the audience to him by focusing on the thing that he is doing. This is achieved by the kind of preparation I suggested in the earlier post. The best way to build confidence is to know how you move from one note to the next, how you play fast octaves, how you manage a large leap, why does the composer write a certain dynamic (what does it mean?), what is the music about?. 
      It's true that for some people to organize their thoughts and focus on the task at hand is harder than for others. One exercise I've used is about breathing: Learn to focus only on the breath, the regularity of it, the slowness of it. This can help to slow the pulse and reduce the chance that tempos will be out of control. In the 
end, though, everyone
has butterflies before a performance. I think without these butterflies there would be no flight.

There is more on performance anxiety in Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving, by yours truly.

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