Thoughts on Performance Anxiety

Last weekend, I finally performed the Chopin etude – op. 10 no.9. And while the piece itself was more or less ready in my eyes, I learned a whole lot more just by having to performing it. As I prepared my piece in the weeks before the recital, the thought of playing my piece in front of everyone began to make me nervous to put it mildly. Playing in front of people is hard enough, I thought, and now I have to play the most difficult piece I know in front of them??

Performance anxiety exists and it is perfectly normal to be nervous about playing for an audience. There is a vast difference between the atmosphere of a comfortable practice room and the feeling of all eyes on you as they wait for you to play. The last time I performed a piece (Chopin Nocturne), my hands went cold and shook the entire time. My leg began to shake too and I found myself pedaling to ease the shaking rather than paying attention to the piece. The entire memory of playing was a blur afterwards and certainly not enjoyable. Given that I was playing a more difficult piece this time around, I decided to confront the whole idea of performing and its associated anxiety.

People have many different ways of dealing with this anxiety but one thing remains the same: you have to confront it or you can’t deal with it. I had people tell me “oh you’re just exaggerating!” when I related the case of my shaky leg but I certainly wasn’t and whats more, people sometimes have far more severe reactions to anxiety than mere shaking limbs. So, performance anxiety exists and it can be dealt with.

So how exactly did I go about dealing with my personal anxiety on performing? Keep in mind that it’s a personal journey and everyone deals with this in different ways. This isn’t a how-to-get-rid-of-stage-fright-for-all but more a lessons-learned type of list.

1. Practice

This is obvious but I needed to be conscious of it as I tackled recital prep. I’ve often procrastinated on things that make me think about things I really don’t want to think about – like putting off writing that final paper in graduate school until the very end.

Avoiding practice to avoid thinking about the recital is a sure shot way to make sure you won’t be adequately prepared for it. So I made sure to make no change in my practice hours. Life as usual was the name of the day. I moved my pieces around so I had adequate time to work on my performance piece, but I kept to my usual quota of practice hours.

2. Mental State

Being able to focus can either make or break a piece. I’ve found that a lot of mistakes I make while playing can be attributed to having something on my mind, or wanting to sneeze, or getting distracted midway. Ideally, being able to focus would just be like a switch but it takes a good amount of training to be able to do that and it often helps if you have something that nudges your mind that way.

For me, it was a Bach Prelude. I played Bach in the mornings over and over again until I felt tranquil, calm and in control. I’ve also heard that warming up with Bach does wonders for fingers but I’m a firm believer that much of it has to do with how Bach forces you to think while one plays his pieces.

3. Practice Recitals

The best way to deal with performing anxiety is to know what to expect. And what better way than to actually play in front of people. I asked friends to play the audience while I “performed” for them – the clapping, the bowing, the whole bit. This accomplished two things for me: first, it made me nervous so I could learn how to play under pressure; second, it put me into performance mode – that is, I have to get through the piece no matter what. No going back to fix things, no starting over.

In the beginning, I was a wreck with cold hands and sloppy mistakes due to nervousness even though they were just my friends and I knew them. And then I began to get used to it little by little. My mind began to make a clear distinction between practice mode and performance mode and I approached the piece differently depending on whether I was performing or not.

We will always want our playing to be as comfortable on stage as it is in the practice room and the more we get used to the atmosphere, the closer we get to that point.

At the end of the day, was I nervous at my recital? Heck yes. But, I saw some of my efforts bear fruit. My hands did not shake, and my leg was perfectly still. And the bow and the clapping I heard were all too familiar to me. For once, I could focus and listen to what I was playing. I wasn’t worried if I’d forget the next part or mix up sections – I just played my piece, minor mistakes and all. And I enjoyed playing it. 🙂

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