Anxiety and nerves can often eat us alive before a performance and the amount can vary depending on the performance setting, the audience members, and the purpose of the performance. After the first few phrases, we either feel comfortable with the way we are approaching the piece, or we let the nerves heavily affect our playing. In the second scenario, our minds can be filled with thoughts such as, “Oh no, I just missed that note” or “I wonder what everyone thinks of my playing.” In this article, I will share a few tips that have allowed me to feel most confident in the work I put into learning the piece and in my ability to perform the piece well.
During the learning process and before playing the first notes of the piece, I make sure that I am familiar with the composer’s style and their intentions for the music. This includes studying the composer’s development from an early age, the purpose behind a few of their compositions, and even researching other composers that have influenced the composer’s growth as a musician. This research is used to help provide me with an emotional or strong mental connection to the composer and piece. For example, understanding that Eric Sammut specialized in not only percussion, but also piano improvisation is important for a performer to know. This would allow them to find more passages in which ebb and flow can make his music feel more spacious, less predictable, and more tranquil. Going through this process in the past has assisted me in understanding how to better bring the music off the page and how to make a piece my own, while keeping the composer’s intentions in mind.
With this understanding comes the ability to plan your practice according to your everyday schedule and to provide a realistic expectation for the first performance date. Planning and documenting your practice with either a video or a practice log will provide you with accountability for your learning process. Slow practice with the expectation of feeling comfortable learning a few bars a day is what I recommend. I do not recommend entering the practice room with the idea of just learning as many notes as possible until you cannot learn anymore. This could create a false sense of urgency, causing you to mislearn notes or rhythms with the goal of learning the music as fast as possible. Pacing your practice with enough time to digest each session will provide calmness inside and outside of the practice room when thinking about your performance. I tend to record myself playing parts of the piece and listening back to it while I am away from the keyboard to provide me with some auditory material for mental practice. When I have completed learning the piece and am comfortable recording it, I do so with a voice memo. With this voice memo, I can stand behind the keyboard with headphones in and my hands by my side so that I can visualize myself performing the piece. This saves me some energy in the practice room and assists me in hearing my intentions for the piece more consistently.
Perform Early & Often
Lastly, whether this piece is meant for a studio performance, recital, or audition, I like to perform it for as many people as I can before the intended performance date. There is a tendency for things to happen in front of audiences that have never happened in the practice room and that is okay. We want to be able to learn how to recover when unplanned things occur. I will play for my percussion peers, grab someone random from the hallway if they have time, and even facetime a friend just to have some extra ears. You can decide whether you would like constructive criticism from your listeners or if you simply just want them to listen. When looking for constructive criticism, I have found that non-percussionists provide great feedback because they are listening for musical intentions, and they can sometimes shed light on ideas that have not crossed your mind when it comes to delivering purposeful musical actions.
After researching, slowly practicing, and doing some performance practice, you should feel more comfortable presenting your work to your intended audience. Before stepping onto the stage, reflect on what you have done to get to this moment, be proud of your work, and trust yourself. Take some deep breaths. Visualize yourself behind the keyboard and play your first few notes. Know that whatever happens, you did intentional work to get here, and it will come across in your playing.