(Don’t) Be afraid! (performance anxiety)

One hot topic that often comes up is how to deal with performance anxiety. It seems many of you amateur pianists like giving recitals in local churches and festivals, while others would like to but daren’t, and still others are content to play only for their own amusement. But almost all admit to feeling anxious as soon as they have an audience – even a supportive one of family and friends.

To begin, let’s consider a typical church/festival recital (exams and competitions are somewhat different and we can talk about those another time). The first thing to consider is your own motivation – exactly why have you put yourself in front of this audience? Lots of good answers, but essentially they all boil down to one central motivation. You find something valuable, meaningful and important to you personally in the music, and it’s perfectly natural you should want to share it with others.

Now consider audience motivation – why have they taken the trouble to come and hear you perform? ‘Why’ is so obvious it seems trite to mention it. Never mind, I will. Obviously it’s because they like music and they’re looking greatly forward to hearing some! They haven’t come for a perfect technical display, nor to tally up your mistakes, to revel in your lapsed memory, or to savour your agony – no, they are here to enjoy a musical experience. They absolutely want you to give them that. They are WILLING you to do it.

No pressure, then! 

The point is, the atmosphere is charged with positive feeling. You with your earnest wish to share a musical experience, and they with their willing desire to receive it. The audience is your friend, your affectionate friend, and if they are all strangers, all the warmer for having no preconceptions. Once you see them in this light, and not as a roomful of antagonistic adversaries, you can tap into their positive eagerness and focus on the message you’ve prepared for them.

Note, I’ve not mentioned wrong notes or other slips here since these are trivial in comparison to the worth of your message. However (as one of my students delights in reminding me, “with you Gil, there is always a ‘however’!”) – however …

You cannot expect an audience to leave their comfortable homes simply to come and praise your hard work, or even your immaculate technique. You, as performer, must totally believe in what you have to share, that it has unique worth and is not merely some unconvincing copy of a stolen interpretation which inspired you. Realise that what you have to say is as unique as you are, that no-one else can say it your way. And it is your unique message, you can believe in all modesty, that your audience have come to share.

Confidence in what you have to communicate comes naturally enough from good preparation. Without sufficient preparation your playing will not convince even yourself, much less will you be able to convey a personal view to others. Fear of wrong notes and slips is self-inflicted by focussing on the possibility that they could happen. There is neither time nor place for them when your only concern is the uniquely personal message you have to communicate.

It has to be said, brutal though it may be, if you are not fully prepared you really have no business imposing your vanity (for that is all it is) on a wonderfully compliant but long-suffering public, and you fully deserve to feel as anxious as you most certainly will!

To sum up, of course any genuine performer will be anxious to do themselves credit, or to put it the other way around, not to let their audience down. But when you have prepared so thoroughly that you are convinced in the uniqueness and worth of your own interpretation (and when you accept the audience expect and want no more than to share that with you) wrong notes and slips become mere insignificant trivialities, fear of them dissipates, and the audience remember only the pleasure you give.