10 Tips For Dealing With Pianist Performance Anxiety
Whilst being a pianist is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences, it also presents some frightening challenges. One of those challenges is overcoming performance anxiety.
What is a performance?
As with all musicians, pianists frequently find themselves in performance scenarios.
Performance is defined as ‘an act of presenting a play, concert, or another form of entertainment’ for an audience.
The key difference between ‘performance’ and other types of playing the piano, is the audience element. Onlookers watching and listening change the game entirely.
Why can performance cause anxiety for pianists?
Unlike being in the practice room, or messing around with friends, performing means you’re being watched. It feels like all your actions are under a microscope, with every note played being scrutinized by the audience.
For some lucky pianists, performance is not a problem. It comes naturally to them, and they feel at home on stage. However, for most pianists, it is a common procedure to experience some form of performance anxiety.
Why can performance anxiety be a problem?
Feeling anxious before, and during a performance, can be problematic.
Pianists experiencing anxiety feel tense, in a state of panic, have a quickened heart rate, sweat profusely, focus on the audience rather than the music, feel vulnerable and in danger, and even make silly mistakes.
Frankly, feeling anxious is annoying for pianists because it makes them act and perform out of character. It’s not an enjoyable state to be in.
Here are 10 tips on dealing with pianist performance anxiety, so you can give a focused and powerful performance every time.
1. Focus on the music throughout the piano performance
Whilst playing, it’s tempting for your attention to wander around the room.
You might look at the floor or the audience, you might think what the audience is thinking of you, perhaps you’re so worried you’re focusing on what could go wrong. All of these may sound silly, but they happen to pianists everywhere.
Try to focus solely on the music. Not on anything else. Remember, that’s what you’re there to do, after all, play some music that an audience will enjoy. You put yourself in this situation because you have a passion for music after all.
Try focusing on the music as much as possible. When you notice your attention wandering elsewhere, exercise some control and pull it back to the music. Before you know it, you won’t be as nervous as you were a few moments ago and the piano will be the centre of your focus.
2. Be relentless with your preparation
A key reason pianist may feel anxious before performing is because they worry about not practising enough. If a pianist doesn’t practice a piece enough, they won’t commit it to their memory and will find it difficult to build their unique spin into the piece.
An unpractised piece is likely to be messy and not show off your talents appropriately.
To alleviate performance anxiety, be relentless with your preparation of the piece. Practice the piece for many hours and get to know it, inside and out. When you think you’ve played it enough that’s the perfect time to keep playing it. Ideally, you want to get the piece at a level where you can pull it out the bag without having to think too much.
Pianists who practice their piece effectively prior to a performance can play flawlessly and without any errors. A pianist who practices relentlessly can rest assured in the knowledge they know how to play the piece well, even if they are slightly nervous.
Believe it or not, famous musicians from all genres experience stage nervousnesses. Andrea Bocelli, Barbara Streisand and Rod Stewart are all celebrities who experience stage fright. Why do they not freeze up on stage or perform with mistakes? Because they know their set inside out.
They spend hours and hours practising their craft before getting on stage. Take a leaf out of their book and understand the importance of practice.
Think about what’s worse. Spending a few hours practising a piece so you’re confident with it, or freezing up on stage in a fit of anxiety because you didn’t learn the piece well enough?
Do yourself a favour. Prepare a piece relentlessly prior to a performance.
3. Remember a performance is not a recording. It doesn’t have to be 100% perfect
This isn’t the famous Sgt. Pepper album by The Beatles which took 5 months of recording to achieve note for note perfection in every single aspect within it.
A performance is different to recording. Performing means you can make a few mistakes, and everything doesn’t have to be 100% perfect.
As a pianist, it’s natural to want everything to be correct all the time. If we were robots, that would be a realistic goal to have and we could probably achieve it. No problem. Unfortunately, we’re not robots and as human beings, we make mistakes and play things differently from time to time. It’s completely fine.
Think of a time you’ve watched your favourite band or singer live in concert. Whilst they sounded like their recordings, I guarantee there were a few differences when performed. Maybe a vocal harmony was a bit off, or a piano part had been altered for live performance. Whatever it happened to be, it wasn’t 100% exact to the recording.
If you’re playing a piano piece which is a famous song people know about, or there’s a famous recording of it, don’t worry about it being 100% perfect. Make it your own interpretation and have fun with your performance.
4. Whatever you do, don’t stop playing mid-song
One of the most important things your piano teacher taught you was not to stop during a sight-reading exercise. No matter how bad or inaccurate you played, you were told not to stop under any circumstances. The only thing than a few wrong notes is to stop playing altogether.
The same applies to live performance. Whatever you do, don’t stop playing if you make a mistake to try again and correct it. Not only will it stop the flow of the performance and make things incredibly awkward, it’s much better to play through any errors.
Imagine if you were on a train and the driver decided to stop dead after failing to communicate some information to the control room. That would be a nightmare. Thankfully, that never happens. The driver understands his minor mistake and keeps things rolling because it’s the most efficient way to deal with the situation.
As a musician, you should keep the performance rolling. Don’t stop after making a mistake or two. It might not feel like your best performance, but it’s much better to play through rather than stopping altogether.
5. Do some visualisation exercises before the performance. Imagine yourself playing flawlessly
Visualisation techniques are a powerful way to prime yourself for a great performance. Before you sit at the piano, preferably backstage or somewhere quiet, close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting at the piano.
Think of the piece you’re going to play and imagine yourself gliding through it flawlessly. Think about how well you’re going to play, how much the audience will enjoy it, and how much fun you’re going to have. You’ll suddenly feel more calm, relaxed and happy about performing some piano.
Often, a lot of the anxiety associated with performing piano before an audience comes from imagining the worst-case scenarios like messing up or the audience not enjoying your performance.
Flip the negative thoughts on their head and do some positive visualisation exercises before the performance.
Place yourself into the future and imagine how good things will be when you’re performing.
Don’t think about the negatives, accentuate the positives. Prime yourself for a brilliant piano performance.
6. Make proper breathing a priority
When playing live, it’s astounding how musicians manage to forget proper breathing. The high-intensity setting of having lots of eyes on you boosts adrenaline and breathing becomes sharp and erratic.
Not only will your muscles and brain not have an optimal supply of oxygen to function properly, improper breathing increases the risk of you fainting during the performance. Not a pretty sight, but it can and does happen to musicians who fail to breathe properly.
Practice some breathing exercises before you commence the performance. Breathe in steadily through your nose for four counts, hold it for four counts, then exhale for four counts. Repeat these a few times and your body will be in a natural breathing rhythm, essential for pianists to perform.
Being anxious when performing the piano can be managed with proper breathing because your heart rate naturally regulates itself when it has a steady and consistent flow of oxygen.
Calm yourself down as a performing pianist. Breathe properly before, during, and after your performance. Your lungs will thank you for it.
7. Focus on delivering an enjoyable performance for the audience. They are not piano examiners
Okay, you might be performing in an examination setting with a real setting. If you are, then your performance will need to be focused and naturally, you will be more tense than usual. That’s fair enough.
However, most performances aren’t done for examiners and are done for non-examiner audience members. Those who watch live performances are usually there for one reason. Not to critique, examine or zoom in on minute details of a performance. They’re there to enjoy themselves. They’re there to have fun.
If you make a few mistakes, don’t worry about it. 9 times out of 10, nobody will notice. Think about it. Usually, audience members aren’t musical themselves so might not even notice little mistakes you might make occasionally.
8. Avoid caffeine and drink water instead
A common mistake for anxious piano players is to load up their bodies with caffeine under the illusion it’ll help them be more alert and perform better.
Whilst this may be true for the first 20-30 minutes after consumption, pianists who consume large amounts of caffeine experience a crash. Additionally, too much caffeine can give you the ‘jitters’ and your finger movements might not be as sharp and accurate as they could be.
Once the caffeine is metabolised, the brain is flooded with a chemical called adenosine which causes extreme tiredness and low arousal.
Basically, caffeine makes you hyper-alert and vigilant for 30 minutes before sending you crashing down to rock bottom, unable to focus and perform at your best. Ditch the coffee and energy drinks for a nice old-fashioned water.
It’s the simplest beverage in the pianist’s book, but it does the job for when you need to sustain focus during performance.
9. Where possible, try performing with others
As the old saying goes, ‘there’s strength in numbers.’ Taking to the stage as a solo pianist can be an incredibly daunting experience. Especially for the inexperienced piano player with only a couple of performances under their belt.
If you can, try performing as part of a musical ensemble like a band or an orchestra. Not only will you feel stronger with other musicians, you won’t be as anxious or obsessed with everything being perfect because there’s more than one instrument for the audience to focus on.
Of course, this might not always be an option. You may have a piano recital or an examination performance to give, but it’s a useful tip for dealing with pianist performance anxiety when you can use it.
10. Perform a ‘dress rehearsal’ with a teacher, musician, family member, or friend
What do performers in Westend and Broadway musicals do in the weeks leading up to opening night? Do you think they just rehearse individual scenes, then hope it all comes together when they premiered it before a live audience? Of course not! They do what’s called a dress rehearsal.
A dress rehearsal is the final rehearsal of a live show, in which everything is done as it would be in a real performance. As it’s not the real performance itself, there isn’t as much pressure to get everything spot on and perfect but there’s still a great opportunity to practice how the performance will go.
Get your feet wet and have your own dress rehearsal of the performance. If you’re playing a piano piece, play it in front of a family member and get used to performing in front of someone. Don’t stop, try to be professional, and try to imagine you’re in the performance venue.
The jump from rehearsing to performing in front of a live audience can be daunting. It’s a good idea to climatize yourself to performing by playing in front of one or a few people to start with. Do a little dress rehearsal and begin sharpening your performance skills.
We hope this blog post helps you with pianist performance anxiety
Remember, you’re not alone. As pianists, we all experience a degree of anxiety before we perform. Even accomplished concert pianists with years of experience under their belt.
Anxiety is normal and totally fine. When you have the right strategies in place (like the ones above) you can control some of the anxiety and perform to the best of your ability.