Have you ever performed for a concert or exam that you felt could have been better? In your opinion, have your performance experiences been positive or negative? If you could describe your last performance, would it incite happy and proud feelings or a sense of fear and disappointment?
It seems to me that we are our own worst critics when it comes to evaluating a performance. It is perhaps due to a strange and unnatural aspiration toward perfection.
Perfectionism is the "ultimate self defeating behaviour. It turns people into slaves of success - but keeps them focussed on failure, dooming them to a lifetime of doubt and depression. It also winds up undermining achievement in the modern world." (Marano. E. H. 2008) Marano highlights the root issue of harsh criticism toward oneself- the desire to avoid failure.
The fear of Failure drives people to become success fanatics, but how does one define success? This is very much a subjective question for we all define success differently. The same goes for our definitions of failure, for example, one might consider a failure to be the depressing of one wrong note in the last page of a Bach prelude which was otherwise, the epitome of accuracy. Another person may define a failure by stating that they did not play with enough dynamic musical expression but played each note accurately throughout their performance- neither example was a failure. They were making mistakes or oversights- one slipped up technically and the other forgot to add some musical expression but played the composition with the right technical components. So what? Did they make it from a to b?
Success, as defined by the Oxford living dictionary is, "The accomplishment of an aim or purpose." A further underlying problem with self criticism is the incorrect setting of goals. I recommend that you make a realistic goal. Perfection is not a realistic goal. Look at some of the records of the past like the Beatles song, A day in the life, where an alarm clock was sounded during the recording of a take. It was meant to be a studio joke but after the recording of that take, they found that they couldn't remove the sound - it has since become, "a brilliant use of aleatoric sound" (Fleming. C. 2017). This is a great example of how a mistake can become a positive event.
We have now established that performances are scary only because we have created an erroneous concept of what it should entail. Hopefully, this information will have healed some of you who have had some unfortunate past performance experiences. Here are some tips that will help you avoid stress and mass mistakes during a performance.
We must categorise these steps into two groups- psychological and physical...
Here are some psychological steps:
Realise that a performance is not as important as you think. Ilinka Vartik, a piano teacher has stated that, "the more importance we give a certain event, the stronger are the chances that we'll fail" (Vartik. I. 2011). It is important that we learn to enjoy what we are doing. Don't get too focussed on the difficulty of performing in front of others, or the fear of making technical mistakes... just enjoy the process of making a sound that expresses who you are... That is the sign of a genuine artist! Music is fun!
Don't hide from performance because of bad experiences in the past which have developed insecurities. There are several issues with this, a) you are restrained musically and mentally, b) you are now trapped in the box of a past embarrassment and c) you cannot progress without public exposure - We make music for ourselves and others! Ralph Waldo Emerson said "do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain" (Vartik. I. 2011). Many phobias are treated by gradual and frequent exposure to the thing that instigates that certain fear. This will, over time, reduce anxiety when associating with that fear (NHS. 2016). Take performance opportunities in whatever shape or form as much as you can- start by playing something to some friends, in a music shop, an informal concert, masterclass or exam! This is when you truly begin to develop; "for the amateur pianist, the benefits of performances, even casual ones, are immeasurable" (Chang. C. C. 2014.).
Learn to cope with imperfection. Don't get caught up in perfectionism. It is a self- defeating behavior and it is unrealistic. We must strive to be honest with ourselves lest we become resentful of ourselves when we don't reach our goals. Become aware of what you can and cannot achieve, change goals and mentally prepare for appropriate responses to mistakes. It is important that if you make a mistake during a performance that you immediately forget it and play the rest of the piece as if it never happened. This way, you fool your audience and fuel yourself with energy and panache to carry on playing so that you can flaunt your better performance qualities to a gathering who long to hear what you have to offer!
Here are some physical tips for practice a week before the event...
Practice the pieces at slow and medium tempos. This is the litmus test which indicates what you can and cannot play confidently. To play slow is perhaps more challenging than playing at the assigned tempo for that composition. This is because it requires conscious thought. One must think about the movements being made and the dynamic changes being created. It will also shut off ones muscle memory which is a secondary tool for instrumentalists. The first memory operator should always be the mind. All movement stems from the mind!
Practice in front of people or record yourself- this will provide secondary ears. We can be very biased in our opinion of what we play. This is dangerous because we could perceive that we are playing legato when in reality, we are playing staccato or our pp sections could really sound MF.
Memorisation testing- throughout your day, if around a piano, randomly approach the piano with a specific section of a piece in mind and play it and then go back to whatever you were doing before. This will benefit you in two ways: 1) you will become more confident in your mental ability to remember specific sections of a composition. 2) you will develop an awareness of how good you can play sections of a piece without warming up and indicate how strong ones muscle memory is.
On the day of the exam, avoid lifting heavy objects. Don't move a grand piano into position- get a stage director to sort this! The issue lies in the fact that the muscles will react differently after lifting something heavy, meaning that when you play the piano afterward, you may find that you make mistakes that you may have never made prior to this event (Chang. C. C. 2014).
Eat light meals before performing. The last thing you need is an irritated stomach before performing. Avoid coffee too as it is renowned for increasing anxiety (Alban. D. 2017).
I do hope that this is a helpful resource that will not only inform you but will aid you in your practice, performances and personal evaluation.
Practice smart, relish performance opportunities and enjoy them thoroughly!
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Chang. C. C. (2014). Preparing for performances and recitals. Available: Fundamentals-of-pianpractice.readthedocs.io/en/latest/chapter1/ch1_topics/III.14.html. Last accessed 10.01.18.
Fleming. C. (2017). Beatles' A day in the life: 10 things you didn't know
.Available: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/beatles-a-day-in-the-life-10-things-you-didnt-know-w459398. Last accessed 10.01.18.
Mariano. E. H. (2008). The pitfalls of perfectionism.Available: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200803/pitfalls-perfectionism. Last accessed 2017.
NHS. (2016). Phobias. Available: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/phobias/. Last accessed 10.01.18.
Vartik. l. (2011). How to handle failure in piano playing? 16 perspective changing
steps. Available: http://www.pianocareer.com/holistic-piano-playing/piano-failures/. Last accessed 10.01.18.