taken from the writings and sayings of wayne cameron, aaron shearer, yo-yo ma, david russell, bill feasley

general thoughts

any situation in which you play and are nervous is a performance and must be dealt with as such. whether you’re playing for a crowd of three hundred or three, for just your teacher or spouse, or even for a tape recorder or imaginary audience, the moment you become aware you are being listened to, you are performing and have the opportunity to practice your performing skills. performing is a skill just like any other, and must be learned. neglect of your performing skills leaves you incomplete as a musician.

your performance ability is not the same as your playing ability; the one will always lag behind the other. the bad news is that you will almost never play as well on stage as you do in the practice room. the good news is that as your playing (practice room) ability increases, your performance (stage) ability will increase proportionally. not every performance will be great. strive not for perfection every time, but for consistency. strive for constant goodness and occasional greatness. strive to maintain and improve your average performance. remember: there is no easy piece on stage. if you constantly play beyond your performance ability (even if within your playing ability), you’ll never make progress as a performer. no piece is beneath you. you can learn about performance when you perform a scale.

the audience doesn’t know whether you’re at an easy or difficult place in the music (unless you project your discomfort), and they don’t care. they’re just there to enjoy the music, so let them enjoy it. don’t project your insecurities onto your listeners; they don’t want them. enjoy yourself and focus on the music. keep your concentration close enough to technical matters that you can play the piece, but focus mainly on the musical result you want to convey. be an artist, not an athlete. an impressive technique is only the means to achieving a musical end. don’t compete against others or compare yourself to them except to stimulate your own desire to improve. the real competition is against yourself. work to improve your technical prowess only as a means of achieving greater expressivity. you’re trying to create something, not impress someone. take pride in what you do. use constructive criticisms that friends and teachers give you, but ignore the destructive criticisms that come from people unsure of themselves or who simply don’t like and want to hurt you. if you can free yourself from being concerned about other’s unrealistic expectations, you can enjoy where you are in your playing now, and move toward the future. there are people waiting in line to put you down. don’t join them! performance problems are wholly internal. there is no stress outside yourself. performance anxiety must be confronted and dealt with within your own mind.

remind yourself of what you’re really doing. the performance has nothing to do with you. it’s not a judgment of your worth. it’s not a chance to flaunt your inflated ego or have your deflated one crushed. it’s an opportunity to share the joy of music with the listeners. remembering that many cultures consider the performance and hearing of music to be a religious experience will keep you on the right track. anyone who comes to your performance to hear your mistakes rather than to enjoy the musical experience is to be pitied, not feared. use the performance as a chance to grow, and to give. don’t just practice to learn how to play the piece, learn how to perform the piece. after you’ve got the piece under your fingers sufficiently, play it with these rules:

  1. once you start, play the piece all the way to the end without stopping. don’t make false starts. don’t stop the piece and start it again.
  2. when you make a mistake, keep going! if you stop and correct the mistake, you’ve now made two mistakes. always be looking forward. what’s past is past.
  3. even if the whole thing falls apart, finish it solidly and let the last note ring for its full value. nothing’s more unappealing to an audience than someone who, at the end of the piece, scowls, groans, and bemoans his fate.

problems you didn’t foresee may become clear to you when you run the piece as a whole. make an honest evaluation, and go back and work on problem areas and especially on the connections between various sections you’ve worked on individually.


if you cannot confidently visualize your pieces, you’re leaving yourself open to insecurity in the performance. be sure you have no doubt in your memory of the piece before you ever step on stage. be certain you can confidently and without hesitation visualize/verbalize:

  1. the solfege syllables
  2. the left hand fingerings
  3. the right hand fingerings
  4. the melody in homophonic works, each voice individually in contrapuntal ones
  5. the harmonic progressions
  6. the overall structure of the piece

lastly, be able to visualize the whole piece at tempo with a metronome without hesitations or mistakes. another means of effectively using visualization is to visualize performances themselves. since performance anxiety is a purely mental phenomenon, learn to vividly recreate in your mental cinema the experience of playing in front of others, and to deal with your fears where they really lie — in your own mind. the more accurately and vividly you can capture the experience of performing, the less you’ll have to rely on possibly infrequent performance opportunities for the chance to work on your performance skills.


being nervous is a natural reaction to being made the center of attention. it’s what you do about the nervousness that determines whether or not you’ll be able to perform. trying to ignore the nervousness is lying to yourself and just makes it worse. aggressively tackling it and telling yourself, “i won’t be nervous, i can’t be nervous!’ is just as bad. you have to accept the nervousness and work with it. you have to channel nervous energy into constructive energy, and learn to relax. relaxation is a technique, and it’s just as important to cultivate this technique as any other you’ll learn on the instrument. if you can’t consciously relax your muscles during practice, you won’t be able to do so on stage.

progressive relaxation exercises can give you conscious control over your body. to do these, set an alarm for a half hour’s time. lay down on the floor or on a bed (not too comfortable, or you’ll fall asleep). start with one end of your body, your toes or your head, and consciously relax small parts of your body at a time (each toe, then the ball of the foot, then the arch, etc.). you’ll pass through three stages of relaxation: first, you’ll reach the stage which we normally consider to be “relaxed”. next, the part you’re relaxing will feel heavy, like it’s sinking into the floor. finally, it will feel like it’s disappeared entirely, and you won’t be able to feel it anymore. slowly move to the other end of your body, until your whole body feels like it’s disappeared. doing this for a half hour every day and especially before performances will increase your sensitivity to tension and enable you to immediately release it when it occurs. another way to relax is to focus on your breath. learn to breathe from your diaphragm (making your belly expand and contract) rather than your chest, and take slow, deep breaths. it’s vitally important that you consciously slow down your breath when you feel it starting to speed up, because once it passes a certain point you’ll be unable to control it and will start to hyperventilate. make it a part of
your daily practice that you regulate your breath and relax your body before you begin practicing. relaxed performers seem to become one with their instruments. with each day’s practice session, find a new muscle to relax.

perform the piece many, many times. by the seventh time you perform it, you should begin to enjoy it. before your real performance, set up several practice performances for yourself. at these practice performances, your job is not so much to make music as to refine your performance skills. set a goal for each practice performance. if you have trouble breathing while you perform, make that your goal. if you then miss every single note but breathe in a calm, relaxed way, your practice performance is a success. proceed by stages. first, perform in your practice room for an imaginary (but vividly imagined) audience. then perform to a tape recorder (this is excellent practice, as the recorder gives you a wholly objective view of how you sound). proceed to playing for one or more close friends, and then to playing for strangers. find out what situation causes you the most nervousness, and seek it out so you can learn to deal with it.

go to live performances by others as often as possible to get used to the concert environment. sit close to the front and imagine that you’re the one giving the performance. imagine walking in from the wings, sitting in front of all these people, and starting to play one of your pieces. deal with any nervous feelings you have just as you would when you’re on stage. be as vivid in your visualization as you can. use the live performance as an opportunity to realize that even the best players get nervous and make mistakes. recordings, because they’re edited and consequently represent an ideal performance, give you the unrealistic expectation that you should be similarly perfect when you perform. hearing “warts and all” live performances should rid you of such mistaken concerns.

on the day of the performance

do everything calmly and slowly. lay out your clothes, your music, your footstool, and everything else you need so that you’re not in a rush when it’s time to leave for the performance. avoid overpracticing. cramming, as for an exam in school, just fatigues your muscles and leaves you insecure as to whether you’re ready. accept that you’ve prepared well and so all will go well. visualize your pieces, calmly and effectively work on problem spots, maybe play a through piece or two. nothing else is needed.

eat lightly and well. avoid stimulants which give you energy for a while, and then let you crash. instead, eat starches which turn into sugar more gradually over a longer period of time. arrive early and become comfortable with the room. if possible, sit in the position from which you will perform and run through a piece or two. remain calm while visualizing the chairs filled with people.

during the performance

concentration is the central skill in performing, and must be cultivated in practice. while playing, concentrate on the means to the end, and the end will take care of itself. rather than worrying about producing a good tone, keep your mind trained on what your fingers have to do to produce a good tone. rather than worry about whether you’ll have a memory slip, focus your mind on remembering. cultivate the skill of keeping your mind focused despite any distractions. practice performing your pieces in front of a loud television with two radios playing, tuned to different stations. if you can keep your mind on playing despite it all, there’s not much that should throw you when you’re on stage.

making mistakes

accept that perfection is not possible. don’t drop your standards, but accept that you’re human and mistakes will happen. given all the notes you play in a performance, it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll get every one of them right every time. allow yourself a certain number of mistakes for each performance. if you’re expecting them to come, they won’t surprise and frighten you when they do. there are two kinds of mistakes:

  1. deficiencies: these are actions you’re simply unable to perform on the instrument, and are the sign of inadequate preparation. they are a cause for concern, and should be first on your list of things to work on after the performance. while the performance is still going on, however, ignore them and go on. there’s no time to practice now!
  2. simple mistakes: these will happen no matter how well you’ve prepared. just shrug them off and keep going. if you’re outlook is bright enough and you’re focused on the real reason you’re performing, you’ll just laugh them off.

avoid the common error of providing the audience with a running commentary of your mistakes. “oops… sorry about that… let me try that again… sorry…” and the like are not good examples of communicating with the audience. when you make a mistake, keep quiet about it. you’re almost always the only one who notices.

if you have a memory block so severe that you can’t continue with the next note, skip to the next phrase or section that you remember clearly. if you can’t do that, go back to the beginning of the section you’re on or back to the beginning of the piece. when all else fails, go on to your next piece. if you’ve got nothing else to play, then smile, bow, and exit.

view the audience as friends, not enemies. your listeners just want to hear your music, and want you to play it well. consequently, they’re supporting your efforts, not trying to undermine them. people who come just to hear you make mistakes should be pitied, since they’re completely missing the music.

if you’re going to talk to the audience, just be yourself. being scholarly and pompous on the one hand or overly friendly and cute on the other will just alienate the audience. also, know what you’re talking about. you don’t inspire confidence in your audience by saying, “this next piece i’m going to play is by, uh, franco marinaro torroba. it’s his… uh… sonatina, which is kind of like a big piece with movements and stuff. he wrote it in maybe the 1920s or 1970s for segovia or maybe some other guitarist.”

when you’re performing, let yourself feel wide. let your shoulders feel wide, let your arms and fingers feel wide. this relaxation frees the circulation to allow the blood to flow to the fingers, allowing you to play even in a cold hall.

most people think that everything sounds great in the practice room, and then when they get on stage, everything sounds like a mistake. you have to turn this completely around. in the practice room, you must be hypercritical of what you’re hearing, because you have the opportunity to change it. once you’re on stage, there’s no time to fix anything, so you have to accept it as it is and focus on the positive, on what sounds good. the problems can be fixed when you get home.

it can seem sometimes that you’re on stage forever. time slows down and everything takes longer. many people are frightened by this, and think to themselves, “my god, will this ever be over?” you can use this phenomenon to your advantage, however, if you keep focused on what you have to do to have a good performance. just remember to take your time. no one is rushing you. take all the time you need to prepare yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and never begin a piece until you are focused and ready.

devise a ritual that you always perform on stage, and go through it in all your practice performances. if you make it into a subconscious habit, it will be something reassuring that you can fall back on when you have trouble settling into an initial state of concentration. use this ritual to stop short any foreseeable problems that could disrupt your confidence while playing. a sample ritual could be:

  1. check your seating position to make sure you’re balanced and don’t have the feeling that you or your instrument
    may slip.
  2. take slow, deep breaths to calm yourself
  3. check your tuning (quietly)
  4. place both hands in the proper position to start the piece (nothing is more unsettling than to start the piece and realize only one of your hands was in the right place)
  5. close your eyes and set the tempo with which you’ll start. realize that if you’re nervous, you’ll tend to play overly fast and to speed up as you go along, so you may want to start at what seems a slow tempo. often, nervousness distorts your perception of tempo, making you think that the speed at which you usually play the piece is actually too slow.
  6. solfege and visualize the first phrase of the piece
  7. give a strong start to the piece, coordinating the first strong downbeat with an exhalation of your breath (and don’t forget to keep breathing slowly and deeply while you play!)

after the performance

be grateful to your audience for listening to you, and never apologize for what you’ve done. if you’ve done the best you can do at the present, you’ve got no apologies to make. berating your performance to someone who’s just complemented it not only reveals your lack of self-esteem, it also insults the listener. it’s like saying that if he enjoyed your poor performance, he has poor taste.

when you’re alone, evaluate your performance honestly and work on problems that you discovered under the stress of performance. above all, don’t get down on yourself for how you did. the true perspective on your performance is not in relation to how you hope to do in the future, but to how you did in the past. focus on how far you’ve come and can expect to go in the future.

4 thoughts on “some thoughts on performances

  1. WOW! your THOUGHTS on performance really calms me down about performing!
    I’m deciding on performing the Telemann Viola concerto at my high school..arround…November. I have been practicing really hard. And when I read your page on performance, I realized I was missing performance skills.

    Your thoughts really HELP!
    I found this site from Classical Music Archives because I’m a contributor too (Vivaldi)!

    Keep up your great work!
    -Miguel the happy violist


  2. Great article. I came across it purely by chance (following an URL I found on a Bach piece at mutopia) and I’ve gotta say I’m pleasantly surprised with this little gem.

    I perform music as a hobby, and although this article seems to be focused on performing classical pieces solo and I play in a rock band, all of the advice it contains can be applied directly or with a few adjustments to rock/jazz ensambles.

    All the points made really did ring a bell in my mind and reminded me of performances I’ve had in the past. One thing I couldn’t stress enough is the importance of not insulting your audience. Different people can and often do react differently to your performance. A common mistake is assuming that because your act has been very well received one night, it should work the same way every time you want, and then you try to recreate the success using the same set lists, trying to replicate the way you were feeling, your energy, and so on.

    Not that it’s a bad idea to try to repeat things that have worked for you in the past, but realise that you can’t always control every little thing, most importantly your audience’s energy as well as your own. Avoid being too confident that people will react in a certain way. Sometimes you’re confronted with different results, and if you’re not ready to adapt you may end up, consciously or not, making everyone uncomfortable with your words or attitude, therefore creating a negative vibe all around you.

    I remember one time, my band was playing in a small bar, and for the first few songs most of the people seemed fairly quiet on their tables, presumably paying attention to our songs and our act, anyway, my band’s singer apparently wanted everyone to be dancing on the tables from the first song or something and started addresing the audience between songs, saying things like “well, what’s happening people? I wanna see you move..”, and later on moved to more “colourful” things and started using an aggresive tone, at which point we could all notice how big of a turn-off that was for everybody. I mean, even the rest of the band and myself were starting to feel offended, it’s not hard to imagine how bad it must have been for people in the audience. You can not make someone happy by telling them “be happy, come on!”.

    So my lesson from experiences like that, and which I’d like to underline in regard to your excellent article is: let your audience be. Remember that they’re there to share the experience with you and they’re entitled to do so in whichever way they want to. If you want to affect them in a way that leads them to dance on their tables or whatever, then don’t try force things, let them happen; focus on your playing, do it with your heart and soul and then there’ll be no way to stop them from joining you :).


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