Fake It 'till You Make It: The Introvert's Guide to Performing
Updated: Nov 18, 2018
Of all the musicians in the world, I'd bet that very few would identify as natural performers, yet all musicians enjoy learning and at least the idea of sharing their skills with others. And skill sharing is an unavoidably public forum, whether in an informal session, a masterclass, a recital or an exam. I'm what you'd call an anxious performer; I love making and sharing music, but not such a fan of the spotlight, even in an ensemble situation. Here's what I've learned after 20 years of being nervous on stage.
So, the first thing I should probably tell you is that it's impossible to completely eradicate performance anxiety, and actually you wouldn't want to, because it's that little bit of extra adrenaline which helps you bring your A game and can create a truly electric performance. The trick is to embrace the nerves and find a way to control them enough to strike that perfect balance of just enough fear to sharpen the senses for a focused and committed performance, but not so much as to sabotage all your hard work. And the best thing is, it can be done!
Practice makes it easier
Like any musical skill, practice helps. Get into the habit of performing regularly for family and friends - your most sympathetic audience. Maybe you could perform a little something to your parents at the end of each practice session. Start small, perhaps a single phrase or just a scale, and build up towards a full piece. Take any opportunity to practice public performance - if your teacher asks you to take part in a concert or recital, it's not because they want to torture you, rather they want to help you improve this part of your learning. If you can be brave and take part in more informal performances, it will be easier in more stressful situations such as large recitals and music exams.
Don't forget the non musical aspects of performance
Being on stage is so much more than just playing the piece, and often it's the little things that will stress you out unnecessarily if you don't think them through in advance - consider how you'll walk on and off the stage, where you'll sit or stand, how to adjust the music stand, how and when to take a bow and what to say if any public speaking is involved. Practice these things privately and in front of a mirror to make you feel a little less self conscious when you do it for real.
Take a deep breath
Deep, calming breaths work wonders to calm yourself down and focus the mind on the task in hand. Slow down and take your time, there's no rush and the audience will be happy to wait while you adjust your stand, tune and get your music ready.
Top athletes often mentally run through their performance on the eve of a big event. A 100m sprinter will imagine themselves on the starting block, talking themseves through their best starting technique, before checking off all they need to achieve at each step of the race and visualising themselves crossing the finish line as the winner, having achieved their pb, broken the world record and all in all running the best race ever. Try the same for your performance - imagine arriving on stage, tuning, talk yourself through each stage of the piece and enjoy the best imaginary standing ovation any musician has ever had.
The audience is your friend
While we're speaking of the audience, remember this: the audience is always on your side. No-one attends a concert hoping to have a terrible time. They want you to do well, because if you enjoy yourself, they enjoy themselves. Everyone is here for a good time, have confidence in your abilities and enjoy the lovely feeling of your musical talents making other people feel good.
Fake it til you make it
An audience is very perceptive - hints of nerves makes them feel uneasy, which then reflects back on you. So, if you can fake an air of confidence, the audience will believe you and relax into your performance, which in turn allows you to relax in to your performance. And you never know, you might start to enjoy it!
Remember, it's not life or death
More often than not, a student's greatest fear is "what if I make a mistake?" Well, what if you make a mistake? Will the sky fall in? Will the grass turn blue? Will you drop down dead? Will the audience all start hysterically laughing? The answer to all of these is almost certainly no. We are human beings, not robots, and sometimes mistakes happen. What really matters is how you recover from these mistakes - style it out, cover it up, continue confidently on and chances are the audience won't even notice. Always remember that mistakes seem much worse in your head than they actually are in real life. Sometimes you'll make a really big mistake, although this will be rare. When this happens, chalk it up to experience, learn from it and it won't happen again.
Take your performances seriously and put the hours in. Take care of the technical practice, consider your stage etiquette, take the chances to play for an audience and you'll be fine. It's a good idea to video yourself and analyse your performance - keep what you like, change what you don't and enjoy that applause.