~By Thomas Azar
Some performers suffer more than others from performance-related anxiety. I believe I fall into the category of the suffering. Regardless of their level of anxiety, every performer has personal stories about events which have either aided or disrupted their journey towards achieving certainty in these situations. A most helpful realization for me occurred years ago as I was reviewing a video of my performance.
As I listened and watched myself playing the piano, the idea struck me that I was’t expecting to hear a meltdown or a loss of the music, because it sounded solid. This was despite the fact that I remember being so nervous I questioned whether or not I could function, and survive the recital. As I listened, rather, I was confident that the performance was on solid ground. It was clear that I had worked hard and the composer’s message was coming across acutely. Then during a following recital I visualized myself watching the performance on a television as I played, and used the knowledge of that confidence I had as a listener to imbue my performance with purpose, and even imagination.
It is entirely within our control to change our own emotional responses, behaviors and cognition. This visualization helped me to be more conscious of the sound world I was creating, and less aware of the many eyes fixed upon my every move (or so it sometimes feels). When we get nervous our body releases hormones which can make it difficult to concentrate, but inner-singing your piece can help you be less nervous, because you don’t have time to think about how scary it is.
In my own struggle, the biggest point of interest relative to stage fright is having a solid technique. Developing my technique is the most powerful combatant I know of onstage discomfort. I witnessed a direct correlation between the two. A confident performer must understand his or her body, and know it’s limits and strengths. A robust technique will not fail us onstage, or when we witness that hyper-alive sensation as adrenaline is pumping into our muscles. We must understand which specific movements are appropriate to meet the various technical demands, and exaggerate them in our practice sessions. We must faithfully build these movements with a stable and even inertia into our routines. If one is apathetic in how he or she uses the muscles, flexing them in an unsteady way, those imperfections will be greatly magnified in a performance situation and possibly produce a spiral of helplessness.
While I think a strong understanding of your body and the technique of your instrument is paramount in the quest to eliminate stage fright, it is not the only factor. There are ways to memorize music which allow you to be more conscious as you play of what exactly the music is doing. It’s helpful to think of the skeleton of a composition- it has fewer notes and is more easily understood. My teacher helped me to find the skeleton and practice it apart from all the other notes. This most decidedly contributes to a self-reliant performance.
Gradual exposure to the stimuli of performance situations is another wonderful tool at our disposal. Try out newer pieces for a single family member, a friend, in a performance class, or for retired people. If no one is around to listen, you can also visualize that you are playing in front of someone. After a number of these experiences play it in church, or somewhere important with an atmosphere of forgiveness. After about ten of these it is ready for a larger and more discerning audience or a serious audition. In this way I develop the relationship between the music and myself, and between myself and the audience.