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Emotions in Practice and Performance

piano practice

Question: Hello Albert. A performer’s emotion(s) play an essential part at every performance. What can you say about managing moods (good or bad) during practice and performance?

– Leo (California, USA)

Albert’s reply: First and foremost, emotions must be cultivated during practice. I’ve encountered many amateur musicians who have espoused the practice philosophy, “First the notes, then the music.” I cannot stress enough how self-destructive is this attitude towards learning music. No professional musician would adhere to such a methodology, one that would dash the professional hopes of even the biggest talent.

Practicing with emotion does not mean that we are to emote all over the keyboard during practice. It means that what we wish to express must be integrated into our every motion (I hesitate to write “gesture” for fear it may be misconstrued to mean exaggerated, self-indulgent movements) at the keyboard. Each motive, each phrase needs to be imbued with the emotions we wish to express, from the very beginning of study. A different articulation, a new dynamic shading, another tone color will result in a different emotion expressed.

The above also does not mean that we do not sometimes encounter purely mechanical problems in our piano study. While there is no “one size fits all” solution to all technical difficulties, many of them do need to be addressed as such, on their own terms. Often the fingers simply need the strength and coordination to accomplish a given task, and these are acquired only through careful training. In other cases, so-called “technical” difficulties yield readily to musical focus. At all times, we need to focus on musical expression, on the end result and what we wish to communicate.

It’s quite impossible to discuss managing emotions during performance without addressing performance anxiety. I addressed this issue some in Performing and Nerves, and I’d like to add an important detail here. I’ve discovered that beyond a sound learning methodology married to a secure technique, our beliefs and focus – often subconscious – play a major role in our performing success or failure.

Classical musicians are perfectionists, to a person. A soprano considers herself a failure if the high note is not placed just right; a pianist feels he lost a competition due to the slightest memory slip. Perfectionism is cultivated by the conservatory system. Sadly, I’ve witnessed abusive teachers cripple their students’ efforts through sometimes horrifying insults. Most teachers are not sadistic and are in fact well-meaning and supportive. Yet when having to judge who will win an audition or who will pass on to the next round, decisions may revolve around the objective standard of who nails down the notes.

One of the things that has helped me overcome stage fright most (in additional to adopting a sound learning methodology) has been changing my beliefs. I used to have the self-destructive belief, “Everybody’s perfect, except me.” My personal measure of success was whether or not I was note-perfect, which of course I pretty much never was. Even the slightest imperfection in an articulation that only I could hear would make me a failure in my own mind.

I’ve since changed my focus from “I must be perfect” to simply communicating my love for the music to my audience. This new focus makes me love every opportunity to perform before an audience. It cures me of perfectionism and even makes my playing more accurate, for focusing on not making mistakes only breeds more mistakes. By contrast, focusing on expressing the music and the emotions contained therein changes my own emotional state. This is the way to manage your emotions in performance!

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