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Performing and Nerves

Question: Hi Mr. Frantz,

Thank you for your site. I have a question which I was hoping you might help with:

For some reason I’m facing a lot of nerves when performing now; I’m in a piano class in college, and I’m practicing, but for some reason I’m almost “freezing up” when asked to perform the piece – it’s my second semester and I was okay last semester, though felt the problem “growing” towards the end of the semester. Right now I’m working on some Bach, and I haven’t totally mastered it and I’m sure that’s part of it, but any insight or tips you can give about staying calm to perform at the piano is most appreciated. I don’t want this to become a problem.

– Ron

Albert’s reply: The great Austrian pianist Jörg Demus once told me that a young pianist who was stricken with stage fright came to him for advice.

“Maestro, I’ve tried everything!” she cried. “Can you help me?”

“I’d be happy to help you.”

“Really?! What do I need to do?”

“Play beautifully!”

While this little anecdote may seem insensitive, there is truth to it. While playing beautifully alone will not automatically remedy our stage fright, the enormous concentration required to do so leaves us with but little energy to be overly nervous.

Needless to say, this is hardly the whole story, and it is not enough. The biggest factor by far is your learning methodology. Everything about how you approach a piece of music from the very beginning to every moment in practice will influence your performance of it.

Moreover, musical knowledge is cumulative: It’s just not realistic to expect to have the complete picture of musicianship in the early stages of study. Rather, assuming you work properly, cultivate good practice habits and continually improve your skill set (ear training, knowledge of music theory, etc.), you will gain confidence with each piece you learn.

This gets into the realm of piano technique, but a secure technique is far more than skilled fingers. It’s also a skilled mind and ear. A good mechanism will inform every moment of piano practice. Each movement will be conscious and deliberate, each motive delicately choreographed. No movement in good piano playing is ever superfluous. The trained mind has complete and independent control over the shoulders, elbows, wrists and individual fingers. Each move independently of the others under the control of the master orchestrator, the player’s mind.

To give you concrete practice advice, I can’t reiterate enough the necessity of practicing hands separately, and nearly always slowly. Practice small chunks – a motive or phrase – rather than whole musical “paragraphs.” Repeat each motive many times in succession, until you absolutely know it and your playing of it is exactly the same in all respects – rhythm, articulation and dynamics – each and every time. Only then should you move on to the next motive.

Since you’re practicing Bach, I recommend singing each voice, slowly and accurately, using solfège syllables. I suspect you’re relying almost exclusively on muscle memory; this will lead to exactly the problems you describe. Follow the instructions in the lesson titled How to Learn a Fugue.

Practicing in this manner will require great mental effort, and it will reward you with greater musicianship and confidence in performance!

For a followup to this lesson, please read Emotions in Practice and Performance.

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