“It was better in the practice room!”
If I had a dollar every time I heard this, I would waltz down to Steinway Hall right now and pick out a shiny new model B. Sticker price.
If you’ve ever felt the effects of performance anxiety — sweaty hands, racing heart, distracted thoughts — you’re not alone.
In fact, performance anxiety is practically a pianist’s birthright. Just ask Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein.
Luckily, anyone can overcome performance anxiety. How? The same way you overcome other pianistic challenges: practice.
Too simple? Listen closely: to improve your performing skills, you must practice performing. Too often we only practice practicing. The two are completely different, as you might have discovered when you went on stage and your hands forgot everything they’ve ever played.
How do you practice performing? The best way is to do it so often that getting on stage becomes the mental equivalent of walking into the office. To that end, it is always helpful to play for people as much as possible.
Even if you can’t line up a series of performances, there are things you can do right now in the practice room to grapple with your particular brand of stage fright.
1. Practice Focus
When practicing practice, it’s easier to focus on the piano to the exclusion of all else. You might not even notice that the guy hammering at the Hammerklavier next door is gone or that the sky has gone dark.
However, in performance, that cone-shield view has to open up and include way more, like the front row guy with the crazy shirt or the HVAC seemingly built from Boeing engine parts.
How will you focus then? You need to practice doing so with a wider awareness.
In the practice room then, try including a hypothetical audience: place something distracting just inside your field of vision, or project your sound to the back row of an imaginary concert hall.
Even practicing where you know someone can hear feels differently than with headphones on. I find that videotaping myself creates that sense of “other” in the room, even if it’s just my phone propped at the end of the keyboard. Try it, and see how your focus fares.
2. Practice Choreography
When you practice performing, you must be sure of your physical motions, just as you would be on stage.
If you are using music, when will you look at it versus your hands? How will you sit at the bench? How might your expressive motions change if someone were listening to you right now?
Too often, people try to “put on” gestures in a performance. Not only does that come off as fake, it’s risky to try something for the first time in front of an audience.
I love the story about how the gymnast Nadia Comaneci, when she scored the first perfect “10” at the Olympics, was asked how she pulled off such a brilliant routine under pressure. She answered matter-of-factly that she had done it that way many times in practice.
Your practice should have all of the communicative elements of your performance. Don’t expect to add any extra backflips on stage (until you’re totally comfortable doing so).
3. Practice Storytelling
Good practice happens in small, concentrated sections, but performance must flow in one cohesive flourish.
Have you ever been performing and felt your mind wander, go blank, or run off the rails? To avoid this, try crafting an unbroken narrative in your head that you can follow from start to finish, like a guide rope.
This thread could be how one gesture or motive or harmony inevitably leads to another, or how the form of the piece unfolds (music theory can help!).
If your piece has a narrative or emotional arch, keep your eye on that. Of course, you don’t need an actual story — a sequence of cue words for each section or piece can help you stay grounded and purposeful.
I like to write these cue words in my score while practicing then transfer them to note cards for meditation backstage. A handful of evocative words are easy enough to remember, even for a substantial program, and help me keep my eyes on the big picture.
Luckily for us, we live in an era in which the discipline of performance psychology for top athletes is being applied for the benefit of musicians.
It’s a fascinating field, and if you want to learn more, check out the classic books, blogs, and top practitioners (also great people), such as those mentioned in this article.
But you can start today by turning your practice room into a stage. Over time, it’ll start to feel more like home.
Looking for more great practice tips? Watch Garrick Ohlsson’s complete lesson “On Practicing” where he helps you approach your sessions as opportunities to develop self-awareness and step outside your comfort zone!