by Jenny Leigh Hodgins
HOW TO HANDLE STAGE-FRIGHT
Throughout my music teaching career, my music students have either asked me how to overcome stage fright or have been nervous enough to warrant a discussion on the topic.
Getting performance jitters is a common experience among performers. I have personally experienced it, so I understand the concern!
When I first started performing as a solo pianist/vocalist in my twenties, I used to get so nervous I’d throw up before a performance. Onstage, my legs and hands felt like they were shaking so hard I feared people saw me gyrating! When I played piano on stage, my right leg and foot shook like a hyper-active sewing machine pedal.
Performing as a vocalist was similar. My heart would beat so loudly I thought it would fly out my throat the moment I started to sing.
Fortunately, I learned to tame the stage-anxiety beast.
The following suggestions worked well for me. I wound up as a professional solo pianist/vocalist for 25 years! I taught and spoke in various capacities for many years in front of global audiences from 50 to thousands. Of course, I’d still sometimes feel nervous before a performance or presentation. But I employed the four suggestions I’ll share here to help you win over stage-fright.
RINSE, REPEAT, OFTEN!
My first suggestion is to get as many performing opportunities as possible and frequently! Desensitizing to the scenario by frequent performance takes the sting out of it. Find a way to play for family, friends, church, spiritual groups, libraries, schools, meet-ups. Anybody and anywhere!
If you can’t find someone to perform for, video or audio-record yourself and pretend it’s a performance! Ignore any mistakes and continue without stopping. Later, watch or listen to your performance for tips on sections where you may have tripped up.
Analyze why. Revisiting your performance as a spectator is also a great way to evaluate your practice routine! Making mistakes is usually due to a lack of thorough preparation.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
This leads to my second suggestion. Prepare well.
In hindsight, most of my nerves were due to a lack of confidence in my performance because I had simply not prepared well enough. I tackled that aspect with a vengeance in my practice routine, determined to master every note of my performance.
I intently focused on practicing any particular section where I did not feel fully confident. When nervous, I’d lose it on those sections! I practiced enough to memorize every detail of a piece. I went after any section with gusto where I was even slightly unsure. I practiced this way until I knew the music inside and out!
I NEVER relied solely on finger memory for my performance. I made sure to memorize everything. That included the key, scale, harmonic analysis, form, melodic phrasing, fingering, dynamics, patterns, etc. If I did not know the piece thoroughly inside my mind away from the instrument, I knew I was unprepared to perform it.
I visualized myself in the specific performance scenario. Even better if I could practice in the performance venue. Being in the performance venue eliminated the element of surprise and created a familiarity (back to ‘desensitizing’).
I practiced performing while envisioning it as the real performance, with as much detail as possible. I imagined the people there, the color of the walls, the lighting, the aromas, my piano, the stage. I believed the audience loved my performance. I especially envisioned feeling confident, enjoying the music, and performing successfully.
I practiced this kind of visualization while repeatedly playing the music until I felt a sense of assured mastery over the music. Once I had prepared well, practiced consistently, memorized entirely, and used imagery, I knew I had tackled the music enough to perform.
FIND THE TRUE PURPOSE
Lastly, I shifted my focus away from myself and directly fixated on the music for the audience’s benefit. To me, my nerves indicated my ego. If I focused on judging my musical ability, I knew I was distracted by vanity or ego. Ego or vanity is irrelevant in musical performance.
Why? Because for me, the musician is only the middleman, the vessel, or messenger, of a much greater purpose; the MUSIC reaching the audience’s hearts. Once I learned to shift my attention away from myself, I could center all my being on bringing the power and spirit of music to life. The purpose of the music became connecting with or giving something positive to the heart of another human being.
I reminded myself that performing music has less to do with the performer than with the human connection. It doesn’t matter whether there may be several, or a hundred, or a thousand human beings in the audience--it all comes down to heart-to-heart communication brought alive through the universal medium of great music.
FIND THE BIGGER PICTURE
Whenever I concentrated this way, I humbled myself sincerely to achieve the task of sharing the positive power of music with another heart. Focusing on this true purpose of musical performance took every ounce of my sincerity and effort, leaving no room for vanity or ego to get in the way.
I’m a Soka Gakkai International - USA Buddhist, so I still chant before every performance (or when I compose or write) to use my best life-state in harmony with the music as a tool for uplifting the audience and to spiritually communicate human potential. This strategy has never failed me.
Prayer of any kind shifts one’s heart toward a greater purpose and to view things from a perspective different from ego. Any performance I have witnessed that truly moved my heart or life was one in which the communication through music was the focal point--not the performer.
NERVES ARE GOOD ENERGY
One last comment; I’ve taught music/choral/piano students never to be afraid of or attempt to escape nerves—because that incredible energy can be transformed into an exciting, moving performance. Nerves are GOOD because they make you alert and aware of doing your very best!
SLOW YOUR ROLL WITH BREATH
Nerves naturally speed up your heart rate. Nerves can cause physical tension. Countering this natural state with focused breathing puts your body back under your control.
Breathing deeply and slowly before and during a performance helps lower your stress and calm nerves. Being aware of your breath also helps you control the tempo of your piano performance. Slowing your breath also puts you in touch with your physical connection to the piano and aids mindfulness.
Even a seemingly negative thing like nervousness can become positive when you direct it. View your nerves as a sign that you care about doing a good job! Turn that sincerity into exciting energy for a performance that inspires with vigor.
Breathe deeply and slowly while keeping the above points in mind to help control the physicality of excitement. Be intentional as you practice these suggestions to transform stage-fright into supportive energy for your successful performance!
Share your victories or tips on how you handle stage-fright in the comments below!
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by Jenny Leigh Hodgins
In my quest to see if what I’ve learned in 30+ years as a pianist and piano teacher is in sync with other piano teachers and pianists, I’ve checked out Facebook piano groups. This is where I engaged in a thread on piano practice with hobbyist piano player, Tommy Doyle, of Manchester, United Kingdom.
Doyle’s website is where he shares his journey as someone who studied piano in his youth, left it behind for many years due to ‘adulting,’ then returned to the piano as a hobby. His blog offers his insights on how to approach learning piano while juggling the working adult’s non-music-related daily responsibilities.
Although not a piano teacher, hearing from Doyle’s personal journey with striving to fit in his love for piano minus the hyper-ambition of a classical piano career gets at the heart of what many aspiring pianists want to know.
I asked Doyle five questions that are useful for those wanting to progress at piano playing. The first sentence of his first answer hit the essence of my philosophy and teaching strategy for effective piano progress.
YCC: What are your top piano practice tips for beginners?
DOYLE: My top tip for anybody wanting to learn to play piano is to learn how to practice piano.
This might seem a self-evident thing to say, however, the reality seems to be that many of us never learn the art of practicing. In my experience, we often find intuitive ways of doing things and in these cases if we just repeat a few times, we soon acquire a new skill. However, when we don’t find that intuitive means, we have to find a way to learn a new skill. This is where practice techniques play a big part. If you’re unable to do something, then just repeating it incorrectly isn’t going to help. I found a couple of really useful resources in this respect that I’ve talked about numerous times on my blog.
YCC: Doyle specifically recommends the Practicing The Piano ebook series by pianist/educator, Graham Fitch. Fitch is highly qualified as a graduate of London’s Royal College Of Music who continued his piano studies in the USA on a Fulbright Scholarship, and travels as a performing pianist and lecturer on piano and music.
I haven’t personally used Fitch’s series, but on first glance at the preview on Amazon, some of his top tips for practicing include; choosing a specific fingering, attention to practice only correct notes or rhythms, isolating hands separately before playing hands together, choosing a slow tempo for new repertoire, and using soft dynamics for a loud section.
Each of these methods is something I’ve used myself and in teaching others, and resonates with my teaching and practicing approach to focus on mastering one goal at a time, and to eliminate practicing mistakes robotically.
Doyle especially likes the ebooks for their direct links to audio and video demonstrations as part of the piano learning process. This is in sync with both how my piano teachers taught me, and my approach as a piano teacher to model for students so they may grasp concepts aurally, physically and visually. Today’s online capabilities can be a useful source of help for piano students.
For more information on the series, Doyle himself reviewed it here.
YCC: What are the basics you recommend for someone who wants to begin learning piano?
DOYLE: I highly recommend that anybody start by getting a teacher. I’m not saying you can’t teach yourself with sufficient research and trial and error, with the myriad of resources now available online. It’s definitely possible.
However, I think there’s an absolutely massive learning curve at the beginning (depending on your starting point). Not only is there the issue of actually playing the instrument, there’s also the question of learning to read music. Finding a good teacher to get you over these two massive initial hurdles is to my mind a well worthwhile investment.
A teacher is there to help you master the very basics - how to sit at the piano, how to hold your hands, how to play the notes. You teacher can also explain what those odd dots on the page actually mean and give strategies for absorbing the ability to translate these into notes at the piano.
A good teacher will also help you get to grips with lots of the basics you need; Scales, Arpeggios, 5-finger exercises and the like. Learning how to do these well gives you the absolute essential building blocks for the rest. Your teacher will also help you with choices of pieces (music repertoire) to learn that are both within your grasp but also in terms of styles of music you enjoy.
YCC: What are your thoughts on online learning for piano?
DOYLE: I’m a firm believer that we should embrace the possibilities that the new online world offers us. Starting with YouTube, there is an enormous wealth of quality tutorials for people of all levels.
YCC: Doyle has his favorite channels, but mentions the importance of checking into the background experience of videos to confirm credentials of expertise. He recommends Josh Wright, who is both well known on YouTube, has a doctorate in piano, and is an experienced teacher.
Doyle doesn’t use apps himself, but “as a supplement to a proper teacher, I’d imagine they’re a great extra source of learning and certainly a very fun way to approach piano. Of course, claims that you can go from ‘beginner to pro in no time’ are total nonsense.”
Doyle quotes Vladimir Horowitz (considered the king of classical piano) the piano is “the easiest instrument to learn in the beginning and the hardest to master in the end.”
YCC: Do you have any technology you’d recommend for piano students?
DOYLE: Technology is one of my pet subjects. I even created a category on my blog for this. What I find amazing even now is the absolutely amazing ways technology can be used by pianists now.
I have an iPad Pro that I use as an integral part of my piano routine. This one piece of technology has replaced my need for sheet music (I download directly to my iPad), for a metronome (I use a free a metronome app).
I keep my practice diary on it. I use it to record my practice so I can self critique. It’s pretty much always on my piano music stand. You can use it for things such as streaming music services, watching YouTube videos, reading magazines, the list goes on. You can even record your own orchestra into your computer and play along.
I think that sometimes we more ‘mature’ learners fail to embrace what technology makes possible and stick with the ‘old way’. It’s a bit like my dad, who refuses to use a SatNav (GPS), just because he’s never used one and, on that basis, would never need one.
It’s not about whether we need something, but about whether it makes what we’re trying to do easier. If technology can make things easier, then why not embrace it?
When I used to play piano publicly, I needed to carry two massive plastic bags of music around with me with all sorts of photocopies and creased and wrinkled books. Now, on my iPad, I have all of my music organised, with the added advantage that I can search and find a piece in seconds rather than needing to sift through a lot of paper.
YCC: What are your thoughts on time and schedule routine for piano practice?
Doyle shares that reading Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger inspired him to create his weekday before-work practice routine. He says he gets up an hour earlier in the morning so he can practice.
DOYLE: I found that before I started doing this I had two major problems. The first was that it was always in the back of my mind that I still needed to fit in my practice at some point. Secondly, work would frequently take over, and by the time I actually got home from work I was too tired to sit down at the piano.
My practice routine before was pretty much sitting and randomly working through things, which quite often was not actually making me any better.
YCC: Doyle says his research into piano practice taught him the importance of having a proper plan. He says having defined goals and strategies for every practice session is a “real game changer.”
Doyle emphasizes that “piano is an amazing hobby open to anybody. It’s definitely a lot of hard work, but the rewards are more than worth it.”
Click here to read more about Doyle’s approach to piano practice.
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In my PIANO blogs, you'll find ways to overcome boredom, get past musical and mental blocks, explore the creative process with piano, and improve musical progress through piano teacher recommended best practices and effective piano practice tips.