Stage fright anyone? Or should I say stage fright everyone? We’ve all been there those sweaty palms and sick stomachs are things all performers experience. And I do mean all of us. Not just musicians. Actors, Dancers, and Public Speakers have all experienced stage fright. It’s a human thing. We all want to be accepted by people. It is not a wonder that getting up in front of others and letting them see us doing something we really care about can feel really scary. For some it is down right debilitating, yet others overcome the fear of performing. I’d like to share my journey to confident performance and how I help my students to face the fear of playing for others and learn to enjoy sharing music.
In order to overcome stage fright we must understand what causes it in the first place. Why can it be so frightening to get up in front of others and play music? Is it the music itself that’s so scary? The fear of having a memory slip (forgetting everything in the middle of a piece) or making a mistake? Maybe. But I don’t think these things are the main reasons for stage fright. I think the reason for stage fright go much, much deeper. I believe how nervous we feel about performing directly correlates to how much we care about what we are doing. For example, I am a pianist (no surprise there) I may get nervous about playing the piano, but if someone handed me a trumpet and said “now play this” I wouldn’t be worried at all. I would probably blow a few toots and laugh it of. After all, who cares! I’m not a trumpeter, I haven’t put a drop of effort into the trumpet. But the piano, that’s another story, another story indeed. The piano is my life. I have devoted a major chunk of my existence to the 88 keys, I care about my piano playing. The very idea of a bad performance makes me nervous, I know many can relate to this. The fear of performing comes from putting that which we care about most up for the scrutiny of other people. The fact that music is art, that it involves emotion and personal creativity makes the situation particularly disconcerting. In addition to the fear of rejection or the ridicule of others, most of us who are drawn to the study of music, where the demands for excellence are so incredibly high, are very critical of ourselves. So it would seem there is a lot a stake when we sit down to play.
I can remember my first performance vividly. I had only been taking piano lessons for about two months when I was asked to accompany my Girl Scout Troop as they sang The Carpenter’s popular tune “Sing a Song”. My teacher, Mr Herb Sweet, did not think this was a good idea, but I insisted on playing. So against his better judgement he arranged a super easy version of the song for me to play. It didn’t go so well, I got lost and stopped paying in the middle of the song but, I did join back in and finish the piece. My teacher was impressed with my ability to get back up there and press on so all in all it was a pretty good experience. I don’t remember being upset about it at all. I was twelve at the time which made me an very late-comer to the piano game. A fact that would seriously impact my level of confidence later on in life.
To make matters even worse the first few years of my training were not exactly the best. Let’s just leave it at that. I probably would have been doomed if it had not been for a wonderful teacher Adrienne Stamatas Borbely who really knew what she was doing. This young woman rescued my music career, if not for her I’m sure I wouldn’t be a piano teacher today. Anyway, the more serious I became about the piano and the harder I tried the more terrifying playing in public became for me. I got through my college auditions (thanks to Ms. Stamatas) and I got into a pretty good school for Music Theory and Composition with the Piano as my major instrument. But as I went along the juries, the area recitals, the studio recitals, all of these things went from difficult to frightening. It was almost as though the stage fright had taken hold of my playing. Not fun! Never the less, I pressed on I graduated, I kept playing and playing, shaky, sweaty, stressed out, with stage fright ever present I pressed on. Because I love the piano and you can’t give up on something you love.
But one day everything changed for me and once again it was a piano teacher to the rescue. When I moved to South Florida I decided to study Jazz with a teacher named Roger Rossi. He taught me this, “You don’t have to be afraid to make a mistake, you’re always a note away form a good note.” He also said “You can play c— and the ear will accept it as long as you end up on the right chord”. OK, this was news to me Miss Classically Trained to play accurately at all times and never make mistakes. I know that Mr. Rossi was also classically trained and had in fact attended the a prestigious music school. So what was this man saying? He was not telling me not to strive for accuracy he was teaching me to that to play musically and fluidly was what music was all about and if you happened to play an f natural where there was supposed to be an f sharp just go to the f sharp, or just keep going. He showed me how in any key you are literally (yes literally) a note away from a good note. That is, a note that sounds OK with the tonality in which you are playing. This information changed my piano playing life. I actually began to enjoy playing for others and the stage fright is nearly gone. There will always be some level of nervousness of course but not an unnatural debilitating amount.
A few other things really helped me. One in particulate was reading “The Inner Game of Music” by Barry Green. I recommend this book for any musician or teacher. It was recommend to me by Mr, Rossi. The quote I most remember for the book is “An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he can’t get it wrong”. Some other great piano books that deal with performance are Phillip Johnston’s “The Practice Revolution” and “The Pianists Problems” by William S. Newman. Both of these books deal with the specifics of getting through a performance.
Now it’s time for me to help my students deal with stage fright and feel good about performing for others. I take my student’s performances very seriously. So much so that if they don’t play well I feel that most of the time it’s my fault (most of the time, not all of the time). Here are some of the things I do to help my students have a good experience playing. First I make sure that I choose appropriate repertoire. I choose review pieces or pieces that I know that the student can WELL handle. My students are required to keep a list of three or four pieces current so that they are always ready to play. If the piece is new I make sure that the student has ample time to prepare the piece to be played.. Which means that recitals and auditions are set months in advance.
Pieces are learned carefully, especially with regard to fingering (to insure accurate muscle memory). The music once learned and memorized is practiced in sections. I teach have the kids jump from section to section, sometimes I take the students hands off of the keys to simulate a memory slip. I then have them jump to the next section. I teach them NEVER TO GO BACK, always play ahead. I have seen many a student go back in a piece after a memory slip, only to have the same problem in the same spot. I teach them that if they get lost in a piece they can comp along until the can jump back in. We work on ending the piece gracefully in case of disaster. We do a lot of “dry runs” in the studio. I have the students play for each other and I encourage them to play for friends and family members often. The city where I live has several coveted arts programs for which students must audition. I usually make the audition piece the recital piece as well and have the recital first, of course. All of these things help students to overcome stage fright.
Most of all I teach my students to have fun playing for others. I teach them not to take themselves to seriously. I tell them “we’re musicians not physicians, if you make a mistake nobody gets hurt”. I teach them that it’s all about the sharing the music. If you have a bad performance press on get past it. You might be upset about it but more than likely no one else is even thinking about how you played. I am so thankful for the wonderful teachers I’ve had who have helped learn to really have fun playing the piano. Teachers are so important!
My first teacher used to write this little poem in my piano book.
“If there’s something you must do, do it.
If there’s something to pursue, pursue it.
If there’s a mountain you must cross
Show the mountain who is boss.
Cause when it comes to feet, you got em!”” by Herbert Sweet
Here is some information about the great teachers mentioned in this post.
Mr. Herbert Sweet
Piano Teacher from Oceanside NY
Mrs. Adreinne Stamatas Borbely
Adjunct faculty at Adelphi Universtiy N.Y.
Accompanist Waldorff Choral Society
Director/Organist Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul
Mr. Roger Rossi
Author “From the Piano Bench Memorable Moments with Mobsters, Moguls, Movie Stars and More.
Available on Amazon.
Composer Ave Maria
The Practice Revolution
The Pianist’s Problems
William s. Newman
The Inner Game of Music
How do you help students over come stage fright? Leave a comment below.
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