We all have this moment: we practice each note to death thinking that will prepare us for a flawless performance. Only to find out that our fingers or body doesn’t work when it comes to the time to play. To make it worse, our fingers are cold as iceberg. As soon as we struggled to finish the last note, the fingers’ temperature were thawed miraculously as soon as we finish the last note. Some people will go to the extreme of panic attack: urge to throw up, dizziness, going to the restroom every 2 minutes, or blank out completely. The bad news is that we cannot eliminate it completely. Good news is that we can do something about it. So here goes, after countless of throwing up before the recitals myself:
- Accept your nerve.
We all want this uncomfortable feeling to go away. However, even the pros will tell you that even they cannot get rid of it completely because it’s part of our biological survival instinct for our protection. Only very few people feel comfortable playing in front of the audience. Most of us see it as a threat, I meant biologically speaking. Our body will create “fright or flee” reaction to protect us from the harm. It’s far more productive to live with it peacefully than to fight against it. So next time when you feel the nerve, take a deep breath and tell yourself it’s ok.
- Keep breathing deep
It might sound elementary and fundamental, but you will be surprised to find out how many people forget it. I joked all the time to the student in the examination room: “Remember to breathe. I don’t want to call the ambulance just because you forgot to breath and passed out.” With no exception, I get a relieved smile from the students. Breathing helps us to relieve the stress of performing. Moreover, many musical phrases connect to our body physically. Every phrase follows the logic of human breathing. Pianists seem to forget that a lot in comparison with wind/brass players. It’s hard to connect the breathing when you are wiggling your fingers on the keys. But with each inhale, you get a fresher perspective of the pulse hence reduce the pressure to play faster. The longer you hold your breath, the faster you will play subconsciously. It’s your brain to tell your finger to hurry so the body can get the oxygen that it needs to survive. That is why judges usually hold their comments on tempo control until the last1/3 of the piece. Keep breathing takes the pressure of and calms the mind.
- More projection, please!
Unless you play by yourself in your living room, the sound will travel to your audience. The more audience (and bigger space) means that you have project more, even when the dynamic calls for PIANO (yes, it means soft in Italian, not the instrument). The audience bodies and clothes they wear will absorb the sound you produce on the piano. That is why the sound changes when one rehearsing in an empty hall vs. a full house. I have heard too many students play in the competitions and their tone shriveled which made them even more nervous. They were probably perplexed because they sound perfectly fine at home or at the lessons. The more flexibility you can adjust the better you are equipped to deal with the uncertainty of the piano and the venues. Good teachers will give you different scenarios so you can be better prepared.
- Focus on one measure at a time
When one practices at home, it’s easy to play through the piece fluently without thinking too much. I am saying this on the assumption that the students have done all the necessary work and studies. Because you know the piece from beginning to the end, it’s easy to focus on the result rather than the process. However, when one performs, your concept of time slows down. The usual 5 minutes will feel like 15 minutes. That is why I always assign shorter pieces for recital than what the students think they can handle at home. That simple 2 minutes or 40 seconds will double easily when being stared by a group of people, whether they are close to you or not. It’s under this circumstances people tends to rush during performance. To prevent the rushing from happening, you have to go back to the first stage of learning the piece: focus on one measure at a time. When the piece is difficult, one even has to drop to one note at a time. That will eliminate some of the anxiety to complete the whole piece. As matter of fact, this is why people blank out. There is too much information to process so the brain shuts down for our protection. When the goal is only one note at a time, the task becomes more manageable.
- Accept the piano and acoustics you have to work with
The pianists are probably the few musicians that we cannot carry our instrument to our performance venue. So it’s always a challenge to deal with different piano as long as we change our performance venue. It will always remain a challenge if one focuses to match the tone you produce at home or at lesson. As long as you can do something about the dynamic contrast and convey the expression, accept the limitation of the piano you are working with like you did with the nerve (yes, many times we deal with less than perfect instruments). When the piano is new and sound is muffled, don’t focus on getting the same dynamic intensity you work at home. Try to find tune the level of pianissimo (softest) you can do. When the piano is bright and sounds a bit run down, work on the different level of loudness you can do, so you don’t feel the pinch to create delicate tone. For more information on piano playing skills and techniques, please refer to www.dorischiang.com and feel free to reach out with any questions you may have.