Slaying the Performance Anxiety Beast (Part 2)

Click here to read Part 1. After writing Part 1, a number of other tips came to mind. Many are also mentioned in my dad’s piano practice book as well, but they are well worth repeating and reviewing.

1. Tune your piano.

If you don’t have perfect pitch, practicing on tuned instruments can help you develop perfect pitch. If you have perfect pitch, playing on out-of-tune instruments can cause you to lose your perfect pitch. I remember one year during an MEC NJ State piano competition, a student came in fourth place because he blacked out during his performance. Later I learned that was because his piano was so out of tune it was difficult for him to perform on a tuned piano. 

Aside: My Sonicare toothbrush hums at middle C. Since I have to brush my teeth everyday anyway, this is a great way to maintain perfect pitch. Everyone should evaluate everything in their home that beeps, chirps, honks, hums, and squeaks. When you find something that is accurate (chirps a B flat, not a flat B flat for example), focus your intent on the sound every time you use that appliance. Later, try and hum the correct pitch before using the appliance. I think of a middle C or hum it before I turn on my Sonicare toothbrush.

2. Try playing on different pianos periodically.

Having said #1, at Juilliard, I was able to test my ability to play on different pianos. On one I would notice the lower half was out of tune. Another felt like it hadn’t been regulated in a decade. A third would have a more muffled upper half and brilliant lower half. Another would have these lovely bell tones in the higher octaves. This trains both your muscle memory and your brain to deal with different playing conditions and still be able to adapt and perform. You don’t need to do this too often, just enough to get a feel for how you react and adapt. And you certainly don’t want to practice for very long on an out of tune piano or you risk losing your sense of pitch.

3. Be careful about learning new material prior to performing.

Have you ever had this happen to you? You have a stable repertoire of pieces you play with no problem. Then you try to learn something new and your muscle memory and repertoire suddenly destabilizes and you can’t play it flawlessly anymore, and you have to work to re-stabilize it. This is normal. Once you know about this, you’ll want to plan your piano practice carefully, making sure you can work on a stable repertoire prior to a performance.

Plan B: recognize that last minute changes prior to performing will require its own kind of practice so that you’re not derailed.

Plan C: learn to adjust around hiccups during performances. I suspect in this day and age, classes in improvisation are required, not just for a well-rounded education, but for getting around hiccups without visibly stopping, backing up, and restarting.

4. Repeatedly "get it", "forget it", "get it", "forget it"...

Give yourself enough prep time to be able to periodically stop practicing for a week or long enough to forget, and pick it up again. This may seem counterintuitive initially, but relearning reinforces deeper understanding, and makes you more aware of where the problem areas are (where you “forget”).

5. Learn how to perform (separately from learning how to practice).
There are many tips and tricks to learn, think about, and rehearse so they become automatic the day of the performance. For example:

  • What will you say if your piece has a description? 
  • When will you bow? 
  • When you sit, do your hands sit comfortably on the keyboard? Where are your elbows relative to the keyboard? Practice adjusting the piano bench to the correct height.
  • Is the grand piano set up correctly (closed? Short stick? Long stick?) 

If this is a formal concert and you are wearing a long gown or tuxedo, do a dry run performance. 

  • Is the gown so long that you walk awkwardly to get on and off stage? Do your heels catch in the hem? 
  • Do your shoes have a hard bottom (do they click when you lift your foot and hit the pedal)? Are the soles rounded such that your foot slips off the pedal easily?
  • Do your long sleeves / jacket interfere with the keyboard?
  • Are your clothes so restrictive they hamper your full range of movement?
  • Did you trim your nails so they don't get caught in the keys?

Know the environment in which you will play. Ideally test your whole performance at full speed to test keyboard action. Adjust your playing and musical expressiveness if necessary.

If a group is performing:

  • How will you file on and off the stage in an organized manner? 
  • In what order will you enter and exit the stage? (If performers are different heights, what works aesthetically?)
  • How far apart do the performers need to be? For example, if this is a solfege demo, is there enough space for performers to to conduct time? 

Maintain awareness to the very end of your performance, even (especially!) if you mess up. You are not done until both hands have left the keyboard. Don’t daydream, go into autopilot, or think you’re done prior to this. I remember one competition when a student was upset with his performance. He simply stood up at the end of his piece with his hands still on the keyboard, and walked off stage quickly while looking down and shaking his head.

For public speaking engagements, some of the more valuable tips are not to look directly at the audience but above their heads (they won’t be able to tell). Pan your gaze from left to right and front to back to give the entire audience a sense of personal engagement.

6. Record yourself, both audio and video. 

You’d be surprised to learn what quirky habits you have, nervous or otherwise. Garageband is great because you can slow the tempo and analyze your playing in detail, and check the volume of individual notes.

7. Nip the yips.

In a television episode of Nip Tuck, Dr. Sean McNamara suddenly developed a “yip” - an involuntary uncontrollable movement, making it impossible for him to safely perform surgery, and endangering his career. The same thing can happen to musicians. They’ll be practicing as usual, and just prior to their performance they’ll suddenly develop a strange “yip” and wonder where it came from and how to get rid of it.

The best way to prevent yips is to end your piano practice by playing half speed. My theories for why this works:

  • You’re less likely to make mistakes, and this leaves your subconscious with “homework” to do that involves correct play. In the past when I was listening to the radio, if I heard a song I hated I would wait until I heard a song I liked, because invariably the last song I heard would be jangling in my head for the rest of the day.
  • Playing half speed is the equivalent of enunciating clearly, whereas if you played fast all the time, eventually you would begin to slur and lose the details
  • If you did encounter a yip at fast speed, practicing correctly at slow to half speed would retrain your fingers, and finishing at half speed would allow your subconscious to flush away the yip
  • Studies have shown that "ear worms" are caused by listening to part of a song, instead of the entire song. Take a challenging part of your piece and play just that part at half speed, this may be a way to use the "ear worm" trick to your advantage

8. Even veteran performers who have never had problems may suddenly develop performance anxiety.

I once remember at French School, a “veteran” who had performed flawlessly since toddlerhood blacked out during a recital (she might have been 14 at the time). I could see it. Suddenly, her world flipped, and things she’d never needed to pay attention to in the past now had her flummoxed. For a number of recitals after, she continued to have blackouts until she finally found her way out of the jungle, probably in a similar manner to what I had to do.

You never know when something may happen, and all of the sudden this information becomes relevant. Don’t think because you’re a seasoned veteran who has never screwed up, that you’re immune. 

9. Don’t dwell on the negative. 

Clearly, this is easier said than done. Someone could say “don’t be nervous” and gee thanks, now you're nervous. The performer sitting next to you could be nervous, and that's not going to help you one darn bit.

This is why the tips like reframing your perspective and breathing techniques are important (Part 1). These are concrete things you can do to keep yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically engaged to prevent / short circuit vicious spirals into fear and outright panic. Another tip: smelling a peeled orange and flowers will naturally calm you down. The human brain has a finite amount of bandwidth. If you are focusing on something else you cannot become or remain fearful. Consider these tips to be a start. Each person is different, and will need to find what works for them.

10. Control what you can within your environment.

If you get cold easily, make sure you have a jacket. Temperatures in performance halls are often cold because if they become packed during a performance, there are a lot of human batteries heating up the place. Consider whether or not you should carry with you a set of gloves, hand lotion, handkerchief, etc.

I’m writing this last part after attending a 10-hour Chopin marathon in June 2016 with a number of different performers, at least 10 from Juilliard. Interestingly, after our experience with the benefit concert where we all seemed to have problems with the piano (I learned after our concert one veteran was in tears after her performance), I wondered if the artists in the Chopin marathon ran into the same problem with their piano. Pretty much everyone had problems until one artist nailed her Chopin Fantasie, and then I realized it was possible to play on that piano. The performers seemed to do better as time passed, and I wonder if, like us, enough feedback had to get back to the other performers so they were aware and could figure out how to compensate. I was dying to walk up to the piano and test my theory but a. I didn’t want to be the one all-day pass holder to get thrown out of the marathon midway and b. by the end of the marathon I was so wiped out I just wanted to go home. So we would need to hear from the performers to validate any of this. Seeing this many performers, it was interesting to note how each adapted differently to the environment. Some pulled it off and some didn’t.

The other indications I had to support my theories: midway through there was an unscheduled delay to retune the piano (which isn’t going to help if the issue is an unregulated piano, and even my husband noticed there was a strange resonance when the tuner played some of the lower notes). At one point the spokesperson mentioned how true professionals hide the pain, complexity and messiness of organizing these types events behind closed doors, showing only a calm, professional exterior. But you wouldn’t believe what is going on behind closed doors right now, with all the behind-the-scenes activity… And I’m thinking: aaayup. I bet I know exactly what’s going on back there, especially if they know this piano is not regulated for optimal performance…

Having someone say: “we had the piano tuned three days ago” isn’t enough. The organizer has to give the tuner enough time to check if the piano needs to be regulated as well. An intermediate level pianist may not notice it but the Juilliard Ferrari gunning for Mach 10 will.