Performance nerves, and a strategy to deal with them

We all suffer to a greater or lesser extent with anxiety about performance. Here is some tried and tested advice:

Think about dealing with performance nerves as an ongoing strategy. It’s no good procrastinating and hoping that it will be ‘all right on the night’.  You must practice performing regularly as well as practicing the piano. However this is not as tricky as it sounds.

When preparing a piece for performance in public or preparing for an exam, practice it to a level where you can play it comfortably. Then arrange to play it to members of the family or to friends. Do this a few times before the live performance will take place.

Another good strategy if friends/family are unavailable is to video yourself playing the piece.

When playing to your audience, adopt some or all of these ideas:

1. You do not care about making mistakes in performance.

2. In the mood of not caring about making mistakes, why not relax and even take a few risks?

3. You and the piano are in a bubble. You cannot see/hear outside the bubble.

4. If you make a mistake, instead of thinking ‘oh dear’ (or some more inflammatory phrase!) as quickly as possible focus on the positive act you were trying to accomplish, e.g. you may have been shaping a phrase, playing a rhythm, staying on the beat. Making a mistake is a ‘negative’ so get back to the ‘positive’ fast.  Implement this idea when practicing, and refocus quickly onto a positive idea whenever you make a mistake.  Concentrate on the here and now.

5. Listen more to the piano. Listen to the actual sound.

6. Play every note as if you mean it. Play from the heart.

Read all about it!

If you are learning a new piece and have tried some of it on the piano, how about this for a recipe for success:

Take the music and find a comfortable chair away from the piano. Browse through the music bar by bar taking in the notation, hand positions, fingering, dynamics … just generally ‘read’ through it. You’ll be surprised by how much you’ve taken in when you return to the piano.

Let’s learn pieces quickly and accurately!

Thoughts on motivation – It’s not for now, it’s for life!

Sometimes you ask yourself, why am I practicing, why am I doing this? The answer is that no matter how you feel right now you still like the piano and like music – that feeling will stay with you for a lifetime. However, today you find it an uphill struggle to learn a new piece or just to sit and play.

The answer could be to put the new piece aside for a while and play some old favourites. They don’t need the same effort and you like them. Perhaps you’ve got your own private list of 3 or 4 that you can always turn to and enjoy. Taking part in this activity stills the mind and removes the stress of learning something new. And hey, you’re enjoying your music again!

Don’t give up. Just play something you like. The need to learn and practice a new piece will return soon.

Melody Playing

As we progress and learn new and sometimes more complicated pieces, we practice the piano and unintentionally ‘ignore the tune’. Music can often be made up of not just one melody. When you look at the phrasing in the right hand and left hand you can often see that a musical piece has multiple ‘songs’ within it. Faced with all this complication we get taken up with the technical challenges of learning a piece and omit to make the melodies sing out.

Chopin is reputed to have taken great pains to teach his pupils a legato, cantabile style, or playing that is singing, melodious, smooth, expressive and graceful. See the Style paragraph here.

The melody will usually be identified with phrase marks. Here are some tips to produce a good singing style:

  • Play the phrases of the piece on their own, without harmonies, and as expressively as possible.
  • Work out the ‘shape’ of each phrase. Could it start quietly, and with a little crescendi come to the loudest part of the phrase and then taper off with a diminuendo?
  • Listen to the melody. Play each note with a fully rounded tone so that each can be heard for its full value. Give all notes their full time.
  • Imagine someone singing the melody.
  • Do any parts of the melody repeat? If so consider playing the second softer than the first.

Top tips for learning a new piece

1. Break the piece into sections. Mark the sections with a pencil and practice each section hands separately.

2. Pay attention to the finger numbers, it will help you to play fluently.

3. When you have practiced hands separately and feel comfortable, start playing hands together phrase by phrase.

4. Play the sections of the piece ‘andante’ (at a walking pace) and don’t try and play quickly.

5. Pay attention to any special markings such as staccato, and dynamics.

5. If you hit problems then reduce the speed by at least one third, or better still by one half.

6. When you have learnt the whole piece, keep playing it at a walking pace to consolidate learning.

7. If the piece is for an exam you should play it at a walking pace until a month before the exam, then gradually increase the tempo until you can comfortably play it at exam speed.


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The content of this blog is the copyright material of the author Andrew E. Clarke. All work is original. All rights are reserved. Occasionally comments may be published by other authors in which case the source will be acknowledged.