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Recitals and Performance Anxiety

by Kristin Yost

Preparing for a Performance

You've heard it for weeks. Johnny has been playing his recital piece beautifully - beginning to end with minimal mistakes. Then, in the performance, Johnny gets nervous and 'blanks' in a few spots, his fingers are shaking and sweaty, so instead of a flawless performance like he had at home, he has one with some bumps and bruises. Does this sound familiar? For some children, this type of performance can be a crippling experience that makes them feel like they have failed, and provides a negative association for any type of performing in the future. Your child is not alone! There are a lot of wonderful musicians who have performance anxiety. In order to prepare so that the performance can not only be a great performance, we want to instill a joy in being able to share music with others without fear. So how can we do this?

BRAIN CHEMICALS. The brain when under stress, produces adrenaline and dopamine that make us hyper alert, which isn't how our brains work when we're playing through a piece to 'practice' it at home in our relatively stress-free environments. We think differently. We respond differently.

In order to do our best in a performance, here are my most sound, time-tested prep steps to ensure as positive and flawless of a performance as one can hope for.

  1. Memory Spots. I love to section a piece off by phrases. This provides delineation of space in the music for easier memory recall (great for visual learners.) For each page of music, consider having 2 starting spots per page (give or take.) As an example, have a "memory test" for your student/child where you call out a section number, or they pull a number from a hat, and have to start at that particular section. Say you start with section 3, then you jump to 6, jump to 2, etc...This takes everything out of context and then when they play the piece from the beginning, all of the sections seem familiar and clear. I recommend doing this approximately 3 weeks prior to the performance date, but especially in the week leading up to the performance. 
  2. Tempo Changes. This is probably the most transformative way one can prepare for performance. The 2 weeks or so before the big day, make sure your child is able to play his/her piece about half tempo, 3/4 speed, and then performance speed. One thing I like to do for my students in addition to metronome speeds is to provide them with recordings of me playing at specific speeds, where they can play along with the recordings. It forces them to "keep going" even if they make a mistake. In performance, this helps them keep the fluidity going and helps to eliminate the starts and stops (stuttering) that sometimes creep in. 
  3. Purposefully Repeat. Using sections, or one line at a time, have your child play with no mistakes, 3 times in a row, before moving onto the next section or line. Do this type of practice every couple of days for about 2 weeks leading up to the performance, and certainly the week before. 
Over time, we all learn how our bodies and brains react to stress. Getting nervous is actually a great thing. It gives us a little excitement or 'edge' when we play, but you've got to know how to use it. I've been performing for over 30 years, and I still get nervous, but I have learned how to prepare for it, which makes all the difference in the world. Sometimes as beginners, we don't feel like there is much to lose. How hard can it be after all? As we advance and we realize all the things that could go wrong, that's where the anxiety comes in. What you read here is what has worked beautifully for me over the last 15 or so years. I'd love to hear what works for you! Drop me a note below.