It’s that time of year again – spring – and all that goes with it: gardening, bike riding, cleaning off the deck, and so much more.
Including the piano recital!
For students, it’s the highlight of the musical year, the chance to showcase the culmination of months of practice and dedication to an eager audience of friends, family, loved ones and … strangers. Other students’ parents, loved ones, friends.
Yikes! While there is pressure performing for people we know well, performing in front of strangers is considerably more nerve-wracking for most of us. It can be particularly intimidating for adult students to share the stage with 6-year-olds who may play better and are seemingly oblivious to the audience around them.
While there are no easy answers for dealing with nerves, there are some things that we can do to ensure we set the stage for the best recital experience.
Know your pieces inside and out. This involves not only having your pieces memorized, but also being able to start at any spot in a piece. Nerves have a funny way of causing us to go blank, momentarily, in the middle of what we’re doing. Even if we don’t feel nervous, it can happen. However, if we have practiced starting at all kinds of different places in our pieces, whether that’s in the middle of a measure or phrase or at a particularly tricky spot, we will be able to recover quickly and move onto the next measure or note, and quite possibly, no one will even catch onto any performance hiccups.
Practice your pieces mentally when not at the piano. Visualize where your hands are for each note of the piece, how they are moving, stretching, collapsing and so on, and go through the piece in your mind. It’s amazing how effective mental practice can be and how it sharpens our memory of a piece.
Practice without stopping to correct mistakes. This cannot be stressed enough. Making a mistake is an incredible itch that we must resist scratching. KEEP GOING if you make a mistake. This not only keeps the piece flowing when you miss a note or lose your spot momentarily, but it also trains you to think on your feet, or in this case, fingers! When first learning a piece, we stop, correct mistakes, drill sections etc., but when preparing for performance, we must focus on playing the piece our best all the way through without stopping. Drill and perfect trouble spots you encounter after playing all the way through.
Perform for others. This is crucial. The best way to learn to deal with nerves is to put yourself in the spotlight as often as possible. I recommend performing recital pieces 10 to 20 times for others before the recital. Perhaps that’s family or friends in your or someone else’s home. Or maybe it’s in front of strangers in a music store or other public place. You can even call a friend and perform over the phone. From time to time, ask your "audience" to make mild distractions (coughing, opening candy wrappers, fidgeting etc) to train yourself to deal with unexpected noises and distractions while performing.
Practice your pieces in performance order. Choose an order you feel the most comfortable with and stick with it, as this will lend a sense of security and familiarity at the recital.
Practice with a metronome. The constant assessment of our playing that it's perfect, strict tempo provides can make us feel nervous and raise adrenaline as we try to play perfectly in time. This also helps us learn to manage our nerves.
Audio or video record yourself playing. This puts you on the spot and further aids in learning to handle nerves.
Practice playing at various tempos. Performing can send adrenaline rushing through us, causing us to play too fast and struggle for control, like trying to rein in a horse that took off into full gallop before we were ready! Practicing your pieces at various tempos will help you adjust and control your tempo under pressure. Play slowly, exaggerating dynamics. Speed pieces up. Then play at your desired performance tempo.
Recite the first and last notes in each hand for each piece before you sit down to practice. Practice walking up to the piano, sitting down and placing your hands in the correct spot for each piece.
Finally, it’s okay to make mistakes! No one is perfect, and no one performs perfectly all the time. Do your best, be confident and know that the audience is rooting for you. They are there to hear someone they love perform and they know it takes courage, not only for their loved one, but for you as well.