Making the Move from Practice Room to Concert Stage by Miranda Wilson
We’ve all heard the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall. “Practice, practice, practice!”
So you practice—obsessively—for thousands of hours. Then it’s time for the performance for which you’ve worked so hard. Standing in the wings, you realize to your dismay that you can hardly breathe. Blinded by the stage lights, you stumble onstage, your heart racing, your palms sweating or ice cold.
You start to play, but in spite of your best intentions, your shoulders go up and your arms can’t move freely.
You catch sight of someone you want to impress in the audience—what must she think of you?
If this sounds familiar, it’s because negative performance experiences are nearly universal among players of all levels. We all know a sad story about an aspiring musician who practiced diligently, but could never break into the profession because of disastrous nerves.
The transition from the practice room to the concert hall is a psychological journey, requiring meditation, mindful practice, and self-motivation.
These five practice techniques, when used in daily practice, can relieve anxiety and set you up for performance success.
1. Know How You Sound, and How You Want to Sound
“It sounded better in the practice room!” Teachers hear this excuse a lot. In reality, you probably sound exactly the same in the practice room as you do when playing for someone else, but you don’t realize this because you aren’t listening to yourself closely. Learn to do this by making daily recordings, using the best equipment you can afford. Companies such as Zoom, Sony, Tascam, and Roland produce excellent, affordable audio and video recording devices, but in a pinch, you can use a smart phone. You’ll find that you almost certainly don’t sound the way you thought you did. The first step towards improving your sound is to forgive yourself. The second is to accept what you sound like and, without self-reproach, analyze what’s going wrong so you can make adjustments. Re-record at the end of your practice sessions, and note the progress you’ve made that day.
Practice in larger spaces whenever possible. The technique you’ll need to project to the back of a large concert hall is very different from the demands of a practice-room acoustic.
If you can’t get regular access to a concert hall, many churches—which often have excellent acoustics—will allow you to practice in their sanctuaries in exchange for your performance of music at religious services. When recording yourself in a large space, experiment with your microphone placement to learn more about how you sound from different distances.
2. Don’t Try to Be Better Onstage than You Were in the Practice Room
In performance situations, many musicians make the mistake of trying to go for more than what they’ve trained themselves to do. This causes extra tension in the body, and that’s bad for sound production. If you’ve practiced your goal sound in every practice session, this creates a realistic expectation of how the concert will go. This will be doubly true if you treat every practice session as a pretend performance. So many musicians fall into lazy, time-wasting practice habits—noodling about with a weak sound, repeatedly running whole pieces without fixing problem sections, or learning pieces so that they can “just play” them, rather than imbuing every phrase with expression from the beginning to end. Banish this tendency by pretending you’re standing in front of an audience from the moment you first place the music on your stand. Sing through your pieces expressively in the early stages of note-learning, so that the constraints of the instrument don’t get in the way of what you’re trying to convey to your imaginary audience. Always keep the goal of a successful performance in mind. That way, you won’t have to worry about how good you are when you’re performing, because you already know you’re good.
3. Downplay the Importance of Performing
Sacrilegious? Not if you think of performance as part of your daily journey as a musician. When you invest all your hopes and dreams in one important performance, such as a degree recital or a competition, you’re bound to be disappointed when something goes wrong. But if you treat a performance as the logical extension of what you’ve already done in the practice room, you can greatly decrease your anxiety. Don’t set yourself up with expectations of perfection in a concert, because you will make mistakes, and things that have never gone wrong before may go wrong now. Practice acceptance of this, and you’ll be less likely to panic.
This isn’t to say that performing isn’t important. Preparing for performance includes practicing the act of performing. This is why it’s prudent, particularly in the early stages of your career, to accept all performance opportunities, no matter how humble. The more you perform, whether in a concert hall, a café, a nursing home, or a wedding gig, the more you’ll learn about how you respond physically and emotionally to it, allowing you to self-evaluate and adjust.
4. Address the Physical Causes and Effects of Nerves Preemptively
How many times have you been told you should “just breathe” when you’re nervous? This doesn’t help a lot when you’re standing in the wings, so tense with nerves that you actually can’t get any air into your lungs. Unlike singers or wind players, who depend on their breathing apparatus to get their instruments to sound, guitarists can—and do—hold their breath for long periods while playing. This greatly exacerbates symptoms of anxiety such as an elevated heartbeat and physical tension. The trick to getting anti-anxiety breathing exercises to work for you onstage is to incorporate them into daily practice. It’s hard to consciously breathe while playing a piece, so start using slow scales. If you’re used to breathing while you play every day in the practice room, you can do it in performance too, and significantly reduce your anxiety at the same time.
You can further improve your breathing, as well as your general coordination, by practicing cross-lateral exercises recommended by kinesiologists such as Sharon Promislow, author of Making the Brain/Body Connection, and Donna Eden, author of Energy Medicine. The general principle of cross-lateral exercise is to make your arms and/or legs cross over from one side of the body to the other.
When you march military-style, raising the opposite arm to the leg, you’re marching cross-laterally. Compare this with a homolateral march, where you raise the same-side leg and arm. This feels wobbly and insecure compared with the robust, balanced cross-lateral march. Homolaterality is your body’s natural response to performance anxiety—it’s part of that nervous feeling of not quite being able to connect with your right or left hand.
Practicing other applied kinesiology exercises every day for a few minutes, as well as backstage before a concert, can drastically improve breathing and decrease nerves. One highly effective example is Eden’s “tapping” exercises, where you firmly tap below your collar bone, then along your sternum, and then at the bottom of your ribcage while breathing deeply. Anecdotal evidence has shown that this practice reduces nerves in many performers.
5. Silence the Negative Self-chatter
“You’re so useless. You messed up again. What’s wrong with you?”
You wouldn’t let anyone else talk to you the way your interior monologue does, so why do it to yourself? Except that simply contradicting or banishing that nasty little voice won’t necessarily work. Replacing “I can’t do it!” with “I can do it!” may not undo the patterns of negativity your mind has created. Instead knowing that “I’m already doing it” takes the pressure off.
The best performances happen when you’re totally in the moment, when your body and mind feel like they’re singing through the music in perfect synchronicity, when your arms and hands and breathing and counting and phrasing are tied into one idea of sound. Some performers find meditating on a single word useful for calming their mental chattering. “One,” “connect,” and “love” are all popular. Do this in your daily practice when you find yourself distracted and daydreaming. Make a habit of thinking of your imaginary audience with gratitude so that you will feel this emotion as you walk out on the stage. These people have come for the pleasure of hearing you do something you love. You’re already doing it.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
The issue also features Sharon Isbin, Frantz Casseus, a special focus on guitar festivals & competitions, and much more. Click here for more information on the issue.