I was recently asked by a high-school student if I ever get nervous before a performance. The student assumed that everyone who has made it to a top orchestra must have nerves of steel and be impervious to normal human responses. It got me thinking about some of the misconceptions floating around about performing. Here are some big ones:
- Pros are made of steel and never get nervous.
- Of course pros can get nervous! However, pros train themselves to stay focused on the process of the performance. This can take some work, but you learn to focus your mind on what you’re doing, rather than worrying about what might happen next.
- I crashed—it was terrible!
- Some people magnify their mistakes, while others seem not to hear them at all. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know how our performances really sound until we are in the habit of recording BOTH our practice sessions and performances. But that’s no reason to avoid opportunities to perform, since they are great tools to fast-track your improvement. Even if you did “crash,” it was better to have had the courage to get up on stage and try, rather than stay at home out of fear.
- You shouldn’t perform a piece of music until it’s perfect and you feel “ready.”
- There is no such thing as a perfect performance. If you are chasing perfection, odds are you are NEVER going to feel “ready.” Having a feeling of confidence comes from experience and thoughtful repetition, so do the work in the practice room and go for it on the stage. For most people, performing is a learned skill, so take all the opportunities you can get to perform, and don’t hold back out of worry that it won’t be “perfect.”
- If you did well, it was just dumb luck/If it went badly, it was just a fluke.
- For better or for worse, people usually perform EXACTLY as well as they are prepared to perform. This might mean that you knew the piece well, but you didn’t practice performing it under pressure, so things fell apart on stage. Or it might mean that you didn’t know it as well as you thought you did. Or it might mean that you thought you weren’t prepared, but you actually did put in the right kind of work to play well, despite your nerves.
- I should be ashamed of myself if my performance doesn’t go well.
- Shame is a useless emotion. Congratulate yourself on having the courage to perform, regardless of how it went. Take note of the things that didn’t go well, and decide what you’re going to do about them for next time. After that, let it go—there is no further benefit to be gained from ruminating over something that has passed. Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
The Takeaway: Don’t let misconceptions stop you from taking steps to achieve your goals—many musicians get discouraged before they even get started. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of it can mess with your head. Performing well isn’t some kind of magic—it’s a learned skill that takes time to master. Stay strong and try to steer clear of the handwringing and fear out there.
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OK…now go practice!
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