Nervous about performing, part 2

Over the years of teaching band, I have played a role in the following unfortunate scenario many times. A week before a performance, the students play the concert program well in rehearsal, staying focused on their individual parts but also paying attention to each other and the conductor (me). They are relaxed because they are not playing for an audience. They look at me for their cues and if they play a wrong note or get lost, they quickly recover.

In concert, however, the performance doesn’t quite gel. A few students retreat into a private sphere of fear, not daring to look up from their music stand at me and each going at his or her own tempo, some rushing and others dragging the tempo. Some students get lost and others simply stop playing entirely, hoping perhaps that their absence won’t be noticed. Sadly, it takes only a few students overcome with fear to sap the whole band’s performance. Like a team sport, band suffers when the whole team is not at their best. If a few links weaken, the chain falls apart, and even Lebron James can’t make up the difference.

We make it through the concert, but we don’t give the audience the best performance that we can. What a pity, I think, that we couldn’t show what we are truly capable of.

I have also led concerts where the music was played even better than in the rehearsal. The rush of playing music for an audience turned what had been good music in rehearsal into an exciting and excellent performance. The students stay focused on their music and also follow my cues, and the performance surprises and delights me even as I am leading it.

I began to think about the gap between a poor performance and an excellent one and read many articles on the subject of performance psychology, both in sports and music.

I came across a blog by Noa Kageyama, a performance psychologist and Julliard faculty member. He’s a funny and knowledgeable writer whose blog is worth your time even if you don’t play a musical instrument. Kageyama summarizes the strategies that can lead to better performance. He focuses on music, but the ideas could be employed in other areas where anxiety about making a mistake in front of an audience is present.

  1. Practice effectively (know your music)

  2. Manage nerves (the body’s response to adrenaline)

  3. Build confidence (by performing often)

  4. Become fearless (not playing tentatively or worrying about mistakes)

  5. Control your attention (control the inner voice that criticizes your performance)

  6. Be resilient (recover quickly from mistakes and setbacks)

No magic wand. Kageyama is careful to note that there is no way to get rid of performance anxiety completely. We are hard wired for it, and it’s a futile quest to pretend to be above and beyond nervousness. But there is help, most importantly, knowing your music.

Knowing your music is the most important of the strategies. That’s because there is no way around the fact that you must be an expert on your part. If you are playing second clarinet on “Jingle Bells,” then you must be an expert at your part, knowing each note, dynamic, and articulation. Where students sometimes fall down is that they don’t practice their parts sufficiently, hoping perhaps to hide in the section under the cover of another student who knows the music better.

In my program, insufficient practice ties into the parental support issue that I write about so often. Because our band classes meet only once a week, I count on the students to practice their music at home. But the truth is that some don’t do that, and their parents are not diligent about keeping their children to a practice routine at home. I don’t blame the parents because I know that their own lives are often hectic, but I do try to encourage them to help their children make time for practice at home. I once read a newspaper profile of the trumpet player Timothy Wilson. His mother was quoted in the article and her words sum up the idea very memorably. “If you live in my house,” his mother said, “you have to brush your teeth and practice your instrument.”

I will discuss the other strategies in future blog posts.