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16 Ways to be Performance Ready

Updated: Jan 3

Performance anxiety plagues many musicians and is typically caused by negative self-take and a high ‘what if’ factor:“What if I make a mistake?” “What if someone’s cell phone rings?” “What if I freeze and can’t remember what comes next?” This extreme negative mindset can lead to a lack of motivation to perform at all.

By following the tips I’ve listed below, you can become better prepared for different situations to make performing feel easier. These tips are for all musicians with two that are a bit more specific to pianists..

Record Yourself

When practicing, use a device (smart phone, tablet, handheld recorder, or something else) and record your piece as if it was your performance. If you make a mistake, keep going as you don’t want to bring attention to your errors. After you finish, listen to it and practice the areas that were not as strong and record again. This can be repeated for many consecutive days as it will not only improve your end result, but it will also make you less nervous about the recording and performing process.

Add a spontaneous distraction

Here are two different ways to add a spontaneous distraction to your practice regime.

The first is to set an alarm or timer to go off randomly while you are playing your piece. When it sounds, do not stop playing your piece to shut it off, just keep going. This type of distraction mimics an audience member’s cell phone going off throughout your performance — it’s something that shouldn’t happen, but can occasionally happen if their phone is not on silent.

The second way is to ask someone to spontaneously disturb your performance in some way: maybe they walk into the room and sit down,

  • create a loud noise in another room,

  • move dramatically at some point while watching you.

The third way is specific to keyboardists as it involves someone spontaneously throwing an object, such as a stuffed animal or soft ball, and having you catch it and throw it back and then resume your piece from where you left off.

These distractions simulate a person walking into the performance room, a loud noise happening elsewhere in the performance venue, or an audience member getting up to use the washroom. Regardless, it’s good to be prepared for these types of distractions.

Add background noise

Here are a few examples of background noise that you can experiment with:

  • Practice your piece while playing the radio beside you. Most radio channels will alternate between music playing and the hosts talking. This will provide you with two different elements of distraction.

  • Play a recording of your piece at the same volume as you are playing but start slightly later than it started. This will keep you very focused on your own playing because you have to avoid synchronizing with the recording.

  • Ask a friend who plays the same instrument (or has the same vocal range) to play/sing right beside you. Your friend will play/sing something completely different than you, but since it’s the same timbre it may affect you as it can be harder to tune them out. (This may be more difficult for pianists, but playing at a piano store offers a great solution).

Practice in front of a small audience

Invite people to listen to your performance. The more you play for people, the easier it gets. They don’t have to comment on your playing, but their presence in the room can be enough to make you nervous.

Some cities have groups of amateur musicians that assemble for informal performances regularly or on occasion. If the area that you live in doesn’t have one, maybe that’s something you could start.

Increase your heart rate

When performers are nervous, they often experience an increase in heart rate. To mimic this feeling when preparing to perform, do some vigorous exercise right before you practice your piece.

Here are a few ideas to raise your heart rate:

  • Run up and down the stairs a few times

  • Do a few jumping jacks

  • Do some push-ups or sit-ups

  • Hold plank pose for as long as you can

  • Do several burpees

Prevent cold or sweaty hands (instrumentalists only)

There are many people that experience cold or sweaty hands when performing.

To mimic playing with cold hands, play your piece after running your hands under cold water for a few minutes. You may find that your fingers are less agile which can cause certain passages to be harder to play.

To mimic sweaty hands, play your piece with thin gloves on; they could be made oflatex, rubber, or fabric. Or, put bandaids on your fingers so that they are wider and more slippery.Your hands will feel awkward as it will lessen the natural grip on your instrument. This may be a bit unnerving at first, but as you get used to it, the feeling will be less jarring.

You could also combine both of these ideas in the event that your hands may be both cold and sweaty in a performing situation.

Be mentally prepared

Rehearse the motions as if you are going to do a performance. Pretend that a certain area in your living quarters is the performance space, preferably a room. Stand outside that area and go through the motions that you would do before a performance to calm yourself: taking deep breaths, eliminating negative self-talk, thinking about encouraging words, and imagining it going well. Then walk into that space and begin your first piece.

Remember that the audience wants you to do well, and they are there to support you. The mistakes you make in a performance are often perceived to be bigger to you than they are to your listeners. Accept whatever mistakes you make and move on.

Try this again another day and see if you make less errors.

Prepare for memory slips

Memory slips can happen to everyone, so it is important to be well prepared in the event that it occurs. To prepare for slips, divide your piece into sections and practice those sections from memory in any order. Also, practice stopping part way through a section and jumping to the next section. If you are planning to perform with someone else, inform them of your sections so they know where you may jump to. This practice strategy can simulate a memory slip and make you more prepared for the “what if” factor when you perform.

Visualize your performance

A few days before your concert, find a comfortable place to sit and take the time to visualize your entire performance before the event. Think about how well you will play, what you will feel, what the smells will be etc. Go through the motions in your head without moving any part of your body. Envision the best performance that you can do.

Get to know the instrument (for pianists only)

Since pianists often a perform on piano that is unfamiliar, take advantage of a dress rehearsal if there is an opportunity to do so. This will allow you to assess the height and comfort of the piano bench as well as any challenges that the piano presents regarding its balance, speed, and dynamic range etc.

However, if not, you need to become familiar playing your repertoire on as many different pianos as possible.There are music stores full of pianos and most stores will be happy to have you play on their pianos.

Prepare your bladder

As awkward as this sounds, the feeling of having to use the washroom part way through a performance can be a big distraction. Some people are really good at ignoring this bodily signal while for others it may plague their focus.

To prepare for this feeling, drink 750 mL of water about 45 minutes in advance of your practice session. After the 45 minutes, run through as many pieces that you can until it becomes too uncomfortable.

In the days leading up to your performance, figure out the window of time before your performance that you will not drink large volumes of liquid.

Plan your wardrobe in advance

Prior to your performance, rehearse in the exact clothing that you’re planning on wearing for your performance. You may consider styling your hair in your rehearsal too. By getting comfortable in this setup, it will be less of a novelty to your brain when you’re actually performing.

Plan your food intake

Be aware of what you are eating within a four hour window of your performance. In the weeks approaching your performance become aware of which foods make you feel bloated or cause indigestion. On the other extreme, practicing while you're hungry can also be a good distraction.

For those who consume caffeine, figure out when it is best to have your last coffee and/or what affects coffee has on your playing. Adult performers may need to consider their consumption of alcohol too as it can affect ones focus and concentration.

Get enough sleep

For many performers their nerves will affect how they sleep the night before a performance. To simulate this experience you can either reduce the hours that you sleep one night or practice performing in the middle of the night (if your living situation allows it).

Practice at the same time of day

If your performance is at a different time of day than you usually practice, then it is recommended that you practice at the same time of day as your performance. Often performances are mid-afternoon or evening and this can be quite a different experience for those that are used to practicing in the morning or late at night.

Cope with eyes staring at you

Put a picture of someone on the music stand whose eyes look directly at you. A lot of performers are OK when their audience has a passive glance at them or are not focusing on them directly, but performers need to get used to being the centre of attention with all eyes on them.

Vary the lighting

For many instrumental performers the lighting in the venue can create a very different situation from what they are used to. Practice in dim and bright light situations. Also experiment with a flashlight pointed at your instrument from various angles to cast different shadows.

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