Tips for confident music performance

Do you dread that next concert, audition or music exam?

There’s a good chance we will even ENJOY performance if we prepared intelligently and regularly in the months before. We may even manage to shrug off those butterflies and nervous greeblies. The secret is to program our brains for success.

Program your music computer

Think of your practice as computer programming. We feed in correct information about hand positions, the sequence and length of notes. Then, if a wave of panic washes over us early in a performance, it need not dump us. We can surf on automatic for a few moments, knowing that our brain will send messages to our fingers or lips without our consciously driving them. How’s that for a confidence trick! (From Practice is a Dirty Word)

Record and listen back

What passages, bars, sections need most attention? With a photocopy of the part (you do own it, yes?) highlight any mistakes and fumbles. Count the number of highlight splats – and apply most of your practice to these bars. A week later record again and listen back with a fresh photocopy. Have your splats reduced?

Go for goals

Set yourself achievable, reasonable, short-term aims each day. Within each time slot, allow yourself several minutes’ relaxation, movement, a breath of fresh air, and a drink of water. Oxygen and water are powerful brain foods. You will then use work-time more efficiently and minimise risk of repetitive strain injury.

Give yourself the satisfaction of crossing goals off the list when they are reached. Reward yourself with a pat on the back or a treat.

Practise what you can’t play…

…Instead of what you can! There’s no time to waste in reassuring yourself by playing the easy bits that lie under your fingers. Tackle the cross-rhythms or that development section that bristles with double sharps in obscure keys.

Make every minute of your practice time count.

Keep at it! You can achieve wonders with focus and determination.

Do SHAKES rattle your presentation?

What is your deepest, murkiest fear as that presentation, competition or recital looms? Shakes? You’re not alone!

Many performers, whether they present through words or music, have been disconcerted by jitters at some stage. String players dread wobbly bow strokes; vocalists that unintended vocal vibrato. Shaky hands or lips inhibit many instrumentalists. Pity the trumpeters, whose fingers are all too obvious right under their noses! At least public speakers can hide their hands in pockets (NOT a good look, however) or grip the lectern (only minimally better).

It’s all part of the fight/flight adrenalin rush

We cannot rabbit off stage. Avoidance is counter-productive.  Authors may be solitary types, happiest with a pen and paper or a keyboard, but they must face audiences and media on the promo tours.

We need tactics to counter jitters.

SHAKES seem obvious to the performer – small comfort that most listeners are oblivious.

Our society tends to silence problems with pills rather than find a solution.

“Beta-blocker” drugs block the adrenalin reaction and anxiety symptoms by slowing the heart rate to reduce sweating and tremors: they do not stop nerves, but lessen symptoms. Medical prescription is essential as they can be dangerous for people prone to diabetes, certain heart conditions, bronchitis, depression, hay fever and asthma.

Test suitability well before a performance – rather than discover an unsuspected cardiac or asthma condition onstage. Reported side effects include dizziness, light-headedness, nightmares, hallucinations, lethargy, insomnia, visual disturbances, diarrhoea, drowsiness, cold hands and feet.

Surely there are practical, doable and non threatening solutions? Well, I’m glad you asked…

Channel Adrenaline

Diffuse excess adrenaline with Brain Gym’s “Positive Points” technique. Place a hand on your forehead, inhaling deeply. This simple action encourages blood flow to the frontal lobes where rational thought occurs. It curbs fight or flight jitters, releases memory blocks and enables you to walk onto the platform accessing your whole brain. If memory slips intrude mid-performance, simply pause between movements, breathe deeply with a hand to your forehead and regain focus. Also, holding these emotional stress-release neurovascular balance points of the stomach meridian curbs stomach queasiness.

Try the contrary approach

The more we try to control shaking, the worse it gets. Instead, try the paradoxical approach. Rather than fight against shaking, allow yourself to do so. Give yourself permission to shake. “So, you want to shake, fingers. Well, go on – shake.” Some performers consciously make their hands tremble, their knees shake or their palms sweat as a way of trying to produce the symptom rather than conceal it.

Wiggle your toes

Focus your attention elsewhere. On your toes, as did John, a talented organist and clarinetist I coached in an American summer music program. He admitted to suffering every symptom possible when performing. Soon after his session, he performed creditably. I congratulated him on his poise and calm; if he experienced any jitters they  were not obvious. “Oh,” he said, “my hands shook in the beginning, then I remembered what you said and focused on my toes. When they started to shake I brought my attention back onto my hands, and by then the piece was over.”

Work those fingers

Jittery fingers may be a product of tense muscles or of too much energy as a result of the adrenaline rush. Before going on-stage, shake or rub your hands together. Squeeze your fingers into a tight fist, then release.

Move thoughts elsewhere

Another solution is to direct thoughts onto another aspect of your performance. Our minds just cannot think of two things at once.

Choose to focus not on your weaknesses, but on your strengths.