It’s normal to have some nerves about performing. Performing is live, and anything can happen. You need to be alert, so naturally your nerves need to be geared up to some extent. The only people who don’t get nervous at all are those who don’t care.
I’ve seen lots of suggestions about combatting stagefright, ranging from mentally undressing the audience to taking drugs. Most of these bits of clever advice miss the point.
The point is that your music has something to say to your listener, even if you can’t verbalize what that is. What is your music saying? It’s certainly not about how many mistakes you might make, what you’re wearing, how many listeners there are, or whether somebody misspelled your name.
Find out as much as you can about your music before you perform it. It’s impossible to find out everything, whatever everything might even mean, so when it’s time to play, go with whatever preparation you had time for, and convey the feel of that music to your listeners.
Who wrote the tune? When? Why? How has the tune been used? How did you find it? What did it mean to you when you heard the tune, or played it? One of the reasons I like to talk to an audience is
to place tunes into a context, so they mean more to the listeners — and to me, as I try to get across the feel of the music. The more you think about the meaning of the tune, the less you think about yourself, and the less nervous you’ll be.
Stagefright is all about fearing how you come across, what mistakes you might make, what people will think of you. It has nothing to do with music. Your performance should really have only to do with the music — that’s what the listeners are interested in (except maybe for your mother!).
Prepare for the performance in the time you have, not by memorizing notes but by understanding the sound and the structure of the tune or set of tunes. All notes are not created equal. Your task is to steer listeners from beat to beat, phrase to phrase, part to part, tune to tune. The beats, phrases, timing, expression — it’s all in your bow. Teach your left-hand muscle memory the patterns of notes, but focus for performance on your bow. That’s the voice that conveys the music to your listeners. The more consistent your bowing, the more solid your performance.
Strategize for performance, so you are able to keep that beat going from phrase to phrase, regardless of mistakes that may crop up. Know where you are, which phrase you’re on, which part of the tune, and where you’re going, and take us there. It’s a journey and a story. You’re playing the soundtrack, and there’s no option to back up the movie to fix some stray note or two! When you practice for performance, don’t stop for a mistake, just make a mental sticky note about that spot but continue to the end; then see if you can address those sticky notes either individually or on the fly as you try again.
What is a performance? It could be a concert, a dance, a lesson, or even playing with a recording — a performance is a chance to play through a tune without stopping, and requires a different approach than practicing, even though strategizing for performance can be a part of your practice. I remember a pipe band judge telling me one time why a particular band never sounded very good — it was because they always sounded like they were practicing, trying to get everything right, not make any mistakes, and never really playing for the sake of the music.
The clever advice offering tricks to make an audience seem less intimidating, or the idea of taking drugs to kill your nervousness by making you not care — these have nothing to do with music. These ideas are actually built on the presumption that you have a problem, and need to paste on layers of solutions to pretend you have no problem.
Better to strip away the problem, and get to the bottom line: the music. Let it take control.
To minimize stagefright, be prepared, learn all you can about the music, know why you like it, and convey that to your listener. Your take on it is your own, and people want to hear it.
©2019 Ed Pearlman