Trick question! As far as I can tell, we are all natural performers.
Observe a young child. Pay attention to how uninhibited they are. Ever notice how freely they express themselves without fear of saying the wrong thing, or doing the wrong thing? Case in point, my four-year old can’t carry a tune, but hams it up like a rock star and actually asks me to capture his performances on video.
On the flip side, this same lack of inhibition sometimes leads to very loud and attention-grabbing public displays of displeasure when he doesn’t get his way. Not that I’m encouraging this sort of behavior, but can you remember the last time you felt so free to express yourself that you threw a crying fit in public?
On a more embarrassing note, my two-year old will pull her pants down in the middle of a restaurant and happily announce that she has gone pee-pee. After my initial reaction of horror and mortification, I sometimes have the perspective to reflect on her actions and appreciate how utterly cool it is that at this point in her life she is so absolutely confident of herself, that embarrassment and shame are foreign concepts to her.
Why is it that we adults are so inhibited, controlled, and fearful by comparison?
Somehow, somewhere, either in a single memorable moment or progressively over time, we learn to care about what others think. We learn that there are consequences of standing out, of being unique, and of following the beat of our own drummer. We learn that there is a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer, a “right” way to do things and a “wrong” way to do things. We learned that coloring outside of the lines is bad, and staying inside the lines is good.
But then again, says who?
Overalls, Suspenders, and Zubaz
Think about 90’s fashion – who decided what was good and bad? Who decided that overalls were cool, and furthermore, that the right way to wear them was with one strap unhooked (apparently using both straps was wrong). Who decided that suspenders were cool, but only if they dangled below the waist? Who decided that it was cool and not at all embarrassing, to wear Zubaz in public (which, apparently, are attempting a comeback).
Peer pressure is a very powerful thing. Most of us conclude that it is far better to ignore our true inner self (which may never have felt comfortable in Zubaz) and follow the guidelines set by the “in” crowd.
There may be some benefits of that strategy in high school, but this fear-based mentality will suck all the fun out of being an artist and musician.
Capriccio in A minor by Niels Gade
This short 8-minute piece was one of the required pieces for an international competition I did in graduate school. I’d never even heard of Gade before, let alone this Capriccio. At the time, there was no recording to be found of it anywhere. Believe me, I tried.
Without a recording, I was lost. I had no idea what it was supposed to sound like, and therefore had no idea how to play it. In desperation, I even entered it into Finale so that I could play it back as a MIDI file and hear some approximation of what it was supposed to sound like.
It took me some time to realize that I was going about all of this backwards. Why was I trying so hard to figure out what other people thought it was supposed to sound like? Why couldn’t I just sit down, take a look at the score, and decide for myself?
This ended up being the most difficult piece I’ve ever had to learn. Not because it was technically difficult, but because it was the first time I’d ever had to truly learn a piece from scratch, with no prior concept of what another performer thought it should sound like.
But when I finally stopped trying to figure out where the lines were, and allowed myself to experiment and risk the possibility of sounding foolish, I was so psyched about the work I did and all of the cool ideas and nuances I had discovered, that I was actually excited to play it for others. A bit nervous of course, but mostly, I really wanted other people to hear what I had prepared. It ended up being my favorite piece of the competition. I was even stopped by a few different audience members who remarked that they loved my version of the Gade, and that it almost didn’t sound like the same piece that the others were playing.
More important than the nice comments, however, was how I felt when performing the Gade. I wasn’t worried about making mistakes, messing up, playing something “wrong” or being less than perfect. I was completely focused on making sure I remembered all the cool little details I had worked so hard to clarify. Not the intonation or the other technical elements, but the messages I wanted to convey (a.k.a., the clear intention component of Centering).
The Old Man, the Boy, and the Donkey
Here is a modernized version of a classic Aesop fable. I think you’ll see how it relates.
An old man, a boy, and a donkey were going to town. The boy rode on the donkey and the old man walked beside him. As they went along they passed some people who remarked that it was a shame the old man was walking and the boy was riding. The man and boy thought maybe the critics were right, so they changed positions.
Later, they passed some people who remarked, “What a shame! He makes that little boy walk.” They then decided they both would walk.
Soon they passed some more people who thought they were stupid to walk when they had a decent donkey to ride. So they both rode the donkey.
Now they passed some people who shamed them by saying how awful to put such a load on a poor donkey. The boy and man said they were probably right, so they decided to carry the donkey. As they crossed the bridge, they lost their grip on the animal, and he fell into the river and drowned.
The moral of the story? If you try to please everyone, you might as well kiss your ass goodbye.
Stop trying to find the lines. Feel free to experiment with different ideas in practice sessions. Remember the cardinal rule of brainstorming — absolutely no criticism or censoring of ideas until after the brainstorming session. Apply this rule to your musical brainstorming in practice sessions. This may sound backwards (or flat-out wrong to some), but try using your instincts and imagination to generate wild ideas, experiment with them to see what works, and then see if you can find a musical justification for these ideas.
Unleash your natural creativity and inner muse, develop clear intentions about what you are trying to communicate, and you’ll find that nerves and anxiety become secondary to your desire to share the very personal, unique, and exquisitely cool ideas you have uncovered. You’ll find yourself feeling increasingly free to express your ideas — and may perhaps reacquaint yourself with the natural performer you were as a child.
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?
It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.
Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.
Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.