The first note! After all, first impressions are huge in an audition, and you can tell an awful lot about a performer from the first note. Unfortunately, this makes the first note the most difficult note in a piece as well. With so much at stake and so much anticipation leading up to this moment, the adrenaline is surging and you may feel like you are about to explode.
Nevertheless, when the opening goes well, the performance tends to continue this way. On the other hand, when the first note is tentative or we stumble out of the gates, our muscles tighten up, our thoughts become a jumble of worries, we lose focus, and it takes a while to get back on track — if we ever do at all.
So how do you get started off on the right foot? One of the keys to starting an audition off on the right foot is to have a clear intention before beginning.
Why is this so important?
One of the most common problems encountered by musicians is “paralysis by analysis,” where we start thinking so much about the technical aspects of playing that we tighten up and start trying to actively control our muscles. We turn off muscle memory and try to manually control our movements in real time, rather than allowing them to do what we’ve already trained them to do. Remember from this article that our left brain (manual control) processes information sequentially, while our right brain (muscle memory) processes information simultaneously allowing for superior execution of complex motor movements.
Clear intentions help us cue up the exact action we wish to execute, just like in billiards, where you are required to “call” your shot or specify exactly which ball is going to go into which pocket before taking a shot. Identifying the target before going for it is the rule in billiards, but it’s also good performance practice, as we are a lot more likely to hit a clear target than a vague, undefined one.
What does a clear intention look like?
An actor client of mine shared something with me recently that completely blew me away. We were talking about the art of acting, the actor’s craft, and the process by which actors read the text and try to make sense of the character based on the text — and how all of the answers are ultimately found in the text. I found it fascinating that this so closely parallels what musicians say about studying and being true to the score.
What I am about to share with you is Sir Ian McKellen’s line-by-line interpretation of the opening from Shakespeare’s Richard III. You can tell that he has studied the text, understands the various nuances of word choice, phrasing, diction, and could probably talk about the subtler points for hours. With such a deep understanding of this material, he can’t help but have a clear intention of each word, line, phrase, and the speech as a whole.
Before we go to the video, first read this excerpt from the opening monologue and try to make sense of it on your own. My high school English teacher would cringe to hear me say this, but I have to admit that I didn’t really know what to make of the following text…
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Now, go here to hear McKellen’s interpretation:
1. Click Enter
2. Click “What does the opening speech of Richard III mean?”
3. Click “Explain the speech from the beginning”
A well-known performer and teacher I once met remarked that if one knew the music well enough, one wouldn’t get nervous. McKellen’s walk-through of Shakespeare’s text is an illustration of what I believe he meant by this. Get to know your piece this well, and your mind has so much task-relevant and helpful stuff to focus on, that there isn’t enough room left in your head for all the irrelevant mental chatter that only increases our anxiety, distracts us, and ultimately, just gets in the way.
The one-sentence summary
Develop your clear intentions, start performances off on the right foot, and you’ll find that nerves do indeed take a back seat.
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.