Thoughts on Performance

by Phillip Hii
March 2004

In my teaching I’ve found that most performance anxiety-related issues can be attributed to two factors:

Fear of the unexpected

I believe the root of most performance anxieties is the fear of the unexpected. There is always a certain amount of apprehension when we are faced with new situations in life. We get nervous when we have to take tests, speak in front of people, and meet prospective new employers, etc., because these are all extraordinary situations. In contrast, consider a daily task which we perform on a daily basis such as driving on the freeway. Is there anything which we do everyday which is more fraught with danger than driving on the freeway? And yet how many of us really think about it? Or worry about it? When you make a small mistake in a performance, all you get is perhaps a bruised ego. When you make a small mistake on the freeway, you could end up with more than a broken fingernail.

The reason we don’t think about it is because we do it everyday and it has become a familiar task. And so it should be with performing, too. One of the best cures for stage fright is to keep on doing it — play in front of anybody, go out with your guitar and harass your family, your neighbors and your friends. If you have a junior recital coming up, invite your friends over and play the whole program to them (and make sure you provide some refreshments too for their trouble).

Unrealistic Expectations

Another common cause of stage fright is unrealistic expectations. Too many students and performers actually believe that just because they are able to play something all the way through once or twice in their practice, they should be able to reproduce that performance in front of an audience. Students build huge expectations in themselves and become paralyzed with stage fright in the process.

If you’re performing a new piece, expect to lose up to 30% of what you know you can really do. Be happy if you can deliver 80% of what you can do. Sure, you should strive for 100%, but don’t expect to get it till you’ve played the piece for a while and have performed it numerous times.

This point is particularly relevant if you’re in an academic situation. The typical college student is expected to learn an entirely new repertoire every semester and perform a junior and senior recital of completely new pieces in their final years. Nothing could be more daunting than that! Contrast this to your typical professional concert player: Most have a core repertoire of pieces which they recycle over and over.

Over the years I’ve come up with a short list of items to help students put performance in perspective.

1. Don’t worry about mistakes. It is good to strive after clean performances but it is also equally important to understand that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Consider this: there is nothing more natural than speaking and yet, a seasoned performer like Jay Leno could still mangle his words under the spotlight. So accept the fact that there is no perfection in life, only compromises, and listen to the common adage: It’s not how many mistakes we make but how we cover them up.

2. Try to be audience centered. Banish all self-centered thoughts such as “Will the audience like me?” or “Will I make a fool of myself?” Instead, think of the audience and do whatever it takes to provide a meaningful experience for them. Performance is about sharing and interacting with the audience, not about proving some personal point or trying to impress anyone.

3. Prepare for the performance well. In other words, practice your piece thoroughly before attempting to perform it. Take care of all the details that need to be taken care of. Make sure all left hand and right hand fingerings are well thought out and memorized. Be familiar with all the sections in the work. If it’s a long piece, divide it into smaller sections and make sure you can start at any section, in case you meet with one of those dreaded memory lapses.

4. Treat every performance like a rehearsal for the next performance. That way, you won’t be intimidated by an over inflated sense of its significance. This can be hard to do if it’s a competition or an audition — then again, if you don’t do well in a competition there will always be another one next year. The key is to learn from every performance. Note down all the problem spots, and after the performance is over, go back to the practice room and work them out.

5. Start building a core repertoire of pieces and perform them often. Most professional performers keep a repertoire which they can perform under any circumstances. As an exercise, try keeping track on what your favorite players are playing in their concerts this year and compare it to their program next year. You’ll be surprised by how little the program will vary from year to year.

6. Try to be less critical of other players. Realize that they’re also trying to do the best they can. Have you ever noticed that the most vocal critics are the ones who don’t play? I have two theories about this: 1. They are so busy finding flaws in other people’s playing they don’t have time to practice. 2. They’ve set such high standards for others — standards which they know they can’t meet themselves — that they’ve copped out.

7. Practice visualization techniques. Picture the performance in your mind before the actual performance. Go through the various motions in your mind before you get on stage. When you actually get on stage, you’ll find that it’s a little easier because it would’ve felt like you’ve just done it before (and you had, even if it was just in your mind.)

In closing, I’ll relate a short note about one of life’s ironies: If you want something badly, chances are that you wouldn’t find it but if you let go and stop trying, you may find that it’s right there under your nose. For instance: The key you lost the other day- no amount of looking will help you find it, so you give up and install a new lock. Guess what? The next day it miraculously appears out of nowhere.

In other words, avoid trying too hard. The more you pressure yourself to have that definitive flawless performance, the less likely you will have one. Instead, relax, try to have a good time, and who knows, you may get lucky and end up with a great performance. If not — well, there’s always next time.