How To Focus Better In Musical Performance

If you have ever learned to sing or play a musical instrument, then you know that performing in public the piece that you have learned can be an ordeal at the very least. As soon as you discover the date and time of your performance, the usual symptoms can reveal themselves - who hasn't experienced increased heart rate, sweaty palms, nausea, a hollow feeling in the stomach and an overall wish to be somewhere else?

My main goal in this post is to show you, if you are indeed a 'Nervous Neddy' and lack the confidence to see it through, that not only can you perform well but can actually enjoy it. I will show you how to focus better in all your performances, so that it will no longer prevent you from sleeping at night and fretting about what is to come.

Personal Struggles

Over the years, I have performed in many concerts in a variety of venues, both as a soloist and in ensembles. As an experienced professional musician and educator, you would naturally assume that I would never suffer from any kind of anxiety or nervousness prior to performances. Not true. As a music student, I was always conscious of what my peers were doing and in particular, what qualities they possessed as musicians that I did not. I also mentally listed the things that I was better at than they were, as a way of trying desperately to build my confidence level.

Every year, while I was a studying, all students were required to perform in front of their peers at formal concerts, and I really dreaded it. However, I plunged in and managed to survive without too many performance jitters. But I had friends who were far worse than I was. One girl, who was a far better pianist than me, could perform privately among friends with no problem but had really bad anxiety before and even during a public performance.

She described what happened to her as follows: "When I approached the piano, it started to move in my imagination. Then when I sat down to play, the keys started moving and I felt like I was always guessing where all the notes were on the keyboard". A frightening experience without a doubt.

Singers I knew were always nervous and shaking before a performance, which did not help their breathing mechanism at all. Good breathing, as some of you will know, is essential to a good vocal performance, and require calm and control throughout. So if you are anxious in any way, your voice will reveal it during the performance through erratic breathing. Not a good scenario.

Cause And Effect

So why do so many of us suffer from this anxiety at one time or another? The answers are complex and often depend on individual circumstances. For instance, if when you were very young, you had a bad performing experience, you are more likely to recall that before future performances. Sometimes it is something someone says to you before performing that affects you, e.g. "Just do the best you can", "That previous performer played so well", "Pity this song is so short" etc. These statements appear to be innocuous enough but are not words of encouragement that a young performer needs to hear.

Generally, I believe that people worry too much about what other people think of them, when in reality, audiences don't think of anything much at all. Performers also often worry about making mistakes during a performance, when in fact, a mistake is so incredibly fleeting, that virtually no-one in the audience will remember it afterwards. I have tested this theory many times and have always been proven correct.

In one memorable case, I went to a recital by a professional concert pianist friend of mine, and she gave an immaculate performance throughout....except for the last chord of the last piece of the evening. I noticed that she played it and inadvertently added a couple of wrong notes. Afterwards I asked several audience members what they thought, and none of them detected any wrong notes at all!

Can It Be Cured?

Well the simple answer is that in most cases, although the nerves and anxiety don't disappear completely, they can be controlled to a certain extent, and may even get you to look forward to the event instead of dreading it.

Here are five ways to improve your pre-performance anxiety:

1. Preparation - This means that you must prepare your concert music as thoroughly as possible. If you know that you have done all the prep work to the best of your ability, then that is a great basis on which to build your confidence.

2. Mental Exercises - By this I mean exercises that demand you to focus. The ability to focus is really important in performance. It is essential that when performing, you can eliminate outside distractions and concentrate on what you are playing or singing. Yoga and meditation can help with this and will not only help you focus but will relax your mind and body. In addition, try to be an attentive listener when someone is engaging you in conversation.

3. Self Endorsement - What this means is to stay positive and keep giving yourself words of encouragement, e.g. "I can do this", "I can, I will, I must" etc. Of course, as you are human, there will be moments of self-doubt. This is normal and may mean that you need to review your prep regimen. Reiterate the positivity and meditate some more.

4. Breathe - As a singer and vocal instructor, I cannot stress enough the importance of deep, relaxed breathing, especially right before performing. In fact, it wouldn't hurt to take some basic breathing exercises if you haven't already, to get a better idea of what real breathing is about.

5. Subtract the "you" factor - This suggestion requires you to understand that it is not all about you. You are simply the conduit or link between the composer and the instrument - in other words, like a musical mailman, you are simply delivering the music but are not front and center - the music is!

Last Words

Admittedly, it is not easy to eliminate nerves and anxiety entirely in performance, and with some performers it is an ongoing struggle. I know many professionals who deal with it constantly and to some extent have got it under control. However, if you follow my suggestions consistently, you may find some considerable improvement. As someone once said when asked if he was nervous: "I do have butterflies........... but at least they are flying in formation!

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