Let pressure make you better

Students often get bummed out about their performances, either onstage or just playing for me in their lessons. "But I played it so much better at hooooooome!" I know they did. And the difference between an amateur and a professional is that an amateur's playing suffers slightly with the pressure of performing for another human being, while a professional's playing actually improves.

Your own internal pressure gauge probably has fewer lines on it. Photo by eschipul.I like to quantify things that aren't usually measured in order to make certain ideas less mysterious, so bear with me here. Suppose you play a piece extremely well at home - you get an A. Then, when you perform in front of someone else, you become self-conscious. You are imagining yourself from the other person's perspective, which creates a feedback loop wherein you become self-conscious of your self-consciousness ("What if I mess up? What will she think of me then? Whoops, I just messed up - now what does she think?").

As a result of this discomfort, your "grade" drops down to a B. And if you are playing faster than usual, or you're playing on an unfamiliar instrument, or your bench/bow/footrest isn't adjusted perfectly, or you have physical symptoms of nervousness that interfere with your playing, you might drop down to B-minus or C.

One solution to this problem is to practice your piece until it is an A-plus. That is, work until your Comfort Score is a solid nine out of ten. Then track how long it takes you to reach that score from one practice session to another. Five repetitions? Three repetitions? Can you get a Comfort Score of nine on your first try? Once you can do this, your performance will be less likely to suffer in the presence of an audience.

Statistically speaking, it's possible I was messing up big time right as this photo was being taken.Being more comfortable with your music will not solve the problem entirely. You'll still have to figure out how to deal with the adrenaline flowing through your system. Skilled performers, instead of self-conscious, become self-aware. They use the adrenaline to attain a heightened state of perception, like in that long moment when an outfielder has already anticipated exactly where a pop-up is going and stands waiting patiently for the ball to drop into his glove.

Experienced performers feel the intensity of the audience's presence, but do not second-guess themselves - instead of hoping that they look good, sound good, and don't mess up, they focus on serving the audience well, which makes these musicians authentic and compelling. Doing this sometimes actually leads to weird mess-ups in itself, but not the kind that ruin a performance. Instead, these quirks contribute to the intimacy and immediacy of the moment. 

So how do you get to the point where you can do that? Playing at the A-plus, high Comfort Score level definitely helps - mastery allows you to let go of what your hands are doing. Then, you have to let go of what your thoughts are doing. This, too, takes practice.

Experience will contribute significantly to your ability to exhibit grace under pressure. The more you play in front of people, the more effectively you learn to transform anxiety into electricity. Be compassionate with yourself, and expect that in the beginning you won't play as well under stressful conditions. As a result, gradually, you will.

How to not keep playing the same thing over and over again

You know how when you say a word many times in a row ("Donut. Donut donut donut donut donut...") it starts to sound weird? It gets divorced from its meaning and becomes pure sound. This same thing happens when you mindlessly play the same musical figure ad nauseum. Here's how to get just the right number of repetitions of a musical passage.


Small segments, slowly

First of all, you should be working on sections so small that you can play them correctly on the first try. If you mess up, you are either taking too big a section, or going too fast, or both.

Don't be a hero! Don't think that going slowly or breaking things down makes you a weaker musician:

  • The slower you practice, the faster you will learn.
  • The tighter your focus, the shorter your practice.


The Comfort Score

Do you have a small-enough chunk to work with? Good. Now play it, paying attention to how it feels, not just how it sounds. Now, give yourself a Comfort Score from one to ten.

This score is not "how many mistakes did I make?" If you made mistakes, you might be going to fast or playing too big a section. If you chose your section well (it could be just one note), you didn't make any errors. Instead, ask yourself, "How comfortable was while I played that?"

Ten is "I can play this effortlessly with my eyes closed." One is, "I think I just passed out in the middle from concentrating too hard."

If your score was any lower than eight, play it again. Keep evaluating yourself, and keep repeating the passage, until you score eight or nine. Do not aim for ten, because you will go mad.



By the time you score an eight or nine, you have played the musical passage a few times correctly, evaluating yourself every step of the way. Your playing feels relaxed and masterful. When you reach this point, stop. Resist the temptation to play the phrase again.

Your choices at this point:

  • Go on to a different section or piece
  • Practice a section adjacent to the one you just played, overlapping
  • Expand the section you just worked on
  • Go have some ice cream


There's always tomorrow

When you come back to this piece at your next practice session, it will probably take you fewer repetitions to get to a Comfort Score of eight or nine. Good! Eventually, you'll be able to score a nine on your first try. This doesn't require hundreds of repetitions. Intense focus and thoughtful self-evaluation will shorten your practice time to only what is needed.