(This article has been edited since it was first published in May, 2014.)
Recently my family and I had a very special houseguest named Victoria, who was visiting us for the first time from a distant country. We had been hoping for years that she could come, and we wanted her to feel welcome and at home, like a part of our family. As soon as I received the e-mail confirming her flight to New York, I began getting the apartment ready for this wonderful occasion. I had long postponed doing many things to uplift our home, and now I had a great opportunity to finally do them. I had a week for the whole project.
Each day I spent time de-cluttering rooms, ordering new things online, or shopping in neighborhood stores. As I made changes to each room, I often stood at its entrance to see how it felt to walk in. I wanted Victoria to be surrounded by beauty and spaciousness, so she could relax and enjoy herself. I also wanted her to get to know us better by experiencing our home environment.
On the day that Victoria arrived, I finished some last details—trimming straggly plants, replacing worn-out potholders, buying flowers and putting them in vases. After I put the dinner on the stove, Victoria came to our door, and our long-awaited visit began.
It was an amazing three days that we will long remember. And Victoria said the house felt wonderful. I knew that she would want to come back.
Each Performance Is an Opportunity
I tell this personal story because I believe that a musical performance can be given in the same spirit as the one with which we opened our home to Victoria. We don’t have to think of our audience as a bunch of outsiders marching into our space and judging us for our marred furniture or wrong notes. We can do the best with what we have, bringing it up to as high a level as we can in the time we have, and then let go and share it with the people who have made the effort to come hear us. Even if we don’t know them, isn’t it better to focus on the fact that they are our fellow human beings, with human hearts, so that we can enjoy sharing our humanity with them, instead of freaking out over what they might think of our imperfections?
But What If I Won’t Be Ready?
It’s easy to lose sight of such a beautiful goal when you are working hard to solve technical and musical problems and worrying that your performance won’t be ready in time. But you can actually use those moments of struggle as reminders of your goal: As soon as you notice that you’re feeling overwhelmed by the demands of preparing a piece for performance, you can stop in your tracks and shift your focus. You can reflect on the opportunity you have to connect with music and to share it with others. This simple shift of focus can dissolve your anxiety, open your heart, and bring more joy into your practicing and performing.
“Easier said than done,” you might say. “I’m practicing for an audition, and I know those judges are going to be supercritical. It’s ridiculous to pretend I’m just going to share music with them.
It’s true that in high-pressure, competitive situations it’s easy to forget the whole point of making music. Yet you can still train yourself to let go of stress and to cultivate joy. And if you do, your audience, whether they are paid judges or paying ticket holders, will feel your heart intentions coming through in your performance.
But Exactly How Do You Do That?
I’ve written a book, and many articles, about how to let go of tension and self-doubt and connect deeply with music in practice and performance. And in December I released the audio of the Performing Beyond Fear exercise—a powerful, 7-minute exercise that actually shifts your focus from self-consciousness to generosity. From worrying, “What will people think of me?” to thinking, “What can I give to them?” That energy of generosity can then come through in your performance, taking it to a new level of expressive power and confidence.
This is what it means to see your audience as your guests. Because after all, just like with our guest Victoria, once your audience arrives, it is no longer about you. It is about sharing your performance with them.
Can a Seven-Minute Exercise Really Do the Trick?
It may be hard to believe that such a big shift could happen from doing such a brief exercise. But if you try it, you will see for yourself. Even non-musicians have asked me to teach them this exercise for use in situations where they are put on the spot, including giving speeches and taking tests or job interviews, and they’ve found it tremendously helpful.
So if you’re ready to learn how to rise to the occasion of performing, check out the audio. You can hear the first 20 minutes for free and decide if you’d like to learn this amazing technique for getting past performance anxiety.
We’re All Alike
All of us are basically the same. We each have a human heart from which we can connect with others in performance and uplift their lives. And we each have layers of habits that get in the way of doing that. No matter how stressed or out of touch you may feel at times, it can be surprisingly easy to rouse confidence and connect with music and with an audience from the depth of your communicative power.
Learning the Confidence Habit
My wish is that you could make the Performing Beyond Fear Exercise a regular practice in your life, as a way of encouraging warm, confident, human energy to flow through you and toward others, in performance and throughout your life. The whole point of music is to connect one human heart to another, or to many others. That is why I teach.
I wish you much joy and success.
P.S. The Art of Practicing Institute summer program is nearly full, but we still have room for a few general participants. So if you’re ready to dive into a big discovery of your musical potential, I invite you to join us on July 21 for a transformative week in Edinboro.
Q & A of the Month
How can I deal with performing when one or more individuals in my ensemble are very nervous? It can agitate me. I’ve read about how a wonderful master musician can inspire people in his ensemble to play their best simply through the warmth and generosity that he emanates. How can I learn to be like that?
Your questions show great intelligence and wonderful intentions.
Ensemble playing can be very intense. Because it’s a form of intimate communication, it can feel like heaven or hell, or anything in between. Every little nuance can feel significant when we’re making music.
We each tend to bring out certain things in other people, and it’s important to seek ensemble partners who bring out your best. As in any other close relationship, it’s best to find people you naturally connect with, players who understand you well and play well with you with a minimum of verbal cues or conflict. And in performance, it’s best to play with people who are more or less your equals in knowing how to handle their nerves.
But it’s also important to be open to learning from others in an ensemble, so you can grow and become more adept at performing with others. We can sometimes learn a great deal from challenging situations, such as the one you describe. The more comfortable you become with yourself, the more skill you will develop in working with other people.
Pre-performance nerves are normal, so it’s essential to know how to work with your nervousness and rise above it. If you find that a particular member of your ensemble is so nervous in performance that she can’t relax into the music, you might suggest that she consult someone who specializes in helping musicians deal with stage fright. The Performing Beyond Fear exercise could be extremely helpful for someone like this.
You’re definitely on the right track when you refer to master musicians whose warmth and generosity have a positive impact on fellow performers. Such artists radiate these qualities to their audience as well. The Performing Beyond Fear Exercise is designed specifically to help you get past self-consciousness and develop this kind of warmth and generosity in performance. You might recommend to your ensemble partners that they listen to this audio. These qualities may actually be a lot more accessible to you than you think.