Recitals are an essential part of the process which begins with music lessons. Music is a performing art. Once you or your child have been attending lessons and practicing your instrument, performance is the next logical step. For most of us both the thought and act of performance are anxiety producing and so we tend to try our best to avoid it. However, to quote a student’s dad, taking music lessons and refusing to perform is like going to all of your teams practices and refusing to play the game.
Though music performance is a natural human activity it is one of the most complex and demanding cognitive and motor challenges for the brain. Music performance is a cognitive skill with large memory demands and a motor skill with large physical demands. No wonder performance is intimidating. The benefits of playing an instrument and actually performing have both been well documented so we all know that as difficult as they are, they are definitely good for you. The only way for most of us to get good at performance is to do it, to actually perform. The first time is the definitely the most difficult.
There are some things that we can do to make early performances a bit easier on our nervous systems. The first step is to select a piece of music that is at an appropriate level for the student’s skill set. Your teacher is the best judge of this. Practicing a piece that is beyond your reach is fine for a bit of a challenge but that’s not appropriate for a performance piece. Next, and of equal important is, you guessed it, adequate and correct practice! The subject of practice has been discussed in the past in this blog. You will be ready to perform a piece when you can play it through from beginning to end with expressive dynamics and articulations and without stopping. When the piece is practiced and very familiar (or even memorized) it provides the performer with a level of comfort and confidence. That does not imply that the piece is expected to be perfect! Perfection is an unattainable goal. Professionals are not perfect, they make mistakes but know how to cover them up.
I find it helpful to begin preparing for performance by really immersing myself in the piece and listening to various different recordings, paying close attention to all of the details; the phrasing, tempo, articulations, performance styles. If you can attend a live performance of the piece you are preparing that is ideal. However, finding a video on Youtube is certainly a reasonable and convenient option. Live performance and/or video adds the visual to the aural component. What is vital while watching and listening is that you become an active rather than a passive listener and observer and that you experiment with and incorporate different features from various performances to determine what works best for you.
When practicing your recital piece(s) you will need to employ all of the skills we’ve already discussed in terms of practicing. Never approach your performance or your preparations in a hurried fashion. Take your time before beginning to play, putting yourself in a place in which you are mentally and physically ready; hear the first few bars in your mind and be sure that you are comfortable and in the proper playing position for your instrument. Remember to remain mentally focused as well. Any lapse in concentration will cause problems! Note that concentration in itself takes practice and determination. Keeping your mind from wandering and shutting off that little voice in your head for the duration of the piece is really the key. If you are prepared then you can play the piece well enough as long as you can clear away the distractions. That’s where concentration comes into play. (Learning to properly concentrate is one of the many benefits of music education that carry over into all areas of life!)
Once your piece is well practiced record yourself playing. This will accomplish two things, it will make you a more objective listener and help you to objectively and constructively critique and improve your performance. The act of recording will create the feeling of an actual performance giving you an opportunity to practice your piece and to manage your performance anxiety. In many ways performing is more about managing your nerves, anxiety and concentration than playing the notes. Another advantage to listening to a recording of yourself is that for some instruments, such as the cello for instance, what you hear as you’re playing from behind the instrument is vastly different from what is heard by those in the audience, in front of the instrument.
Finally, if you are going to be performing with an accompanist begin listening to the accompaniment as well as playing along with it as soon as possible and of course, plan to practice with the accompanist before the actual performance. There is nothing as unnerving or as distracting as being unfamiliar with the accompaniment part and how it fits with the part you are playing. Before the date of your actual recital create as many opportunities as you can to perform, perform, perform – for family, friends, who ever will agree to listen!
When recital day arrives, the more prepared you are, the more relaxed you will be. As most of you know, NJ School of Music recitals provide a gentle introduction to the art of performance. The audience will be comprised of family, friends and people who care about you. Remember that they and the rest of the audience as well, want you to succeed as much as you do. They are literally cheering you on. As long as you are prepared you might actually be surprised to find that performing is both satisfying and a great deal of fun.