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Laurie Niles

'I just get so nervous'

May 17, 2012 at 5:12 PM


The Big Recital is coming up this weekend for my students, and so this week's lessons are all about preparing for performance: putting the polish on pieces, solidifying memory spots, playing with accompaniment, cleaning up anything that's tangled or out-of-tune, etc.

"I just get so nervous, though," said one of my adolescent-aged students, frowning.

Oh dear, what to do about that? It's a lot easier to advise someone to add a little vibrato, or play that "D" a little higher, or repeat the passage 20 more times with a metronome. Nervous about being nervous -- "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!" Deep stuff!

I remembered something the British violin pedagogue Simon Fischer told me: instead of thinking about everything that could go wrong, create for yourself a strong vision of how you want it to go right. Of course, you can't just tell a young student this; as my journalism professors always said, "Show, don't tell!" I decided to go straight to the point:

"What is the part of this piece that worries you the most?" I asked.

"Hitting the harmonic at the end," she answered.

Okay: first prove you can do it. No amount of "visualizing" and positive thought will help, if you haven't first surmounted the physical challenge. Of course, I'd seen her do it many times, but she still needed to prove it to herself. So we went straight to the passage and played that shift 10 times in a row, correctly.

"Now I want you to play the whole phrase, and when you get to the harmonic, think, 'This is the harmonic that I always play right!'"

She did. And then again, "This time, think, 'This is that cool harmonic that I love to play.'"

And again, "'This is the easy part that I play so well.'"

We went through about seven different scenarios.

"So don't let your mind wander," I told her. "Find every passage that is stressing you out, make sure you can play it, then come up with a positive way to think about how well you will play it. And really exaggerate!"

She came to another place where a finger went out of place, "I always play that wrong!" she said reflexively.

I laughed. "How about, 'I always play that right?' Fix it, and fix your head!"

You can actually practice moments of relaxation and confidence into your performance, but it really does take practice and repetition. I've experienced it myself, as well. For example, I was practicing a certain passage in the first movement of the Tchaik. It was just so hard! "This is why Auer said it was impossible, it IS!" I thought. Then I noticed that while practicing it, that even in my practice room, with no judgmental teacher, no audience, no Grizzly bear chasing me, I still froze in fear, every time I came to the passage. I had this revelation, "I don't have to feel this way." So I practiced thinking to myself, "This is the place where I relax my muscles, like a wet noodle." I thought of warm beaches. I exaggerated playing it in the most lazy and relaxed way to play, while still hitting notes. Who cared if I missed a few during this process? Then I just tried to keep that feeling of being relaxed, and as we know, the fingers work much more quickly and accurately when relaxed. The passage went a lot better, without the fear. I still get to that passage and feel relaxed!

You may think that you are fine in the practice room, but then it's just on stage when it goes really, really wrong. Or, you are fine in the practice room, but it's just at your lesson that it goes really, really wrong. But have you focused on your internal dialogue? Are you truly fixing the problem? And when you have fixed the problem, are you buying into your own ability to play it correctly and to produce something beautiful and musical? Focus a little more on this, and see if it helps!


From Anna Heifetz
Posted on May 17, 2012 at 7:12 PM
This is great! I love how the student was able to visualize success.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 17, 2012 at 7:27 PM
Great advice, Laurie!

I also find it helps to remind myself before going on stage that things always happen on stage no matter how well I have prepared, even how many times I’ve performed this piece. So I’d try to make sure the overall effect is what I want rather than worrying too much about all the little details. Also, I believe that I should focus on avoiding mistakes during practice, but the strategy for preparing performance should have an emphasis on how best to cope with imperfections rather than avoiding them. Like in life, it's not what happens but how we deal with it when something happens that really matters because the latter shows true talent and character.

From Christina Viljoen
Posted on May 17, 2012 at 8:21 PM
Wow. Thanks so much; that really helps! I'm playing my first university violin exam tomorrow - NERVES!! But the Fischer quote really does make sense - I am going to attempt to paint a mental picture of everything that should go right instead of imagining all the possible disasters.
From Erin Rushforth
Posted on May 18, 2012 at 2:57 AM
That internal dialogue really is key (and not just in music)!
From Bart Meijer
Posted on May 20, 2012 at 1:52 PM
I should frame this post and hang it on the wall of my practice room.
From Peter Charles
Posted on May 21, 2012 at 8:50 AM
The problem often is Laurie, that we care too much.

A great lesson is to observe how Perlmann deals with playing. He does not let caring get in the way of letting it all hang out and for it to happen naturally, often with a little smile.

I was viewing an old film about Permann and his gang doing the Trout Quintet here in London in the early seventies. In their fooling about before the concert backstage the DB player (none other than a well know conductor now) played the bowing part of the Mendellssohn vln concerto opening. Mr P did the fingering and just slapped his fingers anywhere. They ended up kissing each other!! They were so relaxed before the performance that they were able to go on and concentrate - and afterwards there were no recriminations. Once it happened its past history anyway. Of course the jokes continued, especially about the bass player!

The problem often is that we try too hard on stage when we should be just cruising. If the hard work that took place earlier is to pay off we have to focus but not clam up.

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 21, 2012 at 2:18 PM
What I liked about this account is that all the tools and the ability to use them for success was inside the student. When your teacher has faith in you, believes in you, knows you can be successful... they most always have a very good reason for such! :)

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