The Art of Preparing for a Violin Performance

May 18, 2023, 7:12 PM · Whether you’re feeling rusty after a few years away from in-person performances, have never performed before, or struggle with feeling like you’re never as confident as you want to be on performance day, that’s all normal. It’s easy to watch a performer onstage and marvel at their ease, confidence, and seeming lack of nerves. But because the highly skilled performers make it look so natural, we can forget that performance is a skill. And a skill is something that can be studied, practiced, and developed.

student performing onstage

As a teacher who prepares my students for four solo recitals a year and performs regularly myself, I’ve thought a lot about the ins-and-outs of performance preparation. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned that have helped me and my students over the years.

Musical Preparation

This is some of the most important work you can do. If you don’t choose accessible repertoire or allow enough preparation time, it will be almost impossible to feel comfortable or confident onstage, especially if struggling with the notes or feeling stressed for time is a normal part of your musical experience. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way!

1. Choose a piece that is comfortably within your/your student’s technical abilities.

Your performance piece should never be your newest, hardest piece. Taking skills that you’re still gaining confidence in onstage can create more nerves than necessary - and add tension and stress to your experience of learning the skill.

2. Allow enough time to learn the piece fluently.

In my studio, I typically have my students perform from memory, and my goal is to have their pieces memorized a minimum of 3-4 weeks *before* the recital. This means that they’ve been studying their pieces a minimum of 6-8 weeks, usually.

Hint: if learning notes and memorizing is still a struggle the week of the performance, there hasn’t been enough time to prepare, and this could be a sign that practice and time management skills need to be adapted.

Performance Preparation

Learning your piece is only part of it. I tell my students that there is a big difference between playing the violin and performing the violin - although to the outside eye, they might look like the same thing. It’s normal and natural to feel one way in your room at home playing for your cats and to feel a completely different way on stage in front of an audience. Here are some ways you can prepare and practice the performance, for yourself or your students:

1. Normalize feeling nervous and different onstage.

Talk openly to your students (or yourself) about how you feel onstage. I ask all of my students how it feels when they are onstage - how does it feel physically? What does it feel like inside their heads? Does it feel like time speeds up or slows down? I have them define what nervousness feels like to them, so it’s familiar. I also share with them that I have this conversation with all of my students, and that we all feel nervous when performing.

2. Practice being nervous.

For me, I slowly increase my nervousness levels when doing practice performances. I might start by asking my husband to sit in the room while I play through my program, but to not look at me or show that he’s paying attention to me. Then I progress to having my husband listen to a full program. After that, I might ask to play for musician friends either in-person or online.

With my students, I ask them to do practice performances and to practice feeling nervous. I tell them that the goal isn’t to play a note-perfect performance, but instead it is to practice playing their piece while feeling whatever they feel and to get used to the sensation.

I also am sure to tell my students that being nervous isn’t necessarily something that will go away, but it’s something that they will eventually learn to manage and get more used to. For myself, I know a performance is real when that surge of adrenaline hits - my breathing gets shallow, time feels like it speeds up, my thoughts start to race, and my vibrato hits speeds that it only does during performance. Over time and many performances, I’ve learned to move slower than I think I need to, to take deep breaths, and check in with my physical connection to my instrument.

3. Play in a big room

If we’re very lucky, we’ll get to have a dress rehearsal in the actual space where we’ll be performing - sadly, this is often the exception rather than the rule due to scheduling! If you’re used to practicing in a small space, the idea of projecting to the back of the room or filling the hall with your sound will be an unfamiliar one, and might result in some extra stress on performance day.

I advise my students to practice in the biggest space they have available to them in their home - to stand at one end of the largest room and have their family sit at the other end, and practice sending their sound all the way out. Or, maybe they can go to an empty classroom during a free period at school (with a teacher’s permission of course) and practice in there.

4. Choreograph the non-playing parts of the performance, from backstage to off-stage.

Often we spend so much time focused on the musical challenges of a performance that we can neglect to this about the logistics of how we’re getting onstage to perform. Even for the most musically prepared performer, the etiquette of performing can throw them off if they’re not prepared. I work with my students to choreograph the entire procedure, from waiting backstage or in the audience to walking off. It usually looks something like this:

  1. During the performer before you, do some silent finger stretches and shoulder rolls, and take slow, deep breaths.
  2. Remove any extra layers (gloves, sweater, mask) that you need to.
  3. Put on your game face and take one more deep breath.
  4. Walk onstage (plan for stairs!) and hit your mark in front of the piano. Also, if the pianist is walking out with you, plan who will go first.
  5. Bow (either by yourself, or with the pianist.)
  6. If playing with music, put the music on the stand and adjust the stand position if needed.
  7. Check your instrument’s tuning, especially if you’ve been sitting for awhile.
  8. Get set, find your first note, put the bow on the string, and breathe.
  9. Play your piece
  10. Hold your final pose
  11. Bow and smile - if playing with a pianist or others, plan who will bow first or if you are bowing together.
  12. Walk off confidently (no matter how you felt about how you played).

5. Practice waiting.

One of the elements of a performance day is the waiting. At home, we can warm up and practice as much as we want before we play through our piece. At a performance, we may be able to warm up and then have to sit in the audience while other performers play, or we may be waiting backstage. It can be helpful to be prepared to wait, and even to practice this. I tell my students to put on their concert clothes, sit in a chair (no phone, no distractions), and put on two or three videos of other people playing before doing a run-through.

6. Know the logistics in advance.

While part of being a performer is being flexible and prepared for anything, it’s important to anticipate as many of the logistics in advance, especially when training young performers. Things to consider well-before performance day include:

Especially for students who had an extended break from performing during online lessons, or who may still feel anxiety about going to new, crowded places, preparing and normalizing as many elements of performance in advance can go a long way toward helping a performer feel more confident about what is going to happen.

7. Practice performing a lot.

If the first time you’re playing your piece in front of others is at the performance, it’s very likely you’ll feel nervous and uncomfortable! Starting in the weeks leading up to a performance, do practice performances that simulate as many of the performance conditions as possible - I usually tell my students to do at least 3 or more practice performances before a recital. The more you perform, the more familiar being nervous will feel, and the more experienced you will be at managing your nerves and adrenaline!

Performance is a skill and an art, just like everything else we do on the instrument. It takes practice and repetition for it to feel natural and easy.

Do you have any performance preparation tips that I haven’t mentioned here? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

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