Do you get nervous before a performance? More generally speaking, do you get nervous before an event that matters to you? I can definitively say ‘yes’ to both of these questions. I have been a graduate student in violin for exactly 56 days, and as I reflect on my experience so far I am amazed and overwhelmed with the amount of valuable guidance I have received thus far.
However, it’s not hard for me to pinpoint the piece of advice that has impacted me the most: the idea of performing with a complete lack of judgment, zoning everything out but the musical message that YOU want to convey to the audience, a message that can only be delivered by you. This concept is often and easily forgot by many musicians. It is essential to explore this state of mind with the notion that it is a practice, and is something that needs to be practiced as often and as seriously as scales and Kreutzer études.
I have approached violin lessons, and school in general, for 17 years with the supposed “ideal” academic mentality, a mentality that is preached to us from preschool-on and is essentially focused around pleasing our teachers and mentors in order to obtain satisfactory grades. Throughout my entire pre-K, grade school, junior high, high school, and undergraduate careers, I never questioned my approach, and why should I have? My teachers liked me, I was getting good grades, and I was happy.
However, as soon as I started lessons in graduate school, my teacher quickly picked up on this approach. He asked me why I was so nervous in lessons and why I was so afraid of playing out of tune or making a bad sound. At first, I honestly didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know. After meditating on these questions, I finally realized that my anxiety was motivated by the fears of being judged or disliked by others for my playing.
After acknowledging that this is a very common source of anxiety, my teacher made me realize that those fears are not why we play music. We play music because we have something unique to say, and witnesses of this are truly lucky. In order to truly convey what we have to communicate to our audience, no matter how big or small, we need to meditate on the notion that what we have to say is the highest priority in performance.
How do you find that carefree state of mind prior to or during a concert? It’s nearly impossible to do so without practicing it, especially when nerves are a factor and your brain goes into autopilot, survival mode. There are several ways to go about practicing this mental state, some that require no instrument whatsoever. One method that requires no materials of any kind except a quiet room (and maybe a yoga mat) is just plain meditation; sitting quietly, collecting your thoughts, and finding the rhythm of your breath.
I feel that it is essential to highlight that the most important part of this practice is withholding any kind of mental or physical judgment whatsoever; for instance, if you start thinking about everything that you have to do the next day, don’t punish yourself. Simply acknowledge that thought, and just let your mind flow without control. I feel that this meditative approach is something that is essential for an outstanding performance. We cannot fixate on every wrong note or little thing that doesn’t go exactly as planned. We should simply acknowledge it at the time, and move on, striving to communicate our musical thoughts to our audience with no further judgment. Good musicians strive for technical perfection, while outstanding musicians strive for a balance of sound technique and emotional intensity in performance.
Other ways of developing a judgment-free style of performance are practicing it in the practice room. Of course, it is essential to critique yourself while practicing in order to improve your playing, but choose certain points during your practice session where you will play a run-through of something (it doesn’t even have to be a whole piece) without any thoughts, good or bad. The focus should be solely on conveying your musical interpretation to an imaginary audience, relaxing into your sound and breath.
This kind of practice has already increased my level of comfort while performing, not to mention the quality of my playing. In general, there needs to be an increased focus on fostering this kind of mentality while performing; it’s easy for us to get too bogged down by technical difficulties that cause us to forget what we have to communicate musically. Nerves will never go away completely, but if we all spend a little bit of time every day trying to distance ourselves from judgment from others and ourselves, we may be able to perform a little bit more comfortably, with a significant musical message to communicate.
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