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Become a Confident Performer

Christine Potter | November 2008

“I can play that – it’s easy!” This is how you would like to feel before a performance, but to get to that state of mind, you have to prepare physically and mentally.

Physical Preparations
    When presented with challenging note patterns, you should come up with as many different ways to play them as possible. In the safety of a practice room, search for ways to make the difficult passages more difficult, so that when you only have to play what is on the page, it seems easy. The following are a few of my favorite exercises. Plan to do each exercise on several successive days.

Muscle Memory
    To learn a hard passage as efficiently as possible, find the tempo at which you can play it correctly and start there. You may only be able to play as fast as the metronome slowly ticking every 16th note. If that is the speed at which you can play it correctly, however, you have to start there. Fingers do not have a selective memory the way the brain does; like training dogs, they remember what is repeated exactly the same way, over and over and over again. Muscle memory enables us to play a passage, even when the brain freezes. Increase the metronome tempo one notch at a time.

Difficult Passages
    Not all difficult passages are created equal; some are harder than others. Like preparing a Thanksgiving turkey, you should start the hardest passages first because they take longer. Go through the piece and determine which places are the most challenging. Begin practicing them first, gradually adding other passages as you become proficient at the first ones. This way everything comes out done at the same time.

One Long, Three Short
    When we have several beats or measures of just 16th notes, we tend to see only the first note of each group. Using the rhythmic pattern of one long note followed by three short notes, work your way through the passage. The first time through the passage, the first note of the group is the long note. Then go through a second, third, and fourth time, switching the long note to the second, third and fourth notes. This gives each note in the passage a chance to be the long note. Picking the new long note each time may be harder than you think.

The Stork
    If you can play a passage standing  on only one leg, then only on the other leg, it will be much easier to play when standing on both legs! For a real challenge, try drawing a figure eight in the air with your foot as you play.

Third Time is the Charm
    When confronted with difficult passages of a single rhythm, start with a group of three or four notes. Play that group three times (1, 2, 3 – 1, 2, 3 – 1, 2, 3). Then start on the next note (2, 3, 4 – 2, 3, 4 – 2, 3, 4), and then the next (3, 4, 5 – 3, 4, 5 – 3, 4, 5).

     Work your way through the entire passage this way. Just keeping track of how many repetitions you’ve done is hard. Initially you can stop between each group of three, but try to play from one group to the next without stopping.

Learning Rhythm Sequence
    When a passage’s rhythm is difficult, follow these steps:
1. Mark vertical lines over the notes where the beats fall. If you don’t know where the beats are or how the notes relate to each other, you cannot play rhythms correctly.
2. Clap with a metronome and say the rhythm with a syllable such as tah.
3. Pick one note in the passage and play only that note – using the rhythm in those measures.
4. Using the first note of each measure, play the written rhythm, changing pitch at each bar line.
5. Change notes on each main beat of the measure. For example, in 6/8 you would play two pitches per measure, in 4/4 you would play four pitches.
6. Now play the music as written and you will be amazed at how much easier it is.
    The better prepared we are physically, the less likely we are to have self-doubts prior to the performance.

Mental Preparations
    Remember to give yourself credit when you play something well. Even when you are at home practicing, say  out loud: “Hey, that was good!” In general, focus on the good aspects of your playing. You are far more likely to improve when you think about your playing in a positive way. Those places that still need work are just that – work in progress.
    Compliment other players during rehearsals when you like what they do. The attitude of an entire group can change for the better when just one person voices positive comments. If you are the conductor, remember to praise improvement when you hear it.
    The more you think positively, the more good things happen. On the way to a performance think positive thoughts: “These pieces are so much fun to play.” “I am going to have a wonderful time today.” When you arrive, smile at everyone; they may smile back. When you have something worth sharing with other performers, be sure to talk in a positive way. You might think this couldn’t possibly make things better, but words create a cascade of feelings, and these positive emotions are just as powerful as all the negative ones you have had in the past and will improve your performance.

Minimize Stress Levels
    The first time you perform a piece is the most stressful. When planning to play at an important event, such as a National Flute Convention, schedule less-important performances before the big day. Pieces become less stressful  to play after about three performances.
    When performing in a new location, schedule a rehearsal in that space. This allows you to discover whether it is hot or cold and has adequate lighting. You can figure out where you will stand on stage and whether the piano is in tune and in good condition. Don’t forget to find out where the bathrooms are, where to park, and how long it takes to get there. Last minute surprises can throw performers off balance.
    If you are wearing new concert attire for a performance, be sure to wear the clothes and shoes in a practice session. If they are not comfortable while playing, choose something else to wear.
    Select a program that includes a mixture of new pieces and previously-performed ones to avoid both boredom from doing the same old pieces and a high stress level from all new pieces.
The more you perform, the more comfortable it will feel. With more performance experience, it becomes easier to handle problems that arise and realize that a few wrong notes are inconsequential. Perfect performances are extremely rare, even for professionals. What matters most is that we communicate with the audience and that everyone, even the performer, enjoys the experience.