Memoirs of a Piano Recital (Student Post)

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(Vanessa is an adult student in my Piano Skills and Mastery Program who started playing piano only a few years ago.  In her account below, she talks about the experience of overcoming stage fright in her performance at our recent Holiday piano recital.  I am grateful that Vanessa generously agreed to share this, as I think it can inspire many people. I hope you like it. — Chris)

Memoirs of a Piano Recital

Yesterday I played in the piano recital at the Albert Einstein Residence Center. I played “Christmas Time is Here”, then I played “Frosty the Snowman” for a Finale Sing-a-Long. This was, by far, my best experience playing at a recital.

Addressing the audience before performing.
Photo by Charr Crail.

As usual, I was nervous. In the morning, I felt the tingling and butterflies in my stomach and the whole-body tension that I’m beginning to recognize as the recital day jitters. My thoughts turned to “Why am I doing this? I need to get out of it somehow.” At one point, I even started to come up with plans to pretend I was injured or ill. I really was stressed.

But then, I made a conscious choice. I started thinking about some of the things I have read about managing performance anxiety. I started to actively work on my mindset. I started to redirect my thoughts. I started working on my “inner game.”

1) Breathe … think about getting into that Yoga style Zen feeling.

2) The butterflies won’t go away, so think of them as a joy in my body. Tell myself that this is Happy Electricity running through me.

3) This one is a little weird and perhaps somewhat funny. I started thinking about Florence Foster Jenkins. She was a particularly bad opera singer. However, she LOVED music and LOVED singing. She somehow had the courage to perform at Carnegie Hall. Who knows why, but it was a packed house. As bad as she was, people came to see her and seemed to find enjoyment by the fact that she radiated enjoyment. The thing that resonates with me, is that if Florence had the courage to sing badly at Carnegie Hall in front of thousands of people, who was I to feel a lack of courage to play piano at a small piano recital? How bad could it really be? I love music. I decided that I would embrace the LOVE of playing (no matter that it may not be perfect). I would be like Florence; “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.” Substitute “play” for “sing”.

Forcing my mind to think of the things above, a sense of calm began to come over me. I started to turn my angst into excitement. I told myself (out loud), over and over, that I could not wait to get to that piano to share my Christmas cheer, that “Nothing can possibly go wrong”, “I have the ability to reach that state of “unconscious” perfection”, “I am a rock star”, “I am absolutely a success.”

When I practiced my pieces at home, I sat at the piano and said to myself, “This is going to be so pretty.” “I feel amazing when I play this.” “I am enjoying the music that I am making.”

I did not over-practice on piano recital day. I knew from experience that this was not the day to learn anything. I had worked hard on these pieces and they were as good as they were going to get. This was the day to run through them once or twice and to enjoy the way I play them when I’m at my best, first thing in the morning. Anything more than that and I might start highlighting mistakes and creating doubts.

When I arrived at the recital, I resolved that everything I thought and said and did, would be positive. Anything negative would be duly noted and pushed away. “I’ve got this, I am happy to be here, I love the way that piano feels and sounds, I really love the song I’m going to play, what a lovely venue, isn’t this a fabulous day to play piano?”

And I smiled. A lot. I just kept smiling. I resolved to announce my song to the audience in a friendly and excited manner. “Look at this great piano songbook I have.” “Isn’t it great that I can play this song for you?” “Let’s have some fun with this”. And smile, smile, smile.

At the piano.
Photo by Charr Crail

When I sat at the piano, I put my hands in place and got my foot on the pedal, then held for a couple of seconds and took a deep breath. I listened to my breath going in and out and I listened to the sounds in the audience behind me. Then, I turned off all the external sounds and focused solely on the sound that the piano was making as I started playing.

I actively enjoyed the music I was making. Instead of listening to my inner voice that tries to tell me that the timing was wrong, or tries to tell me that I missed a note there, or tries to tell me that the more experienced pianists in the room will think I suck, or that tries to tell me that I might forget where I am in the piece; I listened to a different voice that said, this is smooth, this next part is easy, this part will be flawless today, this chord sounds so lovely, I love how this part feels when I play it. When I made a mistake, my good inner voice said, pretend I meant to do that, fake it ‘til you make it (internal giggle).

At one point towards the end, my hands started to shake when I paused in the wrong place. I mentally said “Nope! My hands are relaxed.” I took a breath and relaxed my hands as I went for the next note … it worked … my hands stopped shaking. I finished the song and smiled again. Yesss …. That felt good.

What’s amazing about all this, is that I actually psyched myself into playing better than ever. I received a lot of nice compliments. One resident came up to me to say that I played lovely. A student’s parent said that I played flawlessly. Another student said that I am her inspiration, she wants to be like me. A more advanced student, who is an inspiration to me, said that it was the best I’ve ever played, a very nice performance. And of course, my teacher was beaming, because he knows how hard I had to work to make it look like I didn’t work hard.

Did I play perfectly? No, I did not. I know that; my teacher knows that. There were parts that were not smooth. My timing was not completely consistent. I missed some notes. I cheated on some parts that I never learned properly. I know all this, and yet I smile. Although I would love to be perfect and will continue to work towards that goal; I finally realized that when it comes time to play in front of people; strive for perfection, yes, but what matters as much or maybe even more, is the enjoyment. Don’t let the imperfections get in the way of the enjoyment.

I will revisit this piece next Christmas, and I will fix the parts that I didn’t learn properly and I will be more technically advanced. But, just as important, I will remember to bask in the sheer joy of playing. This is why we do it.

Vanessa Roach 12/10/2017

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