This post follows on from The Neurology Of Nerves


In the last article we looked at what happens in the brain when you get nerves and stage fright.  In this article we’re going to talk about what practical steps you can take to combat them.  Since nerves are unconscious we can’t stop them from hitting us, but by practicing right we can give ourselves the tools to deal with them.  It’s all about preparation!

A common theme here is learning to play consciously.  When we become nervous our muscle memory becomes inhibited, and our conscious brain has to do more work than it did previously.  If you can play your piece from memory but can only play from the very start, or if you find it’s fine “as long as you don’t think about it”, these are big alarm bells that you risk it all going wrong in performance.


1. Slow Practice

As every piano teacher has told every piano student since the very dawn of time, it’s all about slow practice.  As we want to get our piece up to full speed, we tend to always practice as fast as we can play without making mistakes, but this gives very little thinking time for the conscious mind to learn the piece, it’s all muscle memory.  When we slow the pace down to a speed we can play easily, the extra gaps between the notes becomes learning time for the conscious brain.

Slow practice gives the conscious brain time to learn, rather than just programming the unconscious.

To make the most of slow practice, start by learning your piece so that you can play it with a metronome very slowly.  Depending on the difficulty of the piece that might be around half speed, or maybe a bit less – some very fast tunes I often start by learning at 3/8 speed.

Once you can play it well at this speed, start increasing the speed of the metronome 4-8 bpm at a time.  Be able to play it perfectly at each speed before you move on, until you’ve got to the full speed at which you want the piece to go (or maybe 10% faster, so it seems easier at actual speed).

Once the piece is fine at full speed we want to keep the conscious mind thinking and learning, so don’t just keep playing your piece at full speed, but instead work it gradually back down to half speed, playing it perfectly at every speed along the way, and then work it back up again.

As you play slower than you are able, you will notice how much more attention you pay to the piece and to what you’re doing; exactly what dynamic you play each key with, the small details of the movements of your fingers, pedalling and so on.  This is what we’re aiming for, it’s the the conscious mind learning the piece as well as programming the muscle memory.


2. Create a mental roadmap

Creating a mental map of the piece helps the conscious brain to stay in control.

Try to create a mental “map” of the journey from the start of the piece to the end.  Aim to be able to describe the journey of playing the piece and what happens as you go along.  If your theory is good you might think “I start on the B minor chord, then move to the first inversion…” but it doesn’t need to be technical.  You might think “I start with that big chord with the A in the left hand, then my right hand plays that sort-of C scale”, or you might think more in hand shapes and sounds, visualising the piece.  Just notice as much as you possibly can, anything that sticks in your head is good and will give the conscious mind more foundations to build its roadmap around.


3. Play it in your head

Following on logically from creating a roadmap is to actually play the piece in your head.  If you’re playing from memory do it completely in your head, or if you’re using music do it with the score in front of you.

Play through the piece mentally VERY slowly.  Take your time and pause on each note, think what it is (Bb, F# etc), which finger plays it, how does it sound, what dynamic is it and so on.  Imagine you have a “scrub wheel” as used in video and audio editing, and aim to be able to move minutely forwards and backwards (yes, backwards) through the piece, paying full attention to every note as you go.


4. Pay attention to your inner experience

How do the keys actually feel under your fingers?  What shapes are your hands making?  How do your hands look when you’re playing?  When are you breathing?  How does your posture feel?  What are you thinking?  Take your attention away from what you’re doing and instead focus on what you’re experiencing.  When you are nervous you will be hyper-aware of every thought and sensation, so familiarise yourself with them in practice.


5. Practice your emotions and your breathing

If you are a singer or wind/brass player then breathing is an essential part of your performance anyway, but if you’re not, think about crucial points and where you’re going to breathe.  For example, when a piece ends on a soft, silent chord, I always take a breath leading up to it and then play the chord while exhaling, it’s much easier to get it soft and even.  If there are tricky parts where you know you’ll be nervous, anticipate that and practice consciously relaxing your body as you approach that passage.


6. Record yourself performing

Knowing you are being recorded can create the same nerves as playing in front of people.

Being aware that we are being recorded produces a similar reaction to being aware that we are being watched, so it’s a great tool to practice with our nerves and see if we’re performance-ready.

Start with just audio – you can record yourself on your phone if you like.  See if it feels differently playing when you know you’re being recorded, and try to record a perfect performance.  When you’re comfortable playing with audio recording, try videoing yourself and watching it back, which you will probably find makes you more nervous than just recording audio.

As you get more confident or as your recital approaches, make it harder by doing this right at the start of your practice session before you have a chance to run through the piece a few times (I often test myself by seeing whether I can play the piece first thing in the morning, before playing or hearing any other music).  Give yourself “one chance” just like you’ll have on the day, and force yourself to struggle on if it goes wrong and then watch it back.


7. Play in front of people

Even better for creating the fear response is to actually play in front of people.  It doesn’t matter who it is, but the scarier the better.  So play to anyone who comes to your house and doesn’t mind listening to you for a while.  The hardest people to play to are other musicians, especially if they’re better than you, so ask any musicians you know if you can play to them.  They’ll understand and probably be pleased to help.

These days with the magic of the internet it’s actually possible to broadcast yourself live, allowing you to do a “virtual recital” where friends and family all around the world can watch your performance, which is a really great way to learn to cope with an audience.


8. Most Important!  Acceptance

When we learn piano we inadvertently get the impression that everything must be perfect.  We sit a certain way, with the stool a certain height, we play with exacting technique and dynamics, and everything is controlled to the minutest degree.

Every now and again it might all go wrong, but no-one ever died because a musician made a mistake.

Playing professionally in real life, I’ve found that things are very different.  There will always be something out of your control going wrong, and you just have to roll with the punches.  I’ve had to play out-of-tune or broken pianos, had unsupervised children wandering over and tinkling on the keys next to me while I’m playing, and singers and musicians I’m accompanying not learning the material, making mistakes or going off on improvised tangents.  Whilst playing at a care home for dementia patients an old lady threw a glass of water at me and tried to slam the piano lid down on my fingers, and as for when you get a sneezing fit halfway through your performance, all I can tell you is that tomorrow is another day.

Nerves are just one more unknown.  I might suddenly get nervous and fudge a passage or make a couple of mistakes.  I hope it won’t happen, but it might, and being comfortable with that knowledge, just as I’m comfortable with the knowledge that I might have to cope with many other things that could go wrong, is an important part of performing.

Don’t think that the best musicians are immune from nerves.  One of my university lecturers once worked as a green room attendant at London’s Royal Festival Hall.  She told me that often, soloists would be an absolute mess before they played.  They would sweat, shake, cry and vomit in the green room before the performance, then they would get their stage call, take a deep breath, walk out to the applauding audience and get the performance done.  And when Glenn Gould was asked in an interview whether he got nervous before his first recital, he replied that yes he did, but nowhere near as nervous as he got now that he had the pressure of being one of the best pianists in the world.  They’re rolling with the punches just like the rest of us.

When judges make a mistake the wrong person goes to jail.  When soldiers make a mistake someone dies.  When a pianist makes a mistake we’re just left looking a bit silly and wondering if we can still invoice for this performance.  In the truest sense, it’s really not a big deal.  So deal with your nerves the best you can, then try not to worry about them.  Enjoy your music, that’s what it’s there for.