You know that old saying, ‘practice makes perfect?’ What a pile of rubbish. As pianists, we are usually taught this very early on in our development; and although it is well-meaning, not only can it create a lot of anxiety when it is taken literally, it is a potential recipe for failure. Don’t even get me started with the word ‘perfect!’ It is highly possible that you may be habitually slave to this mentality in how you approach and think about your practice without even realising it; which can potentially be causing you anxiety in performance.
In this article, I’m going to explore 3 ways you might be setting yourself up for failure in how you practice, and how you can restructure your approach to practice to work for you, rather than against you.
Do you find yourself practising and practising the same passage until the cows come home? It might be that you are particularly worried about a technical passage, or maybe memorising a certain section. Maybe you are so convinced that you aren’t capable of getting those passages reliably right. There is a science to repetition, in committing to your motor memory, visual and aural memory; but if this becomes obsessive then it might be because you are not trusting yourself.
I just finished a 3-month programme with a client the other day, who is an opera singer. He had been struggling to let his voice be free and open, and this had led to a lot of anxiety on stage. He said to me, ‘I finally feel that I can trust myself.’ This was a huge realisation for him that he recognised the natural ability for his body to know exactly how to sing. Hilariously, he described himself as a human air dispenser, which means that he had completely objectified the process of singing into something purely physical. When the mind interferes with this process, it gets in the way of the natural functioning of the body and brain.
Trust that if you have done sufficient practice, your body and brain will be able to repeat that process in performance. You will know if you are over-practising out of fear of failure, because you will feel anxious about what you are practising. Stop at the moment this happens, and accept that you are ready.
2. Emotionally-charged Practice
Are you anxious when you are practising for a performance? Does that anxiety increase the closer the performance gets? If you think carefully about what comes into your mind when you are practising, are you berating yourself, beating yourself up or expecting yourself to do better than you are? Pupils of mine have been known to swear, call themselves dumb, stupid, useless or bang the keys in frustration…I’ve been known to shout at myself ‘what the f*** are you doing!’ Nice, ey!
Come on, I’m sure you can admit to a bit of the old self-sabotage or shouting at your beloved piano. It’s a human pastime it seems, to blame the tools, not the user of those tools. The truth is, you shouldn’t be blaming anyone or anything. If you remember that your brain is a high-performance machine and show yourself some respect for being the amazing human being that you are, it might just feel encouraged to do the job it’s built to do. You’ve put in the hard work so let it do its thing.
3. Going Straight From Practice Room To Performance
I always say to may clients that performance is just a progression of your practice. Of course, you want to get things to a high level by the time the performance comes round, but if you have been practising productively and objectively, you’ll be at that stage. One of the biggest mistakes that a pianist can make is to go straight from practice to performance, without practising to perform. This could involve recording yourself, playing to friends or family, giving it a test-run in a low-pressure environment.
A performance will always feel different to practice because of the addition of adrenaline coursing through your body. It is important to test some of those tricky passages to see whether they still work under pressure. Test your memory for potential gaps, do whole run-throughs and this will also test your physical and emotional stamina. Psychologically speaking, you will be much better-prepared for your performance and much less anxious if you have reproduced the pressurised conditions of performance in your practice.
Starting to identify these 3 ways in which you may be sabotaging your performances, and changing your approach to practice can really start to open up a new way of seeing things. It will help you to take a step back, remove yourself from negative emotions and recognise that if you have put in the right work, your brain and body will do the heavy-lifting for you in performance; leaving you free to express yourself and immerse yourself in expression, musicality, communication and connection.