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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Instruction: Concentration versus Anxiety

(Chris Smith)
Thinking about playing for large audiences.

As a rule, I’m not someone who suffers from performance anxiety. But I’ve noticed exceptions to that general rule, and they’re generally precipitated by LACK of preparation, the WRONG preparation, or investment of my own ego in a musical result.

Here are some suggestions for coping, mostly gleaned from painful experience—and the example of good teachers.

1) As a general rule of thumb, I'd suggest one should only very seldom play something on-stage that's at the limit of one's technical ability. If you're suffering from any kind of performance anxiety, you want the repertoire you play to be *well below* the limits of your technical execution. 4 times out of 5 correct in the practice room is not enough--it needs to be something you can play infallibly and in your sleep.

The stage is rife with distractions and it's hard to keep concentration together. Playing something that demands every ounce of one's concentration and skill is, in my opinion, a bad idea.

2) Visualization. Spend time in the practice room visualizing the performance situation: setting, lighting, repertoire, personnel, audience, and, most importantly, all the stuff that can go wrong. If you do it right, you can actually give yourself the performance shakes in the practice room--and then make friends with that, and learn to function despite it. Having one's only experience of playing-through-stage-fright actually be on the stage is a bad idea; why not get used to the sensation, and holding it together through the sensation, in the practice room where it doesn't matter?

I used this when taking a doctoral examination in piano sight-reading from orchestral scores (at which I'm terrible), and the visualization in the deserted practice room worked so well that I'd actually get dry mouth, sweats, hands shaking with no one present. It was good to become familiar with those sensations so that I wasn't blind-sided by them in the actual exam.

3) Practice in distracting circumstances. In other words, though of course it's a good idea to have lots of undistracted and high-concentration practice time, it's also good to spend time practicing, and concentrating, when conditions are less than optimal. Watazumido Susho, a Japanese zen master and shakuhachi flute player, used to practice in the middle of Tokyo intersections because it helped his concentration.

One year when I was teaching at a summer workshop, the Dumpster-collection guy used to show up right outside our window about 20 minutes into each day's class. I'd keep talking at the same level, and when people fidgeted, suggest that concentrating through the distraction might be a good exercise. I am not necessarily suggesting that you practice in the middle of an intersection--though pushing yourself to concentrate in adverse conditions is good practice for a like experience in the session--but try playing tunes while holding a conversation, reading a book aloud, listening to a different tune, and so on.

I know players who in the session can be playing one tune while simultaneously cuing someone else by singing the next tune--that's true concentration.

chris smith