Playing in Public: stage-fright and goal-setting


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As the end of a semester or a school year approaches, many students are asked to participate in recitals or performances, to celebrate all the hard work and many accomplishments they have made during the year.  It’s very normal to feel nervous about playing music or giving a performance in front of other people. Many professionals experience stage fright and nerves, even after many years of playing in public.  However, sharing your music with other people is a very important part of playing an instrument.  Music is meant to be listened to, and if you never play for anyone besides yourself, you are cheating yourself out of the full experience of musicianship.  (After all, if someone gives a concert but no one is there to listen, the full experience cannot take place.  An audience provides ONE HALF of a concert experience – the musician is only doing the other half of the work!)  You are also cheating yourself out of an opportunity for personal growth (“No one else even noticed that I made a mistake – I survived it, and the world didn’t end!  Now I know what to work on for future, or what to do differently next time.”)  You are cheating yourself out of the opportunity to amaze and surprise yourself (“I can’t believe I did that!  It feels great now that it’s over!”)  And – you are cheating your listeners, out of the joy of sharing your music with you.

It can be really difficult to make time for all the things that we want to do, that we need to do, and that are important to do. Sometimes something that we love to do, like playing the harp, simply can’t be squeezed in to our already jam-packed schedules.  While the idea of playing in front of other people doesn’t always seem appealing, here is something to consider.  A recital or any kind of “deadline” can be reframed from something that seems intimidating or stress-inducing, into a golden opportunity to make a true commitment to the learning you signed up to do (and paid good money for!) Don’t you sometimes feel frustrated because you want to play the harp, but can’t seem to improve the way you would like – usually because you just don’t have enough time to practice?

Setting the deadline of playing in a recital can create just the right mixture of “motivating fear” that will help you fully commit to practicing more intensively during the days leading up to a recital. We all know that something we enjoy as just a hobby can’t be our top priority 365 days a year.  But it can be more realistic to make the harp a top priority for just THREE WEEKS out of the year: MAKING THE TIME to sit at your harp EVERY DAY, and really focussing on the ONE SONG you will play for the recital.  The fear of playing that song in public, combined with the security of knowing that you will be playing for a group of friends and other sympathetic musicians, plus the “realistic-ness” of this short-term time commitment, is a formula for rapid improvement and exhilarating success!  You will be amazed at how three weeks of dedicated practice will take your harp-playing to the next level.  The confidence you will gain from your performing experience will make the next goal or challenge seem that much more attainable…which makes it possible for you to conceive of other goals and challenges that you wouldn’t even have imagined you could take on.

When I was growing up, album_r9_c3_f13I was so afraid of playing the harp in public, I couldn’t sleep the entire night before doing so!  Over the years, I became aware that I had a tendency to say no to things that I really wanted to do, because they seemed too difficult or too scary for me. Eventually I realized that this behaviour was causing me to lose out on many learning and growth opportunities, and I came to feel a lot of regret about the risks I didn’t take – much more so than about any little mistakes I might have made in front of an audience! Now, I accept several performances a year, simply BECAUSE they scare me!  I’ve learned that anything that scares me offers the potential for tremendous personal growth and a real sense of pride in myself and my achievements.  Those feelings are so great, I have gradually learned it’s worth some fear and anxiety, in order to experience the “pay-off”. I got to this place one step at a time, by gradually saying “yes” to bigger and bigger challenges.

As a harp teacher, I sometimes work with students who theoretically want to play an instrument, but go year after year (and sometimes instrument after instrument) without ever truly committing to it (or to themselves!)  Don’t keep telling yourself that, “next year”, “in five years”, “when you retire”… etc… you will finally make time to really play the harp.  Play the harp NOW. Play the harp for the next three weeks.  Play the harp for a friend.  Play the harp for a recital!

The next time an opportunity comes along that seems too scary to say yes to – think it over and ask yourself, why would I NOT want to do this?  What are some possible negative outcomes of this experience?  Are these concerns really valid (are the possible negative results really all that bad?), or am I holding myself back in some way that isn’t really useful to me any more?  What might be some positive outcomes of saying YES to this experience?

A couple of things that sometimes help me keep a healthy perspective on playing music in public:
  • It’s just music! It isn’t brain-surgery, or sky-diving.  Music isn’t dangerous! When you think about it, you do plenty of things that ARE dangerous: most people don’t think twice about driving a car for example. (You’ll get in a four-wheeled death-machine, but you won’t make a few musical noises in public? Oy!)
  • Ask yourself: what is the worst that could happen?  Your hands are sweaty with nerves, and you stumble over a few notes?  Big deal!  We “play” music, we don’t “work” it.  So don’t take it so seriously – just get out there and have some fun!  If something goes wrong, it really dosn’t matter – not brain surgery, remember? Nobody will die because of your mistake!
  • It’s not Carnegie Hall either, it’s just a little friendly recital.  No one is going to yell out “boo”;  you can’t get “fired” from playing your instrument.  In fact, people will be amazed that you play the harp.  The harp is such a sympathetic and beautiful instrument, you could play a scale, and your audience would tell you how beautiful it was!  The harp sounds great all on its own.  All YOU have to do is get out of your own way, and let the harp do the talking!
When you think about it, playing the harp in public is one of the least-risky things you could ever do!
Alys Howe Harp Teacher Vancouver BC