“I played it better at home!”

If I had a pound for every time a student said this in a lesson, I’d be a rich woman by now! We’ve all heard it, and I know I’ve been guilty of saying it myself occasionally at piano lessons with my own teacher. I’ve even been tempted to put up a sign next to the piano banning this phrase. Why? Because it’s a “given” that we play better at home. Of course we do. I suspect even top flight professionals play better in the comfort of the familiar surroundings of their own home or music studio. And it’s that familiarity that makes playing at home so much easier, less stressful and often more successful than playing in front of a teacher, examiner or audience.

tightrope-walking

My own teacher has a nice image of a tightrope to illustrate the different levels of tension and stress we encounter in different playing scenarios. When practising and playing at home, the tightrope is easy to negotiate, very close to the ground, or even right on the ground, and should you fall off, you won’t hurt yourself. But as soon as you leave the familiar, safe surroundings of your own home or music studio to play for or in front of someone else, the tightrope gets higher and the fear of falling (and failing) is that much greater. Perhaps the highest and potentially most risky musical tightrope is the public performance.

My students know me well enough by now to avoid saying “I played it better at home“. There are several reasons why I discourage students from trotting out this phrase before or immediately after they have played a piece or section of a piece to me:

  • I am keen to encourage a positive attitude to one’s music making. I apply this positive approach to my own music making and my teaching. Using techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy I aim to turn negative self-talk into messages of positive affirmation which encourage confidence.
  • While the statement I played it better at home may be true, deciding not to say or even think this is helpful in fostering a positive attitude to one’s playing, which in turn encourages more confident music making.
  • Pre-empting a performance with the statement I played it better at home immediately sets up negative feelings and a greater possibility for errors because your awareness of your anxiety is heightened.
  • The memory of a good performance in the comfort of one’s home can be used to reinforce positive feelings when playing for others – in an exam, audition or concert – and is a useful tool in countering anxiety and encouraging a good performance. Equally, when in a stressful performance situation, imagine you are at your piano at home, feeling (reasonably) relaxed and comfortable as you play.
  • Change the message: rather than I played it better at home, maybe try thinking I played well at home, I have done my practising and preparation and I am ready to play well now
  • In a performance situation, instead of saying I am nervous, trying saying I am excited. This simple change of vocabulary immediately turns a negative message into a positive one.

Guest post: How to be confident (when you’re not feeling it)

A guest post from Grace Miles, founder of artiden.com, a blog about the musician lifestyle. She helps pianists get the most out of music with psychology.

Remember the “spotlight”?

When all eyes are on you, every little action feels 100 times more obvious.

We all want more sparkle in our performances– and it comes with the right mix of confidence and nervous energy.

Being confident is easy.

So is performing comfortably.

You just need to make the right choices and behave the right way. 🙂

How People Really See You

Imagine giving a speech, making it up as you go, to a crowd.

How will you look?

There’s something I call the ‘glass wall’ effect.

In one study, people gave speeches (made up on the spot) and were asked to rate their own nervousness.

These ratings were compared with the audience’s ratings, and they found that the audience always thought the speaker was less nervous than they really were.

In other words, people looked more confident than they really felt.

Not many people notice how much you’re really shaking inside– that’s the glass wall effect.

People see you, but you’re separated by the glass wall and your emotions don’t come across as clearly as you might think.

This is consistent with tons of other studies–we think our feelings are more obvious than they really are.

(But don’t get carried away: your feelings aren’t invisible to everyone else– it’s a glass wall, remember.) 🙂

Of course, looking less nervous isn’t the same as looking confident and composed, and actually feeling that way.

The answer is so simple yet so powerful.

The Secret to Being Confident

The first step is knowing that people can’t see how nervous you really are.

When they told the speakers that they project more confidence than they actually feel, the speakers gave better speeches and felt more confident overall.

To be more confident, we just have to remind ourselves that people don’t see how nervous we really are.

Shy, clipped phrases may be taken as calm and controlled speech, and so on.

When this burden is gone, then we’re free to focus fully on whatever we’re doing.

But remember that you do want some nervous energy in you– this adds the spark and excitement that amazing performances thrive on.

Act it Out

You smile because you’re happy but you’re also happy because you smile.

Your actions change your feelings.

To let this hit home, let’s look at a study where two groups of people are watching the same cartoon.

The first group holds a pencil between their lips in a way that makes them frown while watching the show.

The other group holds the pencil between their teeth so the “smiling muscles” are activated while watching the show.

It turns out that the people who smiled actually found the show a lot funnier (and enjoyed it a lot more) than those who frowned.

So fix your posture and let yourself smile.

This sends signals to your brain: you’re ready and you’re not afraid to have fun.

People don’t expect to see a nervous trainwreck when they first see you, and they’re not going to think you’re nervous at all if you behave with confidence.

But how does confidence come naturally?

“Natural” Habits

It comes without thinking when you make it a habit.

Confidence just means faking it until you get it right. (Click here to tweet this)

The first few times you try this and remind yourself of the glass wall effect, it might feel like you’re forcing it. And you might be.

But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re on your way to forming a habit and you’ll reap the results when the time comes.

(Some people say that performing puts them in the state of flow, and who’s to argue with that?)

Personally, I’m not the most extroverted person, but I can work a crowd like anyone else.

The Confidence Kit

1. Remember the glass wall effect.

2. Fake it until it comes naturally.

3. Rock on.

The trick to performing is having the right mix of nervous energy and confidence. (Click here to tweet this)

The most technically sound performance falls flat when there’s no underlying hint of nervous energy.

So make sure you leave a comment letting me know how you plan to use these new insights. 🙂

And here’s where you come in: if you know anyone– absolutely anyone– who might benefit from this knowledge, just send them a quick email with a link to this post.

They’ll thank you. 🙂

Grace Miles blogs about the musician lifestyle at http://artiden.com/, designs good designs, and makes great music on the piano.

Performing – just do it!

With my students’ concert fast approaching, this article, which I wrote for a colleague’s student concert programme, seems particularly apt…..

Never underestimate the value of performing, whether at home for family, friends and pets, or in a ‘proper’ concert venue on a really special grand piano. Performing for others, and the ability to just get up and do it, is an important life skill as it encourages confidence and self-reliance.

The rush of adrenaline that comes with performing often forces you to ‘raise your game’ and play better, and interesting things can happen to your music when played before an audience, which may not occur during practice. It is also important to experience the difference between practice and performance, and to put your music ‘out there’ and offer it up to other people. Performing endorses all those lonely hours we spend practising, and reminds us that music is for sharing.

It is important for students to hear each other perform too: if you have an opportunity to hear what other students in your teacher’s studio are working on, especially the more advanced students, you will feel inspired and keen to progress. It is also a means of sharing and discovering new repertoire: you may hear a piece you’ve never heard before and want to learn it.

Performing adds to one’s credibility. Whether a professional or an amateur, it is important to prove that you can actually do it, and, for the amateur pianist, the benefits of performing are immeasurable: you never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Music and technique are inseparable, and if you perform successfully, it proves you have practised correctly and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. This works conversely too, for if you are properly prepared, you should have nothing to fear when you perform. The benefits for younger students are even greater: preparing music for performance teaches them to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages students to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being bothered by them, instead of stop-start playing which prevents proper flow. It also teaches students to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

The auditorium at London's Wigmore Hall