My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Banishing stage-fright in the practice room

When I started livestreaming my practice sessions a few years ago one of the most frequent comments I received was something along the lines of, "You are so brave!"  Next in line was, "I could never do that!"  When I started my practice coaching business last summer and I mentioned to potential clients that I would like them to videotape a practice session so that I could see them in their natural element I was surprised by the consistent reaction of pure terror.  I would go so far as to guess that I've actually scared away clients by my request for me to enter their practice space in this way.  I even have a student with whom I regularly work that absolutely refuses to indulge my request to let me see her practice even though I'm offering to help her at no cost to her.  Her excuse?  "I don't even let my husband listen to me practice!"  

All of these passionate responses make me wonder what's going on here.  Why are musicians so reluctant to let others in on their practicing?

I think many musicians are genuinely embarrassed about what goes on in the practice room which makes me even more determined to get out there and to help people find a way to practice in which they can take great pride.  If people felt so good about their practicing that they could do it in front of others I am convinced that they would see dramatic improvement in their ability to learn music more quickly, accurately, and musically.  They would wake up wanting to practice rather than dreading it.  

What is it that we do in the practice room that makes us so embarrassed?

We don't know what to do.  
Our practicing would require lots of censoring.
We degrade ourselves.
We make a lot of mistakes.
We play unmusically.
We repeat things over and over again.
We think that what we're doing is boring.

Does practicing have to be like this?  Please wait a moment while I quickly run up the highest mountain to shout, "NO!!!!!!!!"  (Hear the echoes?  You should because I shouted that very loudly!)

We can begin to solve many of these problems by starting with one simple strategy - treat yourself just like you would treat your best friend, a student of yours, or a child of yours when they are trying to learn something new.  Would you swear at them?  Would you constantly jump on them for making mistakes?  Would you expect them to know exactly what to do at any given moment?  I don't think so.  So then why do we so often treat ourselves that way and have such high expectations of ourselves?  Although it can be challenging at times I strive to phrase things to myself in a positive or a neutral voice rather than a negative one when I'm practicing - "I think I need to do that passage more slowly" rather than "*&(#*&$(#!!  What was that?"

Another strategy I use is to make my practicing as musical as possible.  I use repetitions, which are a necessary tool in the practice room, to constantly explore musical options.  Using different rhythms while practicing fast passages keeps my ear hearing how the notes can flow into and away from one another differently and tests how well my fingers, ears, and mind comprehends all the notes.  Choosing to feel one main beat per measure one time and then two beats per measure another time gives me a different sense of how the phrasing can be and tests my knowledge of how the rhythms fit within those different pulses - the bigger the beat, the harder it typically is.  All of these tools keep my very busy and even entertained while I'm doing work that could easily end up as being boring.   I also make it a point to explore sound while I'm doing any type of work at the instrument.  If I start to hear myself playing with a less than desirable sound that's usually an indication that I've temporarily lost my knack for creative, engaged practicing and problem solving so I know to either stop or to reboot my creative mind.

Once we're treating ourselves with respect in the practice room and we're being creative and musical we're well on our way to conquering practice room stage-fright.  And in my experience when I have those two things going for me I also find that I am not constantly making mistakes because I'm engaged, I'm focused, I'm being objective, and solving problems.  These are all crucial for effective, frustration-free practicing.  As my favorite poet Rainer Maria Rilke said in his book, Letters to a Young Poet,
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your in the question.
This is good, honest work in which we should take pride!  Why would this type of work annoy or frustrate anyone listening?  Why should we be embarrassed about this type of work?  Let's strive to practice in a way that we're proud of and that we're willing to share with others.  Does this mean our practicing will be perfect?  Does this mean we aren't going to be making any mistakes at all?  No, definitely not.  But no performance is perfect so why not get in the habit of accepting what's coming out of our instrument and ourselves and moving on with confidence even within the confines of our practice space?  It's also a good time to remind ourselves that very rarely does the average audience member have a clue when we've missed a note or a word here or there.  This is even more true when someone happens to be within earshot of our hard work.  We hear and agonize over every imperfection - they more often than not hear it all, wrong notes and right notes, simply as music.  I believe it's important to throw open the practice room doors ever once in a while so we can get over ourselves and our performance fears, learn from one another, and so that others listening can enjoy hearing and experiencing the almost meditative process that practicing can be.

So who wants to go first? 


  1. Great post, Erica. I know I've always had trouble singing purposefully in the practice room, because I don't want other people to hear me make mistakes! It is a toxic fear that can be very hard to get rid of, that's for sure!
    Musically Notable

    1. Thank you for reading and for your comment, Angelina. "Toxic" - that's a strong but good word for it I think. Another troubling aspect of people not feeling like they can practice within earshot of others is that it rules out more time that one might have to practice. If I didn't feel comfortable being heard I wouldn't be able to practice at work, for instance, and I'm at work all the time. It limits one so much.

      All the best,