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.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

An open letter to young musicians at jury time

Dear young musicians in school,

It's that time of year already, isn't it?  Jury time.  

Those words still make me shudder and make that familiar knot in my stomach present itself once again.  But almost 20 years after my very last jury (yes, they do end!), after playing for many others in their juries and listening to my music professor husband talk about the experience of being on the grading and comment-writing side of the table, I have come up with some tips for getting through juries that I like to share with anyone who will listen.

In advance of the jury, play for as many people as you possibly can, wherever, whenever.  Do not let your teacher's studio or the jury itself be the first place you've performed your repertoire.  Teachers, especially these days, seem to be very good about providing mock jury situations for their students but I don't think this can be overdone.  There is such a difference between performing a piece for the very first time and playing it the third or fourth times and that difference can make or break a jury performance.  Professionals rarely feel good about their first few performances of any given piece so why should you expect yourself to?

Spend time thinking away from your instrument, dreaming, singing, and breathing your music.  In the final weeks of preparation it's amazing how far away from the purpose of the music we can find ourselves.  I find that spending time doing this instead of woodshedding in panic-mode can make a world of difference when you sit down to perform.  Pull yourself out of that perfectionistic self and remind yourself why you play music in the first place.  

Ask yourself how much work has gone into the past year (or semester).  Unless you really haven't lifted a finger the entire time, chances are you've put a lot of effort and time into learning your instrument.  Rest on that truth.  If you've put it in the time and done so in a reasonably constructive way, it would be hard for you not to show any improvement.  Which leads to...

Remember what the purpose of the jury is.  Usually the purpose of a jury is for the jurors to see how a musician has improved over the course of a period of time.  It is not to prove you can deliver a "perfect" performance since that could really never happen unless there is a miracle, in which case, you fall to the ground and thank your lucky stars.  Juries are to show that you are trying, working, and growing.  And if those things aren't true for you, you're not trying, working, and growing, then juries are a time to ask yourself why.  Perhaps music is not what you really want to be doing, perhaps it doesn't motivate you, in which case juries are a good time to figure out that there might be something else out there that motivates you more.  There's nothing wrong with that realization! 

Ask yourself, "What is the worst thing that can happen?" Although this is a legitimate cognitive therapy exercise, it may seem insane to some.  Why think of the very worst?  Won't that just make you even more nervous?  Well, let's give it a go.  What are some of the worst things that can happen?  You can have a memory slip.  Oooooo...I think that's happened to just about everyone, including the cream of the crop.  So you might have to start again, you might have to get some guidance to get back on track.  What else?  You could miss a note here or there.  Um, yep.  That's going to happen.  Your hands or other body parts might shake.  So breathe and take your time to ready yourself.  And if that shaking alters your playing a bit, that's ok.  It's happened to us all.  What else?  You could, um, what else could go wrong?  Isn't that about all?

And remember, the people sitting in on your jury have all been in your shoes.  They get it.  

Put yourself in the place of the juror and be determined to do your best to entertain and/or move them by your performance.  Most juries are held in a marathon fashion with professors having to spend an entire day or two listening to days worth of juries.  And not only do they have to listen but often times they are also expected to provide written comments.  Yikes!  So why not walk in there ready to break up the dreariness of all.  Go in there and knock there socks off with a fabulous performance.  Strive to sweep them away with the magic that is music so that they forget about that pen or pencil that is poised at the ready in their exhausted hands. 

Treat the jury as a chance to perform.  An extension of the previous point, see the jury as a chance to make music not just a time to prove your worth.  While you're playing, take the time to listen to yourself as well, as if you were in the audience.  It's amazing how freeing that can be.  In some cases, like when I had my jury in an acoustically exquisite hall in school,  juries gave me a chance to enjoy such an incredible place to perform.  Concentrating on those things can do wonders to nerves and might even make your jury slightly enjoyable.  Fancy that! 

Remember that usually the jurors only want the best for you.  Try not to see them as a firing squad.  I realize there might be some unfortunate exceptions to this, but generally professors want to see students succeed, especially when they've been putting in the hard work required in the musical profession.  They are energized by seeing young musicians improving over time and developing into their own musical selves.  There are occasions when teachers might not pass a student but more often than not, such an incident doesn't come as a surprise to that particular student and it's usually a sign that perhaps a change needs to be made.  

With all this said, I wish you all the very best during this jury season.  Remember, it's just one short step in a very long and rewarding journey.

All the best,
your faithful collaborator

If you want to read more about stage-fright and anxiety:
Dealing with stage-fright by taking a cue from your audience
Manners for your mind...a lesson in controlling mind-games
Personal checklist for keeping performing anxiety-free
Personal checklist for keeping performing anxiety-free, Part 2
Personal checklist for keeping performing anxiety-free, Part 3
Personal checklist for keeping performing anxiety-free, final part

Would you prefer to read this post in French?  A colleague in France was kind enough to translate it for use on the blog, "Humeur Piano."  Here is the link:

Quelques remarques à l’approche des auditions devant un jury


  1. I hope each and every jury-student see this. It should be REQUIRED reading for all of them! Thank you, Erica. As always well written and to the point.

  2. You're so welcome, Petronel. And I wonder if some of these point would be helpful in competition-mode as well. I never did many of those myself but I know that you have a lot of experience on both sides of the table!

    Thank you for reading and for commenting.

    Happy practicing, performing, and young-musician encouraging :-)


  3. Erica,

    You make some wonderful points here. Really great practical advice for dealing with performance stress. It leads the musician to realistic thinking about the purpose and meaning of the performance. And I love your question "What's the worst that could happen?" It's so true...a performer's catastrophizing is full of really vague doomsday scenarios. If forced to really think it out, they can realize that it's VERY unlikely anything horrible will happen. Great stuff!


  4. Thank you, Bob. Coming from you, especially, I'm relieved to hear that perhaps the cognitive therapy-style questioning isn't so off the wall. :-)

    All the best,

  5. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  6. Hi, sorry to comment on an old article but reading this SERIOUSLY helped me. I'm a flute minor with a concentration in performance and, in spite of my chosen concentration, I have TERRIBLE performance anxiety. I've been freaking out non-stop about my jury exam next week, and reading this has helped ease a lot of my fears. My favorite bits of advice were to remember that juries are to measure my progress, and to not see my jurors as a firing squad. Thank you so much for writing this! I'll be taking a look at your performance anxiety articles next!

    1. Hello, Lea.
      And now I'm sorry to be replying so late to this comment! It's been too long since I've kept up with my blog.

      I'm so glad that this post helped you. You are definitely not alone in dealing with performance anxiety. I think juries are even more anxiety producing. I can say with certainty that I'm glad I haven't had to do one in a very long time.

      I hope you're still doing music and finding joy in doing whatever it is you're doing!

      All the best,