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  • Writer's pictureSiqian Li

How To Perform Well Under Pressure

As a professional musician, one of the most frequently asked questions from people would be ‘Do you feel nervous on stage?’ The answer is, “Yes! I definitely do! No matter how many times I have gone on stage.” Being nervous at a certain level and giving yourself a bit of pressure is necessary and healthy onstage. In fact, those few worst and dullest experiences on stage happened in my career when I didn’t feel the nervousness and pressure. When I became too comfortable and careless, the high level of concentration and excitement required for an excellent performance was gone. But how should we keep the level of nervousness within our control? There are a few top tips I would like to share with you.

Being nervous while performing in front of an audience (whether big or small) is what we call Stage Anxiety or Performance Anxiety, which is caused by fear. My first top tip would be to find and confront the actual reason that causes you to feel nervous and anxious.

We are all very different individuals, and the reasons for performance anxiety are never the same. Some people feel nervous and extremely pressured because of psychological fear - such as the fear of messing up, being judged, gaining attention from the audience and so on. Some feel overly anxious due to physical reasons, for example, sweaty hands, which is really challenging for musicians, especially for piano players, or simply because they are underprepared. Only by analyzing your true inner feelings through each performance and finding the root of the fear, will you be able to find an effective way to deal with stage anxiety. Usually, I see kids deal with it much easier than adults, as they worry much less and are far more fearless! Yet, if young beginners ever feel nervous to perform in public, encouragement and support from their parents and close friends can be vital.

Once you fully understand where your fear comes from, work hard on it in order to build up confidence, and I believe solid skills and practice are the keys to confidence.

Whether you are a beginner or an advanced pianist, practising solidly and mastering every detail of the music you perform are always the keys to building up your confidence on the stage, especially under substantial external pressure. Before looking for any other method to relieve nervousness and anxiety, practice as detailed as possible and perform for family and friends as much as you can, imagining you are performing in a formal situation. If you make sure that you are prepared to 120% and can play in any situation, then you will definitely be able to deal with the pressure onstage. Based on my experience of over more than 20 years of performing, running through the pieces for others and recording yourself would greatly improve confidence in the actual concerts, exams, and competitions.

While you should try to play as perfectly and detailed as you can during practice, try to avoid the mentality of being perfect onstage.

From the psychological perspective, most stage anxiety is caused by the mentality of being perfect. What we must understand is that there is no perfection in music performance. Musicians cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence because we are human beings, have emotions, and make mistakes. Each performance has its own voice and meaning, being perfect would mean similarity. The performer often dwells over mistakes that the listener may not notice at all, so please don’t focus on mistakes you made onstage or be afraid of making mistakes. Performance can be compared to life, you only have one go, so treat the time of being onstage like you would treat your life, simply enjoy every moment and go with the flow. Mistakes? That’s just part of the show. Live in that moment, and that’s the moment you can make magic happen.

If you still feel overly anxious after trying these tips, try to distract yourself from the pressure by engaging with relaxing and fun activities before going onstage.

In my years of experience participating in international competitions, I have seen many ways that pianists relieve their anxiety before their performances, such as playing video games, listening to pop songs & rock music, singing karaoke in the dressing room (don’t sing any classical music, it will make the others nervous too!), or eating specific foods, however, there are also entirely unexpected ones, for instance doing handstands! For myself, I simply need enough sleep, as a fresh mind makes me chill and feel in control. In general, avoiding fixating on an anxious mood and finding your own way to stay away from that state of mind will help you learn to handle being onstage. Do you find some of the activities above fun?

At last, remember it is YOUR stage and you call the shots! Musicians would never feel they have practised enough. However, when you are onstage, always tell yourself that you worked hard, a certain level of anxiety is alright, and you are the boss now. Self-confidence is the best weapon to fight against pressure and stress. Lastly, learn to be grateful, every performance is a valuable opportunity to grow, and share your love for music. No matter if you are a professional or an amateur, do believe that the audience will always connect and appreciate a genuine and sincere performance.

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