Tag Archives: Performance Anxiety

Forget the Map at Home!

A Guide to Improvisation, by Katie Lubiens

You don't need sheet music on this journey.
You don’t need sheet music on this journey.

Improvising? That sounds scary! Making up the music as you go? But where’s the sheet music? Who even improvises anyway?

As a classical violinist, these were all questions I asked myself when confronted with the thought of improvising.  I never was taught to improvise.  As classical musicians, we always have our sheet music to guide us, to show us the direction we should go.  Going forward into the musical realm without sheet music seems like going on a roadtrip without a map.  Where do I go?

Surprisingly, I’ve discovered, improving is all around us as musicians.  Even classical musicians improvise, too!  There are so many musical genres to experiment with which do teach you to improvise and foster those creative juices that make new music happen.  From blues jams to Irish sessiuns, from jazz club improvs to bluegrass jam outs, there are endless outlets for practicing improvisation.  Without sheet music, how do we know what to play?   Especially when improvising with other musicians.

Katie Lubiens performing with The Seseseisiunists.
Katie Lubiens performing with The Seseseisiunists.

Here are a few pointers when learning to improvise: 

  1. The most important thing to know is what key you are playing in.  It can sound great when everyone is playing something completely different, but they must be playing their own unique parts in the same key for it to work.
  2. Think of the scale, then play itterations of the scale.  I like to play the scale aloud before trying any kind of improvising so I really get the notes in my ear and fingers.  Then try playing the scale up and down, jumping around with different arpeggios, and always keeping the tonic, dominant and 7th in mind.
  3. Take turns.  Most improv music works best when everyone takes turns being the melody.  When it’s not your turn at the melody be sure to keep the energy up.  Long notes mixed with off beat rhythms are easy on the tonic or dominant.
  4. Practice some cool licks at home.  Most improv artists aren’t actually making it up as they go.  Usually, they have practiced some licks which they made up at home and can transcribe them into any key to play while performing in an improvising scenario.
  5. Perfection is not the point.  Improvising teaches you to be adaptable.  Adapting to your current musical situation makes you a stronger player and shows you that the imperfections are what make improvising so thrilling.
  6. Don’t be afraid!  Although you can feel put on the spot while improvising, recognize that everyone else recognizes that you are improvising.  It is not meant to be perfect.  Once you get used to improvising, you will begin to feel the powerful energy in making up music with your peers as you go.

Like anything, improvising gets better the more you do it.  I promise you, if you try you, will find that creating your own music with others in the moment is one of the best adventures you can embark upon. The moment when you close your eyes and listen to yourself creating music together, making it up as you go, and you hear that it sounds beautiful and harmonious, you will find pride in yourself like never before.  So, go ahead, make up the directions to your next adventure and forget the map at home!

**Check back soon for more in depth imrpovising tools and tips!

The Masterclass: Learning in a Group Setting

There are many ways to prepare for a performance, including taking your practice out of the practice room and into a masterclass setting. (Photo by David A. Wolfe)

At Kennedy Violins we often offer people tips on how to practice more efficiently or sightread or learn music theory. But it’s hard to teach someone how to become a better performer. Why is performing so difficult? Probably because as musicians, we spend far more time playing for ourselves, alone, than we ever do playing for other people.

I mean, this makes total sense. Say you spend 100 hours practicing a piece before it’s “performance ready.” But once you’ve worked on a piece, having played it for yourself and for your teacher, does that mean you’re ready to take it to the stage in a recital or concert setting?

Perhaps. But there’s another step, another place and setting where you can “perform before performing,” and prepare yourself even more effectively for your upcoming debut. That setting is in a masterclass.

What is a Masterclass?
A masterclass is a session where a group of students have the unique opportunity to perform for and critique each other. Typically, a masterclass is a gathering of all the students under the tutelage of a single teacher. At each masterclass a few students will perform a piece they have been learning in their private lesson. After the performance of their piece, the teacher and/or students will offer their commentary, critiques, suggestions, and (if you’re with nice people) praise and encouragement!

Guest Artist Masterclasses
You might have the opportunity to attend a special masterclass with a guest artist. Accomplished performing artists often offer a masterclass in conjunction with a performance held. For example, an artist might perform a recital at a university, then conduct a masterclass with music students at the school. This allows students to gain an even broader perspective from a musician other than their private teacher or professor.

Where are Masterclasses Held?
Almost all college and graduate schools incorporate masterclasses as part of the music curriculum. Younger and older students who aren’t studying in a conservatory setting may have the opportunity to attend masterclasses through their schools, private studios, youth symphony programs, camps, festivals, or other music forums.

The Benefits of Performing in Masterclass
Performing in a masterclass is one of the best ways to conquer your nerves, overcome performance anxiety, and stand up to perhaps the toughest audience you’ll ever have. I’ve often felt more intimidated to play in a masterclass of five students who play my instrument than to play for an audience of 100 people who may have never even heard a string bass solo. But that’s the beauty of the masterclass: you get the best tips from people who understand what you’re doing and how to do it.

Masterclasses offer you extra sets of ears to hear things you don’t hear, different perspectives on the interpretation of the music, and a “practice audience” who will give you extra-useful feedback on your performance. A thorough critique of your performance by a group of musicians may be hard to swallow, but it will help you develop as a musician far more than the 100th “Good job!” someone says after your recital.

Of course, those “good jobs” are so, so worth it to hear because it means you accomplished something AMAZING by performing live music! And attending masterclasses can be a huge help towards the successful accomplishment of that great task.

The KV Concert Series: Upcoming Workshops
Speaking of guest artists and masterclasses, we invite you to attend the first performing in our fall concert series! Dan Levenson will be performing on Friday, September 27 at 7:00pm in our recital hall at Kennedy Violins (508 SE 117th Avenue, Vancouver, WA 98683) and conducting workshops on Saturday, September 28 at 4:00pm and 6:00pm.

Hope to see you there! Visit kennedyviolins.com/concerts for more details.

How to Plan a Student or Solo Recital

Photo by Jin Suk

When I was younger, the word “recital” conjured up a distinct memory of only one thing: “Coda,” Episode 7 of Season 2 of The Wonder Years. I love this conversation between Kevin Arnold and his piano teacher, Mrs. Carples:

MRS. CARPLES: Have you thought about what you’d like to play for the recital this year?

KEVIN: I think I’m busy that night.

MRS. CARPLES: I haven’t told you what night yet.

KEVIN: I mean, um . . . I’m probably gonna be busy that night. See, I’m in junior high now,

and there’s a lot of demands for my time.

MRS. CARPLES: Last year’s excuse was much better. Did your uncle ever pull through?

Kevin ends up facing off with his musical arch nemesis, local piano prodigy Ronald Hirschmuller, in Mrs. Carples’ student piano recital. Both boys are playing Canon in D . . . and Kevin absolutely biffs it.

And so, after watching this I came to only one natural conclusion: recitals were created for one (and only one) purpose . . .

. . . Humiliation.

________________________

Fast forward about 15 years to the day I played my very first solo recital. I practiced and practiced for hours every day throughout the summer in preparation for my big showcase. When the day came, I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but I was unusually excited—and confident—to finally share a talent I’d developed over the course of my lifetime. I performed in an historic lecture hall with elegant balcony seating and soft lighting. I wore a bright yellow blouse and printed my programs on yellow paper to match. I wore a beaded flower pin in my hair. Family, friends, and strangers filled the hall, applauding as my pianist and I took the stage.

And then I performed.

Doesn’t it seem a strange thing to do, to practice hundreds of hours for one 50-minute performance? And it wasn’t even perfect—of course it wasn’t.

But, on the other hand, it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. My first recital turned out to be one of the greatest accomplishments of my life so far—something I’m so proud of. Not only did I feel great about it, but those who came were edified by the performance—even inspired to develop their own talents to share with others.

I left not remembering the mistakes, but the feeling of the instrument in my hands, the applause, the warm hug from my bass professor, the taste of the cinnamon rolls we ate afterwards, and the satisfaction of so many years of lessons and practice finally being brought to fruition.

Recitals aren’t meant to be a chore or just another chance to feel overwhelmed by stage fright. A recital is simply an opportunity to share. Yes, yes, recitals are a lot of work in the sense that they require diligent preparation. But there is nothing that will motivate you more to practice and develop yourself as a musician as an opportunity to perform. And, seriously, what’s the point of practicing in a closet and never performing? Music is meant to be heard.

HOW TO PLAN A RECITAL

There are two main types of recitals: student recitals and solo recitals.

A student recital is a recital organized for multiple performers who are students of the same teacher. A private teacher may have seasonal or annual recitals scheduled for students to perform what they’ve learned in their lessons for parents, friends, family, and other members of the music studio.

A solo recital is a recital by a single performer, usually with an accompanist. Solo recitals might include a duet or small ensemble piece. Joint recitals are sometimes organized with two soloists contributing to one program.

Whether you are a private teacher or solo performer planning a recital, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind. Here are some basic steps to follow when as you organize your program:

 

  1. Set a date. Give yourself enough time to practice and prepare. Think months in advance instead of weeks. Consult with family members and friends to pick a date that’s convenient for your most important guests.
  2. Find a venue. Because recitals are usually for smaller audiences in intimate settings, there are many excellent options as far as performing spaces go. House recitals are wonderfully cozy. Homes with vaulted ceilings usually have lovely acoustics. School and city auditoriums, cafes, libraries, community centers, and even outdoor parks and amphitheatres are great options. Call in advance to book a venue.
  3. Choose your music and finalize your program. Try choosing a variety of pieces to round out your program with a variety of composers and pieces from various eras (Baroque, Romantic, Classical, Modern, etc), or pick a theme (Bach, autumn, arias, movie music). Try not to add pieces last minute, throwing off your practice schedule and leaving you with inconsistently prepared pieces. For beginning students, Suzuki pieces are an excellent choice for student recitals, giving young players confidence to play on stage from the start with wonderful standard tunes. Kennedy Violins now carries sheet music perfect for the occasion.
  4. Find an accompanist. Choose someone experienced over an acquaintance or neighbor who just happens to play the piano. Remember that accompanists are usually paid per service.
  5. Practice with a plan. Write out a schedule devoting equal time to each piece on your program. You don’t want your favorite piece to sound great while everything else doesn’t. Consider focusing on one piece per weekday while still running through each piece daily.
  6. Keep up with lessons. Having a mentor is key when preparing. You need someone who can not only listen to you play, but give you pointers to perfect your performance.
  7. Invite people. Invite anyone and everyone! You can have small recitals for family members or open it up to the general public–whatever you want to do! Recitals are excellent opportunities for community members and loved ones to get together.
  8. Print programs. Keep the program simple. Take a look at program examples online for ideas. Include the title of each piece with the composers name. You could also include the composer’s birth and death dates, a bio about yourself and/or accompanist, and the names of each performer in the recital for group, joint, or student recitals.
  9. Arrange for audio/video recording. For student recitals especially, parents love a good video of their child performing. For professional recitals or to record pieces you’re like to submit as audition sample recordings, find quality equipment and possibly a sound engineer to record for you.
  10. Consider refreshments. Assign a friend or family member to take care of this for you so you don’t have to worry about it the day of the performance. A little munch and mingle after a recital is a great opportunity to receive positive feedback and plenty of hugs from all your fans.
  11. Decide what to wear. Choose something comfortable and cool. Practice in your outfit before hand to make sure you’re not restricted or uncomfortable while playing.
  12. If possible, practice in the venue. Test out the acoustics and balance with your accompanist.
  13. Have a dress rehearsal. Be sure to play through your entire program without stopping at least a few times on your own and at least once with your accompanist. If you can, have your teacher present for your dress rehearsal to give you any last pointers to prepare for the big day.
  14. Perform. Don’t stress about each and every difficult passage–just go for it! Let loose and do your best! Put in everything you’ve got and relish your moment in the spotlight. Performances like this don’t happen every day!
  15. Celebrate! Enough said.

Stage Fright Tips: How to Overcome Performance Anxiety

photo by schleikmeister
Studies show that amongst a general list of “greatest fears,” there’s one in particular that consistently takes the cake. Surpassing a fear of spiders, heights, and even death, the act of public speaking (or performance) leaves most people shaking in their boots.

“So, you’re telling me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than have to stand up and give a eulogy,” says Jerry Seinfeld.

Exactly.

So what is it about performing for a crowd that makes us so nervous we physically react? Shaking hands, dry mouth, stomach butterflies, sweating, an increased heart rate, the rush of adrenaline. You would think this fight-or-flight reaction would be in response to a rhinoceros threatening to run you down.

And yet, instead, all you’ll find is a group of strangers, colleagues, family, friends, and even your sweet grandmother happily anticipating your rendition of “Vocalise.” And check this out: 99% of them (unless you have very evil friends), are hoping–and knowing–you’ll succeed. No one wants you to see you fail.

The most common reasons for stage fright are a fear of failure or criticism, uncertainty, self-consciousness, and social phobia. Trouble is, most of us deal with some combination of these fears, desperately hoping to impress or please the people around us–strangers or not.

So while it may take a little more to cure you of your fear of failure (you might also try a few hundred hours of counseling), here are a few tips to battle stage fright and have a truly exceptional–and even rewarding!–performance.

___________________

1. Prepare and Practice.

If you’re afraid of biffing that difficult cadenza, don’t avoid it; instead, face it. Practice the most difficult passages to a point where you don’t worry about them anymore. There’s nothing worse than walking on stage knowing you aren’t prepared. You’d be setting yourself up for failure, which is the root fear that causes stage fright.

2. Be Confident.

Easier said than done, right? But seriously, give yourself some credit! Embrace your ego and let yourself feel strong and capable–because you are. Hours and hours and years of years of your hard work and experience have prepared you for success in this moment. Take pride in the skills you have. Be empowered.

3. Remember, No One’s Perfect.

In fact, the majority of the people in your audience probably have zero experience with your instrument. Some have maybe never touched a violin, viola, cello, or bass in their life. So if you’re fretting over your vibrato in that one phrase being less than perfect, remember that there are people in the audience who don’t even know what vibrato is. It’s like picturing the audience in their underwear as if you have something going for you that they don’t. Truth is, you do.

4. Don’t Dwell on Mistakes.

Along with remembering that no one is perfect, keep in mind that that includes yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. The “perfect” performance doesn’t exist. So if you stumble a little, don’t just stop and give up or stew over what just happened. Instantly move on and get back to the music. Dwelling on your mistakes will lead to making even more mistakes because you’ve lost focus. And speaking of focus . . .

5. Focus.

In the performance setting, there are a lot of details to distract you from the task at hand: the lighting, who’s out in the audience, your accompanist’s polka dot tie. Tune all of it out and focus on what you’ve practiced. There will be time to talk to that cute guy or girl in the audience after you’ve taken your bows.

6. Perform Before You Perform.

Don’t let your big performance be the first time you’ve played for anyone besides your teacher. Take every opportunity possible to play your repertoire before the scheduled performance date. Play for your friends, spouse, family, strangers, or even your cat. Schedule a small house concert or go play on a street corner if you have to.

7. Dress Comfortably.

What to wear might be a concern before your performance, but once you’re actually playing, it shouldn’t be. Avoid tight corsets, uncomfortable shoes, strangling neckties, or hot tuxedos. Some people even perform barefoot! Just make sure your clothing doesn’t distract from your focus while you play. Try on and practice your program in your performance-wear beforehand to be sure shifting, moving, or breathing isn’t more difficult than it needs to be.

8. Relax.

I remember before playing a house concert once, I went to the back room and screamed my lungs out to relieve my nerves. Do something to get the adrenaline out of your system: jump up and down, run in a few circles, shake out your limbs. And once you’ve done that, calm yourself down. Deep, slow breathing and some stretching also helps release the tension that’s been building up in anticipation of your performance.

9. Be Familiar with the Venue.

If at all possible, run through your program at least once in the recital hall, auditorium, or performance space where you’ll be playing. You don’t want any surprises on performance day, like blinding stage lights, no piano for your accompanist, or weird acoustics that throw you off.

10. Enjoy Yourself.

Remind yourself why you love music and what this is all about. Then go ahead and let yourself go. Enjoy the spotlight and the support of your audience. Have a good time! After all, isn’t that what’s it’s all about?