The Cellist
Issue #6

Performance Anxiety

So much has been written about this subject that it may seem foolish to attempt to add something to it. Yet with all the available antidotes, performance anxiety continues to be a very real problem for a surprisingly high percentage of instrumentalists, in particular players of bowed instruments, and it occurs at all levels.   Pablo Casals, upon injuring his hand as a young man, remarked that his first reaction was not fear that his brilliant career might be over, but relief that he no longer had to experience the terror caused by performing in front of an audience.
The methods in this publication represent workable ideas gained from a lifetime of personal performing, coaching many years' worth of students through performing, and from gathering information from my lovely wife Melissa who is always at her best on stage and also from colleagues and teachers each of whom has contributed interesting ideas.
To begin, no two cellists respond in exactly the same way to performance anxiety solutions.  And some are more prone than others to it.  But like the recreational cyclist who, while trying to muscle his bicycle up a long steep hill, believed that the Tour de France competitors no longer experienced the pain and exhaustion of burning muscles and bursting lungs, later realized that the Tour de France cyclists felt exactly the same as he did, they were just going a lot faster: the amateur or student instrumental performer feels the same anxiety as the touring professional.  The pro is just playing at a higher level.
As in other issues of this publication, I will list a number of ideas. I like to think that most people can benefit from at least a few of them, but I'm not under the illusion that all of them will benefit everyone.

1. Perform music that is easily within your technical grasp. Almost all performances by musicians that I have witnessed, where the quality of the performance was seriously affected by anxiety, had to do at least in part with the performer tackling something  either (s)he or the teacher chose that was at the outer edge of the musician's technical limits.  It may be possible for you on your best day, with a long warm-up and in the privacy of your practice room, to play a particular piece from start to finish successfully, but that doesn't mean it is something you should perform on stage.  Confidence is a big factor in the success of your performance and it is almost impossible to have confidence in your ability with a piece that is at or above your technical limit.  A rule I like to use is: if you can sight-read a piece reasonably well, it will be a good candidate for a successful performance piece.  Short of that, you're creating an opening for anxiety to interfere. A piece near the limit of your technical ability will always have places that you fear as you approach them. This fear alone will serve to distract you from focusing on your expression and sound during the rest of the piece.  If you have to work hard on a piece just to get the notes, performance of that piece is going to induce much more anxiety than will a piece that you can initially sight-read acceptably. All aspiring musicians, amateurs especially, tend to perform pieces that are beyond them.  It's nice to think, or to say "I performed the Dvorak Concerto" but the reaction of your inner organs during your performance may cause you to rethink your decision.

 1a. A corollary to #1.  Make sure the tempo of any piece you perform is also well within your grasp.  No matter how easy a piece may seem, there will be a tempo that is at or beyond your technical limit.  Many performers, especially when nervous, tend to let the tempo accelerate to the point where it becomes dangerous.  Have the control to cut it back when this happens, and you can learn this control by practicing cutting back your tempo in the privacy of your studio.
2. Once a sensible program has been chosen, preparedness is the best prevention of anxiety.  Practice the more difficult measures by themselves, mixing up rhythms and possibly bowings just to make your brain learn it another way.  Play it slowly, making each note sing, even if the movement or passage is fast.  If the piece is for cello and piano, play it with your pianist as often as possible (but not until it is well under your fingers) so that you have a detailed understanding of what's happening in the piano (or orchestra).  Study the piano score.  (Listening to recordings may initially be helpful, but there is a big danger of aiming for the particular performance on the recording, so I recommend using recordings only up to a point.) By the date of the performance(s), you should be so familiar with your program that you are quite ready to move on to other music.
3. While performing, if any fear or nervousness creeps in try the following: a.concentrate on making the very best sound you ever made: flowing lyricism, crisp bow changes, just the right vibrato.  Listen to it, enjoy it and let your audience enjoy it. And if you can't put the bulk of your concentration into your sound because of the notes you are playing, your piece is probably more difficult than you should have on stage at this time. b. Make sure you use as much of your bow as makes sense.  The very act of using long bows engages your body in a way that counteracts the physical tightness resulting from anxiety and consequently can alleviate it. 
4.  Most musicians for whom anxiety has adversely affected their performance believe that it was the anxiety itself that caused their less-than-stellar playing.  In almost all cases, the culprit is actually the anxiety causing them to lose focus on what they are doing. Consider the following scenario: you are performing a sonata, and in the middle of the scherzo movement you realize that you are approaching those four tricky measures that occasionally trip you up.  Nervousness begins to increase and you begin to wonder: if you play it a little softer than normal, or make your notes a little shorter than is called for, maybe your audience won't notice so much if things don't go perfectly.  Suddenly, before you quite get to the scary section, you play a note a little flat and it surprises you. You wonder if anyone noticed and suddenly you play an open g where a g# should have been.  Your hands feel tense; everyone must have heard that.  Now you are in the middle of the tricky section and your later memory of it is a blur in no small part because your performance of it sounded pretty much a blur to your audience even though no one noticed the two mistakes you were so worried about.
What happened here was that your focus, which should have been on the music, was on 1. the upcoming tricky part which took your attention away from the part you were playing and was responsible for, 2. the note you played a little flat, and while you were stewing about that you played  3. the g which should have been a g#.  Staying in the music, concentrating on the beauty of your sound, the expressiveness of your dynamics and the clarity of your notes, are all powerful antidotes to the adverse effects of anxiety.
5. All performers have, at some time or other, the idea that their audience is primarily judging them, enumerating their legions of mistakes, and generally concluding that they're frauds, not musicians at all. The following story is far more common than you might imagine.
A few years ago, Melissa & I performed at a formal, gala fundraiser.  Three groups of musicians - we were the "classical" - were staged at 3 different places in the beautiful building of the institution.  For us it was, for the most part, background music although at various times small groups of people would gather and listen more closely to what we were performing. During a time when no one seemed to be paying attention, a tall, very elegantly dressed gentleman in his 60's sat down directly in front of us and riveted himself to whatever it was we were playing.  I spoke with Melissa afterward and we each had had various thoughts as to who he might be.  He obviously had something to do with music and the event certainly didn't rule out some big-time conductor from out of town.  Or perhaps he was a music critic from a large New England newspaper, or a philanthropist specializing in performing arts.  He sat there for nearly 30 minutes and, for whatever reason, no one else came by to listen.  When we finally stopped for a break and began putting our instruments in safe places (I noticed that I had been perspiring more than usual), he slowly came up to us, politely introduced himself, and then asked what the instruments were that we had been playing.
No matter what you think, few, if any, audience members will ever be judging you. People come to hear cello music because they like the cello. Or perhaps because they like you. It's unlikely that anyone there knows more about what you're playing than you do and unless you're in a juried situation at a conservatory, anyone in the audience looking at score while you play is either a curious amateur musicologist or a wanabee musician with a lot of insecurity.
6. Here's a sure-fire way to make some serious headway against performance anxiety, providing your program is properly within your technical range.  Schedule several (possibly 4 or 5) performances of the same program within a very few days of each other.  By the time you get to the 3rd or 4th concert your problems will shift from countering anxiety to bringing your mind back from planning where you'd like to go on your next date with that cute violist (yes, violists can actually be cute) or making next week's grocery list.
7. Always have your performance pieces well fingered.  This is tricky in that you want fingering in any place there might be a question in your mind, but no fingering where you don't need it and might be a distraction. In my studies I was always embarrassed to have a lot fingering written in my parts for the absolutely stupid reason that I felt that if someone looked at my music and saw a lot of fingering, they would think I was a poor reader (I actually am). When I was working on a particular sonata for performance, my teacher asked if I wanted to see her fingering for it.  I was shocked to see much more fingering in her part than I had ever done for myself. And hers was in ink.  She began with two copies of music: her practice copy was fingered in pencil and underwent beaucoup changes before she settled on her final version at which time she inked the fingering onto the performance copy. Why ink? You never know what the lighting will be in your performance space and fingering you can't quite read will likely create a stumble which can easily exacerbate any present anxiety or initiate some if it wasn't already there.  And never, ever have fingering in your part, printed or written, that you aren't going to use. Even if it never bothers you in practice or rehearsal, it can jump out at you in a tense moment and convince you to use it.  White-out can be as useful a tool as a pencil.
8. Always go for it!  Tentativeness leads to insecurity and what would have been a good performance becomes mediocre.  So make your fortes loud and your pianissimos whisper soft.  Will you make mistakes? Of course: everyone does.  There may never have been a live cello performance that was mistake free. But if you don't tell the audience you made a mistake (a grimace, whacking your forehead with the heel of your hand) they won't ever notice.  What they will notice is the passion of your playing, the expansiveness of your dynamics, your gorgeous sound. 
9. I'm borrowing this last idea from Melissa's & my friend Ron Thompson.  Ron is a very fine trumpet player who has played in, among other ensembles, the National Symphony Orchestra. After dealing with performance anxiety during much of his performing career, Ron turned his attention to counseling others, whether musicians, dog-show handlers, or athletic competitors, who struggle with performance anxiety.  Ron and Melissa have had long discussions on the subject, and Melissa uses some of Ron's methods in all her performances. His program is much more complex than I'm presenting here, but one of the exercises is to choose your "ideal audience", someone who is present at your performance either actually, or at least mentally.  Your "ideal audience" is a person who is absolutely delighted with whatever comes out of your cello when you are on stage, someone who totally believes in you as a cellist.  Although it doesn't have to be, a real person seems to work best.  Your mother, perhaps your cello teacher, the cute guy in your history class who thinks that your cello playing is the most amazing thing he ever heard, the woman who works in the produce section of your local market who, when she found out you were a cellist, thought that you must be the best person in the world.  It's different, of course, for everyone, but it is the opposite of #5 above.  Instead of seeing people with lab coats and clipboards, you see people enveloped in what you are doing.  It inspires confidence, brings out the expressiveness of your playing, and mistakes don't bother you.  Ron has a book forthcoming on the subject.  I have no doubt it will be well worth the read.
 In closing, find as many tools as you can to allow you to focus on the beauty of the music you are performing.  There will always be adrenalin in a performance situation. By countering performance anxiety this adrenalin can now kick in to make the playing of your program the best it has ever been.  Remember that any performance is a gift to your audience: they have the option of taking it or not but it is the gift of your talent and spirit.  Believe it or not, it's not about how good you are, it's about a great work of music transporting someone, even for a brief moment.  You and I are, after all, just mediums for this great world of music.
Our next topic will be: Injuries: how to deal with them and how to prevent them.