Grace notes: ….and relax!

Last Thursday (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this a few times) I had my end of year exam. I’ve mentioned here that one of my big struggles this year has been with performance anxiety. I’ve been trying a few techniques to combat this and I really think they’ve worked! I managed to get through my exam without falling apart, forgetting my piece and letting every mistake get the better of me. Here is what helped me through.

1) Memorising. I knew my piece back to front, inside out and upside down. I was practicing from memory for a couple of months without using the music and so was used to not staring at the dots the whole time. This allowed me to be completely immersed in the piece and distance myself from the fact it was an exam (I also played with my eyes closed which really helped! Even though I may have looked a little silly…).

2) Visualisation. Every night before I went to sleep I ran my piece in my head. I imagined I was in my exam room and playing with my accompanist and tried to feel the ‘nerves’ of the performance. This is also a great technique to help you sleep… I definitely didn’t make it to the end of the piece every night!
I got this technique from a great YouTube channel called Clarinet Mentors, which have a few videos on how to manage performance anxiety which apply to all instruments, not just clarinets.

3) Listening. In the weeks leading up to my exam, I recorded myself playing the whole piece through every couple of days. This meant that I could listen back to it and hear for myself the good bits, and the bits I needed to work on. I could also listen to one from a few days before and hear the improvement, which is a great confidence boost!

Maybe if you’re struggling with nerves, or are stuck in a rut with learning your piece, these three techniques might help!

Also, apologies for being late on this post. I had a mini-holiday in Prague (we got back at 4am this morning), and that was the perfect post-exam treat! I’m totally relaxed now and ready to start up again with practice, lessons and learning my part for the college opera, ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream‘.

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Grace Notes: Memorising Music

I recently read an article on the BBC News website about the Aurora Orchestra and how they are memorising an entire Beethoven symphony for one of the BBC Proms this summer. The article goes on to talk about the pros and cons of playing from memory, when memorising music in solo concerts became the norm, and why music is resistant to some memory problems. This inspired me to share some of my own views about memorising music.

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(I do not own this image)

According to the article musicians are split on the practice of memorising. I personally feel that it can be a very freeing experience, when the piece is truly ‘within you’. However, if you don’t have it completely welded into your memory, it is terrifying and risky. For instance, last year as part of my end of year exam at Trinity Laban, we had to perform a movement of a classical concerto from memory. Now I had memorised the piece, and so knew it, but I wasn’t so secure I could play it in my sleep. This resulted in me having ‘slips’ and making silly mistakes because the piece wasn’t completely under the fingers. Memorising just because you have to is silly in my opinion. You end up not ‘getting’ the piece and it causes more nerves as you struggle to remember (I always have ‘blank brain’ in exams) and in actual fact kills any expression you tried to put in,

At other times however, being free from the printed page is great. When I was auditioning for conservatoires in 2011 one of the pieces I played was Bloch’s Nigun. It’s a very emotional piece with lots of anguish, and my teacher at the time suggested that I would tap into my emotions more if I played from memory. So I played and played and played until the piece was practically engrained in my bones. I had memorised it about a month before the auditions and then practiced WITHOUT music. This was important because then all of the little nuances I added were practiced in with no associations to the printed page and so when it came to the auditions, the fact I didn’t have music just allowed me to be free. I’m trying to do that for my next exam.

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(I do not own this image)

So far, I have memorised my piece (I’m playing the first movement of Prokofiev’s 2nd violin concerto) and I can sort of play it all the way through (by sort of I mean that all the fast tricky bits are about half speed…..I’m working on that!). My exam is a month yesterday, so the plan is to now not use the music to practice at all and get everything up to tempo and flowing. Hopefully this will work in solidifying my memory of it and my nerves won’t take over and make me forget everything! (I wrote a blog post about my nerves here… I’m still trying to implement these techniques!)

This is my personal opinion on memorising. When used correctly it can be very freeing and allow musicality to shine through, but if the memory isn’t 100% water tight then be prepared for some slips and a very scary performance. I’ll let you know how my end of year exam goes and if the above technique will help me to free up and enjoy the performance of my Prokofiev.

Grace Notes: Performance Anxiety… Is there a cure?

Over the past couple of years, I have developed really bad stage fright when playing solo. This means I dread playing in class, auditioning for anything, even playing in front of my friends! I never experience this level of anxiety when playing in a group (either a chamber group or orchestra), so still enjoy those experiences, but I’ve started to avoid having to play solo violin like the plague.

I’m fine before, until the moment I stand up/walk in and see everyone looking at me. I put my violin up and my brain descends into panic mode. I’m suddenly back about a month in terms of practice and all those little nuances I’ve worked in never existed. I’m simply ‘getting through’ the piece rather than performing. As soon as I make a mistake I dwell on it far too long and my body ceases to function properly. My hands get clammy, sweaty and start to shake as my brain says ‘oh no I’ve made a mistake, everyone will have heard me make that mistake, why couldn’t I play that?…’. This then causes me to panic and get more wrong because I’m not focussed. My brain goes into overdrive so that any technical ability I may have once possessed has gone. I’m now simply clutching onto the violin and bow for dear life just trying to get to the end. My heart rate goes up and I find myself short of breath and tight-chested. When I finally reach the end of the piece I often can’t remember what happened as my brain blocks it out, and I certainly don’t enjoy the experience. All I remember are the awful mistakes I made, and worry about what people will think of me now.

This happens almost every time I play in front of someone so has become a major problem for me, and will continue to get worse if I don’t do something. So, I’ve done a bit of research into different techniques which might help. I’m going to share them here and I’ll keep you updated on which ones work and which ones don’t. Then, if you’re in the same place as me (even if you’re not a musician, it could be anxiety when giving a talk or lecture, acting, or dancing), maybe you can get your anxiety sorted sooner and enjoy performing solo again, which is something I long to do!

  1. Practice until you know the piece inside out. Learn it from memory, be able to sing it and even practice writing it out! If the piece is in your body, you can concentrate on letting go of the fear and allowing the music to take over.
  2. Perform as much as you can. Play to anyone who will listen and PERFORM (not just play) when you do! Get used to the feeling or nerves and try to channel them into emotion.
  3. Try to focus on the positives, not the mistakes (this will be particularly hard for me) and then you’ll be in a happier mind-set, which will come across to the audience/audition panel/family member.
  4. Take the time to relax and breathe before a performance. Try meditation, or just long breaths lying in semi-supine position, relaxing your whole body. This reduces the number of thoughts and emotions bombarding you, and help anxious feels to evaporate. Try taking deep breaths with your diaphragm and this will help you to calm down.
  5. Use the ‘monkey position’. By this I mean if you start to feel like your body is seizing up you bend your knees, hips and ankles which gives you a sinking feeling and will take the attention away from the tension you may be feeling elsewhere in your body. (Thinking about this, you’d look pretty silly doing it in a performance, but if it helps, I’m more than willing to try!)
  6. Accept that you will feel anxious, and then move past it.
  7. Remember: The audience are there to hear a good performance. They won’t be counting the mistakes, so neither should you.
  8. (this is the technique that interests me the most) Try visualising the performance in great detail. Imagine the feel of the instrument, the exact look of the hall, what you’ll be wearing, who is in the audience or on the panel, what the stage feels like under your feet. Then perform. Go through the whole performance in your mind, every note, every rest, every bow. By ‘doing’ the performance a few times, it should feel more familiar by the time of the actual concert, making you feel more comfortable.

Here are links to the sites (WebMD, majoring in music and anxiety coach) that I found most of the above information on. Take a look if you want slightly more in depth solution. Finally, here are two YouTube videos that share 4 techniques (that I’ve touched on above) about dealing with performance anxiety. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

I have an audition tomorrow and I’m going to try to use some of these to see if they calm me down and help. I’ll let you know which of them help me to actually enjoy what I’m playing and be a musician, rather than a quivering wreck.