Grace Notes: Thoughts about informed performance

One of our classes at Trinity Laban is called Informed Performer. Up until 4th year, the class is all about historically informed performance and we learn about various methodologies and how things were done in the days of Bach etc… This was fairly interesting, but playing Baroque music in a period style, on period instruments isn’t really my cup of tea.

Fourth year however provided a much more varied selection of topics and got me thinking about a few things.

In each class we were asked what we thought made a performance informed. Is it playing the piece how it would have been played in the style of the time it was written? Is it playing the piece being absolutely true to the notes on the page and doing exactly whats printed? Is it looking into what was happening in the composer’s life around then and allowing that information to trickle into the performance? Or is it to let your own personality shine through the work and you as an artist have the final say?

I honestly don’t have an answer for this. Personally I think it depends on the situation, such as who you’re playing to (for an extreme example if you have an audition for a period Baroque ensemble you shouldn’t turn up playing as if it were Wagner) and who you’re playing with.

As I’m learning a piece I try and listen to as many different recordings as I can, some old and some modern so as to get a more varied look at it. I also try to find out as much about the composers life at the time he wrote the piece as I can, and then what the playing fashions were. Once I have all that information I try and tie it all up together to create a performance.

It may not result in the world’s best performance (I’m still not 100% confident with solo performance) but at least I’ll have something to back up my musical choices and I’ll hopefully become a better all-round musician than just churning out the notes on the page.

If you are ever stuck with a piece and aren’t sure where to go with it, then maybe think about the above questions. You may discover something to take your interpretation to a whole new level!

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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‘.

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.