by Faith Lau, Suzuki Niagara violin teacher
Performing and playing for others is such a rewarding and necessary part of any musical education. In many cases though, it is often the performance aspect of learning an instrument that terrifies and gives many students the greatest feeling of unease. Performance anxiety is a reality that many will face at some point in their musical journey, and in light of the upcoming Kiwanis Music Festival, here are some practical reflections on this topic.
I remember when I was a young student, I would get frustrated at the many well-meaning comments I would get before a performance. "It will be okay", or "you'll sound great!", or "don't worry so much, it'll be fine!" were among some of them. As nice and well-meaning many of these comments were, they did little to ease the dread and fear that often accompanied an impending appearance on stage. It often felt like people didn't understand the depth of the fear and frantic thoughts that would run through my mind. Perhaps some of you resonate with a few of these: “What would they think? What if I make a mistake? What if I forget and get completely lost? I’m nervous and I don’t know why! There are so many people watching!”
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to face these fears and still walk on stage, and I think the acknowledgment of this courage is often missing from our well-meaning attempts to placate our children and students to perform. For these reasons, here are a couple responses and actions that I would have appreciated as a student who was feeling anxious about a performance:
Affirm their feelings - Ask them how they are feeling, even if they seem ok. Validate that feeling instead of trying to convince them that it’s not that big a deal. It absolutely makes sense to feel nervous about performing in front of people, and is a common experience for everyone.
Affirm and commend their courage - Regardless of how the performance might go, assure them that the simple act of getting on stage is an extremely brave and courageous one, and that you are extremely proud of them for that.
Remind them why it is worth it - Although performing is scary and hard, it is worth it, because there is nothing as rewarding as conquering one's own fear and seeing how appreciative people are because of that.
To students who are nervous about an upcoming performance, or performances in general, here are a couple practical steps that I have found really helped me face those fears on stage:
Practice performing your piece in front of people who make you nervous before the actual performance. I hated doing this as a student, but nothing prepares you for the stage more than practicing playing while nervous.
Imagine your favourite place to practice in your house, and transport yourself there In the moments before starting your performance. Sway, bend your knees, or do any kind of subtle movements to prevent your knees from locking or shaking
Focus on one thing as you begin your performance. None of us can handle thinking about every little detail when our adrenaline is pumping from being on stage. Focus on the music, and trust that all your hard work with notes, bowings, and technique will show.
Remember that you are not alone! You have a wonderful accompanist who is on stage making music with you. The beautiful thing about music is that it is almost always a team effort.
There is so much more that can be said on this topic, but the comforting truth is that whether you have been playing for one year or twenty, this is a shared struggle, and we are all on this journey together. Students, I can’t promise you all that it won’t be hard, but I can say with confidence that with time and practice, it does get easier. Perhaps more importantly though, I promise you will become more courageous and confident people because of it. It is our hope that Suzuki Niagara will be a place where teachers, parents, and students alike can encourage, support, and affirm each other as we strive to become better musicians, and ultimately, people.