violinists performing in an orchestra concert“It’s not about playing well by being comfortable and wiping out nervous energy. It’s about finding the right channel for all that energy”
-Don Greene, sports psychologist
The Musician’s Way, p. 184

We’ve all felt that adrenaline-fueled energy of performing.

For expert musicians, on-stage energy can feel refreshing, helping us focus our minds and free our imaginations. For non-experts, though, an uptick in adrenaline can trigger shakiness, mental fog, and surges of anxiety.

What skills do experts possess that non-experts lack?

To begin with, experts not only prepare thoroughly for performances but also deliberately harness on-stage energy for music-making purposes.

Harnessing On-Stage Energy

The basic strategy for students to channel performance energy is to consciously breathe, release tension, listen, and think ahead (see “The Zing of Adrenaline“).

Still, in any performance, we need to direct our energies in various ways subject to the repertoire we present, the performance situation, and how feel at the time.

If you’re jittery at a performance, immerse yourself in the mood of a composition while you also get busy with the self-instructions required to execute accurately, shape dynamics expressively, and so forth.

All the while, breathe into your abdomen, listen to yourself and any coperformers, and jettison negativity.

The more you attend to producing the music and the more aware you are of how to bring it off, the more channels you’ll have open to steer performance stress constructively.

Then, assuming that you’ve prepared thoroughly, your command of the music will help quell your agitation and fire up your creativity.

“In any performance, we need to direct our energies in a variety of ways subject to the repertoire we present, the performance situation, and how feel at the time.”

Directing Attention

When you aren’t buzzing with nerves, you won’t have to expend so much energy on self-management. Then you can reduce mental effort and let the performance situation stimulate your musicality.

Nonetheless, whether you’re at ease or on edge, you should flexibly maneuver your attention as the performance plays out.

For example, when a slippery passage comes along and control is an issue, open the control channels wide, and consciously pilot your execution. When technical affairs run smoothly, send more energy into inventiveness and coperformer communication.

The trick is to have every channel available – that is, to maintain inclusive awareness – so that you never sacrifice artistry for security. Even on the tougher days, when you work hard to prevent your sound from breaking up, you still share something special with your listeners and any ensemble members.

“The trick is to have every channel available – that is, to maintain inclusive awareness – so that you never sacrifice artistry for security.”

Building On-Stage Skills

If you’re in the early phases of learning performance skills, it may take time at the onset of a show for you to compose yourself. No matter how rough things get, though, stay occupied with the moment.

Do what’s necessary to perform each phrase the best that you can, irrespective of how previous phrases turned out.

And be optimistic.

Budding performers often batter themselves with critical self-talk on stage, not realizing that self-ridicule blocks creativity.

Keep up an accepting attitude as you play or sing. Whether things go well or not, each performance gives you information that adds to your expertise.

“Do what’s necessary to perform each phrase the best that you can, irrespective of how previous phrases turned out.”

Emoting & Controlling Simultaneously

Unlike students, elite musicians have refined their craft to where they mostly let go in concerts; they largely function in artistic dimensions.

Even so, when veteran artists are engrossed in performing without any intrusion from nerves, they still preserve filaments of awareness that connect everything they do.

If difficulties pop up, the filaments expand into high-bandwidth channels to bring pitches into tune or an ensemble back into step.

Expert musicians can appear to perform with little effort, so students sometimes presume that they can achieve comparable artistic freedom by merely emoting on stage and foregoing awareness. Not so.

To perform fluently, whether we’re experts or novices, we must emote and control simultaneously. We have to be able to give ourselves over to the emotion of the music while we also lead the music, directing our energy, execution, and the emotional flow.

Adept musicians practice such that they can oversee all aspects of performing with the slightest effort. Hence, they execute easily on stage, even when adrenaline surges, and their emotions have free rein.

For students to become that well versed, they have to acquire the skills needed to prepare for concerts and to direct themselves under pressure. Then, like pros, they’ll have countless ways to transform the zing of performing into art.

“To perform fluently, we must emote and control simultaneously.”

Practicing Performance Skills

To practice harnessing on-stage energy and applying performance skills, opt for accessible music, learn it deeply, and be alert to how you use yourself in rehearsal and in performance. Also schedule plenty of practice performances.

Then, whenever you rehearse and perform, play or sing from your heart, but if your muscles stiffen, react with a release.

If your mind wanders or noises distract you, refocus and think/feel ahead.

If anxiety or negativity crops up, use breathing and affirmations to help restore your inner balance.The Musician's Way book cover

To be maximally expressive, though, it’s good to open an extra channel – the one that connects us with our listeners.

See The Musician’s Way for inclusive guidelines to solo and collaborative practice and performance.

Related posts:
The 3 Roots of Performance Anxiety
Assessing Your Performance Skills
Connecting with Audiences
Excelling Under Pressure
Practicing Performance

© 2020 Gerald Klickstein
Adapted from Chapter 9 of The Musician’s Way