What Every Musician Should Know About Performing Under Pressure

What Every Musician Should Know About Performing Under Pressure

Last summer, my sister had a vision of joining a hip hop dance crew and competing around the world.

We visited hip hop dance studios around town, eventually coming to a street dance studio. A sign behind the glass proclaimed a 30-minute wait, beyond that, worn carpeted stairs.

To give a little context, street dance is ultra-free, making up moves on the spot (in Step Up, the hip hop dancers versus the ballerinas).

When we were let into the smoky studio, the owner backed us into a sofa.

“Most people who’ve danced for years,” he said, “can’t actually dance.”

I observed the grey-white upholstery weaving of his couch, pondering.

Street dance is like jazz music, where spontaneous imperfections create the magic. Here’s how to perform better, to shine at all times, even during the mistakes.

1. Don’t lose your lunch in a jungle.

If you’re lost or feel like an idiot when playing piano, grab a thread of what you just saw. Then weave a picnic blanket. And/or change the key. Change the octave. Change your nail polish.

One dance mantra is, do everything full out because it’s more interesting to make mistakes in a fun way, than have perfect technique but bad attitude.

Feel the music even if you can’t love the sound. Look, here’s pianist Josh Wright improvising, then confessing that the playing was bad. I remember watching this years ago.

2. Grab the ingredients first

You’ll likely need a song book, a technique book, and an agreement with sanity. The latter means: there is no literal perfection in music, at least in the beginning.

When a ballerina steps onstage, she has done so many exercises that you don’t want to see her bare feet. (Look up ballerina feet without pointe shoes if you’re morbidly curious.) Even then, her performance is never perfect.

Technique, like Hanon, is essentially a set of ingredients. Playing the piece of music is the big pot where you pull out the ingredients needed. If someone tries to play Liszt without basic technique, you will pick it out right away.

You know what to do if you don’t want to be called out? Take 10 minutes before your practice to warm up with some technique. Warm up even if you’re short on time; Hanon is almost no-fail if you don’t go overboard.

3. Take a melody on the go.

Accompaniments slip; always have a melody ready.

But if this melody doesn’t fit the situation for some reason, you probably can’t perfect another one right away because everyone is listening. So, take two melodies.

This is great for saving mistakes; my former jazz mentor runs off any piano piece in a few minutes because he plays by chord.

4. Bring the house somewhere else

You can never hear your own performance with the delicious anticipation that comes with the sweet first note, because you’re playing the shebang. You’re working the pulleys and rope traps. You miss the peeking dove feathers. So ask a musician friend or two to look over your performance; maybe you stick your neck forward without knowing.

Once you’re able to have this type of conversation with a friend, you’ll get a mutually beneficial culture of musicianship. Meaning, you’ll motivate each other because these problems and ideas improve when opened up honestly.

As a bonus, you’re the average of the 5 people closest to you; why not start a piano circle?

What Every Musician Should Know About Performing Under Pressure

5. Do foot and back exercises without the instrument.

A stiff wrist is distracting; a stiff back is painful. A stiff knee could be for life. If you pedal with one foot, always balance your body with easy foot exercises.

6. Don’t let the lion take you down for shyness.

If you are self-conscious, think about it this way: what can you do to make yourself proud? It can be something as small as smiling the audience before you start performing.

One of my past goals was simply wearing my glasses while giving presentations. You see, when the world was blurry, I was merely rehearsing a well-scripted play.

However, when I can see people sitting in front of me, then I have a responsibility to gauge the unspoken feedback. So, at one point, wearing glasses made me proud. The next step might be making two jokes. Or maintaining eye-contact with two people.

It’s these small things, a million of them, that add up to a spectacular performance. So don’t be afraid to glimpse at the eye of the tiger. Or dance through the fire. Whatever makes you proud.

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