Teaching students how to perform under pressure is tough.
As a teacher, it’s easy to take for granted what you’ve learned after dozens of live performances. It can be surprisingly difficult to distill your hard-earned experience into advice that your students can actually use.
But your students need useful advice to learn how to give excellent, poised performances.
Think for a second: What do you remember your teachers suggesting you do to cope with high pressure performances?
“Take your time.”
“Breathe. Let mistakes roll of your back.”
“Sing the phrasing, exaggerate the shape.”
This is great advice, for performers of all levels. Take enough time to feel centered on stage, breathe to center your focus, and sing the shape of the music.
But sometimes even the most well-intentioned teachers give advice that is not as beneficial.
The idea behind listening ahead is that the performer will be able to hear each phrase internally before it arrives and will therefore be able to communicate with the audience more effectively.
Teachers often suggest this to students who have a tendency to get caught up in small technical details – the students who are so focused on technique that they perform in a robotic manner.
For these students, listening ahead can be helpful at first. It can encourage young performers to detach from small details and observe the larger musical picture. And for some students, that’s a big accomplishment!
However, at some point the benefits start to fade as less useful habits develop.
The Risk of Listening Ahead
Students who habitually listen ahead may find it difficult to ever feel comfortable on stage.
By listening ahead, they are creating expectations about how things will sound.
This may seem like a good idea, but the problem arises when the expectation of how things will sound doesn’t align with how things actually sound.
This kind of comparison can be great in the practice room, but is not so great for compelling performances.
In the practice room, listening ahead to maintain a detailed comparison of expectations vs. reality enables us to improve quickly and efficiently. But on stage, it creates tension and self-doubt.
Once a student develops the ability to perform with the broad musical scope of a piece in mind, they can become significantly more powerful performers by focusing their attention on the present, rather than the future.
By bringing nonjudgmental attention to the present moment, performers can remove themselves from the expectations they have about the future. This removes a lot of pressure and empowers freedom to perform with creativity in the moment.
The “nonjudgmental” part is key – great performers observe mindfully without attaching criticism or praise during the performance. There is nothing to gain from your own critical commentary when you are in the midst of a high-pressure performance.
Listen in the Present
It takes a bit of practice to shift your attention from the future (or past) to the present.
During your next practice session, give yourself 2-3 minutes to “perform” a piece. Play with the energy and focus you will have when you actually perform it, just in the comfort of your practice room.
- Notice your thoughts while you perform – does your mind wander? Is your attention focused the sound you are producing?
- Do another 2-3 minute practice room performance and this time, simply listen to the sound you make. If any mistakes occur, don’t worry – you can fix them later. Right now, you’re performing.
- Give a longer practice room performance (5-10 minutes). Continue to simply listen in the present. This time, observe the shape of the music as you play. Instead of imposing your will on the phrasing, simply allow it to emerge.
This kind of practice differs from the practice you do when you are working to develop your technical prowess, so don’t feel like you need to practice in this manner all the time.
Instead, practice with nonjudgmental awareness once or twice a day for 5-10 minutes. You’ll learn the skills you need to give poised performances under pressure, but you’ll still give yourself plenty of time to make technical adjustments in the practice room.
As you learn to perform with nonjudgmental awareness, you may discover that your inner critic occasionally gets in the way. If inner criticism derails your ability to practice efficiently and love performing, read the post on how to silence your inner critic here.
Mastering how to practice efficiently takes many years. Start practicing like a pro and discover the keys to successful practice here.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear from you about listening ahead, performing in the present moment, and giving yourself performance practice opportunities. Leave a comment or send me an email!
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