May 12, 2010

Recital preparation — Goals and worries, by Bratsche

Giving a recital is a great chance to practice what I preach.  One of the things I work on with every student who is getting ready for a performance (or audition) is setting goals.  There is often an obvious goal already attached — win a spot in the orchestra, win the competition, get a good grade for lessons*,  etc.  However, I believe it’s important to set additional goals that aren’t focused on the end result of the performance.  In an audition, where there may be 40 or 50 players vying for that one spot in the orchestra, you might play the very best audition of your life and still not get into the orchestra.  At which point, if your sole goal was to win the audition, then it could be too easy to see the whole thing as a failure.  If, however, you’ve set additional goals then those become an important part of the performance experience and hopefully part of what you remember of it.  

Another important function of goals is that they give you something to think about other than, “Ack!  my hands are trembling” or “Oh no, I just completely botched that note” or “I think that audition committee member just frowned at me” or whatever else your fertile and agile mind will come up with in the midst of things.  The goals I tend to set for my beginning performers (no matter how advanced they are as players) are mainly things that will help them deal with the effects of adrenaline — breathe throughout the piece (your body is more relaxed if you give it more than just a maintenance amount of oxygen!), project your sound (play to the back wall, not to the people who are closest to you), play dynamics+ (the bigger the contrast between soft and loud the better).  We practice all these things ahead of time and write reminders throughout the piece.  The more they can focus on specific things to do, the less they’ll focus on the other distractions that are inherent to performing.  Even as an experienced performer, I still keep part of my attention on the things I just mentioned.  They are important for all levels of playing.  

My main goal for my recital is to share some wonderful music with people who might not otherwise have a chance to hear it.  My secondary goals are a mix of physical (remembering to breathe, relaxing my head, neck, and shoulders while playing, enjoying the feel of my viola as I play) and mental (remembering that I like the music I’m playing and want to share it, remembering the audience is looking forward to hear me play).  I generally write my goals down on a piece of paper and stick it on my music stand.  Keeping my eyes on my goals (both literally and figuratively) helps me practice concentrating on the goals before the performance.  It also helps with some of the pre-performance worries** by reminding me what matters most about what I’m doing and what I can do physically to play my best. 

Another thing I find helpful for both my students and myself is to try to articulate what kinds of fears or worries there are connected to the upcoming performance.  If those worries can be looked in the face (instead of just sniggering at you in a seething roil just out of sight), they’re often not quite as scary as they first seemed.  So, what’s the worst case scenario?  Is it really likely to happen?  If not, then hopefully it becomes less of a worry.  If it might, then what can you plan to do to deal with it if it happens?  

The worries vary from person to person and from performance to performance.  However, here’s a specific example from me at the moment.  I’ve played so much over the years, that the act of being in front of people and playing doesn’t worry me.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be adrenaline to deal with, but I’m also used to that.  The only part of my recital that really gives me any concern is playing the Bach Suite from memory.  However, when I apply my “what’s the worst case scenario” question to this, I realize there’s not really much in the way of dire possibilities.  Either I play it all from memory with no discernable problems, or I have memory lapses.  The very worst thing that could happen would be that I got so discombobulated that I had to stop and go get my music (which will be in a backstage room).  Would I be frustrated with myself if that happened?  Yes, of course.  Would it ruin the concert for the audience?  I doubt it.  It would be a memorable (pun intended!) part of the concert, but there would be lots of good music after the interruption too.  Since my main goal is to share music with people, that will be accomplished even if I do have memory troubles.  So, am I still a bit nervous about playing the Bach from memory?  Yes.  However, I think it is a worth-while challenge, and I have a plan in case things go awry.  I’ll report back on how it goes! 

Two final bits of encouragement for anyone who is nervous about performing.  The only way to practice performing is to do it.***  So, for anyone who is worried about performing, I would say that just getting up in front of people and doing it is a marvelous success no matter how it goes; because once you’ve done it, you’ll have an idea of what kinds of things you can try to do differently the next time.  The other important thing to remember is that the audience is rooting for you!  It’s not just a sea of faces waiting to drown you, it’s also a group of people who are looking forward to hearing you perform. 


 +  The reason I make “play the dynamics” a goal for most of my students is that dynamics are often one of the first thing sacrificed to the God of Performances^.  When the first big burst of performance adrenaline reaches its peak, people get focused on the basics (not falling over, not dropping their bow, trying to remember how to move their fingers, etc.).  Things beyond that, like phrasing and dynamics, are easily forgotten if they’re not highlighted as a specific goal. 

^  I’m not sure they count as a worthy sacrifice, though! 

*  Which is often partly based on how the student does in the end-of-term performance called a jury. 

**  What?  Worries?  Me?  No, I’m a professional, of course I wouldn’t worry….ha, ha, ha, ha….sure I wouldn’t! 

***  If I could find a way to really simulate the feel of performing so people could practice dealing with it in the privacy of their own home, I’d be SO rich!


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