6 Survival Tips for Musical Performers
Updated: Jun 24, 2019
I've performed my whole life, having gone to an art school in Toronto (grades 4-8) that had year end performances, and then an arts high school (grades 9-13) that offered many opportunities to perform. In fact, I got my first (and last!) role in a TV show called Many Voices back when I was 11 or 12 because recruiters from TV Ontario came to our school looking for kids to act in this mini-series about racism. I had the smallest role in my episode (and frankly, I don't remember being entirely aware of what I was doing, or how I even remembered my sparse lines). The best part of that experience, actually, was that I got to meet Polkaroo from the beloved Ontario TV show called The Polka Dot Door.
Anyway.....that being said, I've learned some tricks of the trade over the years. Ironically, not from my experiences at the schools mentioned above, because I never had to perform alone. Once I started performing alone, either as a soloist in a choir, a choral accompanist, a collaborative pianist or solo performer on harp, guitar or piano, etc......then it became vital that I learn how to make the best of the experience. This is especially true when you are in the spotlight in some way, and especially when you don't usually like that. Here is what I have learned so far....
1) Memorize as much as you can: There are a variety of scenarios in which memorizing as much as you can becomes handy.
As a pianist, if you can't memorize an entire piece, in the very least, try to memorize the 2 bars before and 2 bars after each page turn. No matter how many times you break the spine of a book, or dog ear the pages, or use sticky tabs, there will inevitably be that moment where you don't quite catch the page in time, or you turn too many pages, (or worse case scenario, all your music falls to the ground--if that happens, and you haven't actually memorized it, just count your lucky stars if someone jumps up to pick them up for you) and that way you have bought yourself some time by knowing what to play.
As a harpist, I find I have to memorize almost everything. Unlike piano where your music is directly in front of your face, with harp your music has to be slightly to the left of you, which means you are always turning your head to focus on the strings, then turning your head to focus on the music, and I find it's must easier to get lost! I'm sure the much more experienced harpists don't have this problem, but I sure do! I would literally only look at my music to see how many rests I have to count, if playing with an orchestra, then play my bit completely memorized.
As a choir singer, the more you have memorized, the more you fix your peepers on your conductor, and they will love you for it. If a choir member doesn't come in when everyone else does, or if they hold their dreaded "sssss" longer than everyone else, you know it won't be you!
2) Figure out your personalized Stage Fright trick: Everyone has stage fright. No matter what they might say. Even famous, well-seasoned musicians; Those clammy hands, heart beating a mile a minute, that catch in your throat, forgetting your lines. All those things we LOVE about performing. Everyone has to figure out their trick, the odd little ritual that works for them. For some, it helps to talk to the audience before hand, if the situation allows for it, tell jokes or even ask the audience questions to get to know them. It took me years to finally figure out my trick. Figure out yours, and I promise you, it will be better. Here are some ideas.
The classic, imagine everyone in their underwear. Actually, I've never understood this suggestion, because I think the trauma of performing would quickly be replaced by the trauma of imagining everyone...not...wearing...clothes. Yeah, don't try this.
Meditate, say a mantra, have a friend give you a pre-concert pep talk. When I think of this, I picture that scene from Nacho Libre where the big Luciador rival Ramses is being oiled and given a massage, while his coach is repeating, "Ramses is #1. His hair is #1. His eyes are #1. His muscles are #1...." etc. If you can't find someone to give you a massage, well, you might as well go home.
My personal trick, as a choral accompanist, is to sit at the front of the venue, close to the piano, as early as I can before the performance starts, and I just stay there. I don't process in with the choir, because that makes me nervous. For years, I didn't know why this was, but it's because I was walking in to a room already full of strangers, and I had no time to center myself. By sitting at the front before any audience members arrive, I can get used to my surroundings, and as people slowly trickle in, it's not so daunting, and the situation quickly becomes normalized. It's like you get to know each person or group as they come in, simply by looking at them, exchanging smiles, or just noticing that they are there. By the time the choir processes in, I already know the room and the nerves are almost entirely gone!
If you have an opportunity to visit the venue ahead of time, see if you can find a quiet space or nook to do any of the above rituals in. Also...take note of where the bathroom is, and if you can find a secret one that most audience members won't find, even better!
3) Look like you're enjoying yourself: No matter how much you may be freaking out up there, just look happy. No matter what, look like there's nowhere else you'd rather be. Sang the wrong word? Smile anyway. Played some twangy notes? Keep smiling. Missed your cue? Smile like you meant to. Not only does it beautifully cover up any mistakes (because frankly, 90% of the audience won't even pick up on it), it also improves the experience for everyone. A musician could perform a piece perfectly, note-for-note, but if they look nervous or like they would much rather be at home in their hot tub, you won't enjoy their music. I watched a world-famous harpist perform in Ireland, and performed flawlessly, but she looked angry the entire time she played. The way she aggressively plucked and whacked her harp, I would never want to get on her bad side. Needless to say, I did not enjoy her playing. But I've also seen countless musicians perform and noticed a mistake or a blip, but because they kept on smiling and seemed so happy, I just didn't care.
4) Make eye contact with the audience: Similar to #3, while you're busy smiling, also engage the audience. As a soloist, that's all you are doing. If you aren't comfortable making eye contact with individuals for a few moments at a time, pick a quadrant of the room and look in their general direction. Even as a choral singer you can do that, when you have a moment where you don't need to be watching your conductor like a hawk. It happens so rarely that a choral singer engages the audience, that it pleasantly surprises people. I heard an adjudicator once say to a choir that when you close your eyes to the audience while singing, it creates a barrier, closes the audience off. It makes the audience feel like you don't want them to be there. I thought that was fascinating advice, that I sort of knew intuitively, but never heard it put that way. Obviously, if you are singing a soulful song, or it's a sad moment, closing your eyes is appropriate, too, and adds to the experience. **One exception goes for piano players. We are allowed to completely ignore the audience, and we often do. Until the final bow.
5) Accept compliments afterwards!: As musicians, many of us suffer from Imposter Syndrome. It is SO easy to deflect compliments; "No, it wasn't that great." "So-and-so could do it much better." It's also too easy to quickly and eagerly point out your mistakes (I'm very guilty of this); "Thanks, but it really fell apart on page 3." "Well, I dropped the ball and missed my cue at 139". Etc. DON'T DO THIS. You successfully practiced, went in front of people, and got through a song/performance/concert. Pat yourself on the back.
6) Feel proud of yourself. On that note, after you've pat yourself on the back, treat yourself to Coffee Haagen Daaz ice cream, or deep fried pickles, or y'know, something you like. You've accomplished a lot. Let that be enough. Focus on what you did well and if you made mistakes, remind yourself that you still got through the song. If it was somehow so disastrous that your mistake completely derailed an entire piece and you didn't somehow manage to make a joke of it that made the whole audience burst out laughing, well.....the sun still rises tomorrow. It's happened to all of us at least once. And, well, it can only go up from there! And...believe it or not, there will still be someone that enjoyed it.