Performing your own work is nerve-racking

This weekend I performed in a small concert for adult amateur pianists. Despite the shared terror of performing in front of our peers, more than half the group played from memory and there were some fabulous performances.

Being in the musical no-man’s land that exists after a major exam but before any new repertoire is properly learnt, I decided to play one of my own compositions. The piece – called ‘In Lands Beyond the Sea’ – was written for the marriage of two friends, and I played it at their wedding a few moths ago. The title is a quote from one of Wordsworth’s most lyrical poems, and the initial theme is a setting of the first verse:

I travelled among unknown men,
In lands beyond the sea;
Nor, England! did I know till then
What love I bore to thee.

Both the bride and groom also have individual themes, derived from numbers that are personal to them, which are interwoven throughout the piece. It’s an energetic piece, a ode to vivaciousness, in roughly rondo form. Have a listen:

When I play the piece at home, it’s infused with rich memories. I have an intricate knowledge of the formal structure of the piece, the harmonic landscape and the melodic themes and developments. I know all the twists and turns, the decisions made and the paths not taken. As the individual themes develop, I think of my friends and it makes me smile. It’s fair to say I have absolutely no problem playing this piece from memory!

And yet put me in front of a small friendly audience and all those layers of memory disintegrate into adrenalin fuelled amnesia. My heart gallops, my mind races, and the music seems to get lost in amongst all the notes. I played well enough, but no where near as well as I can play. It’s easy to assume that playing your own music is easier than playing someone else’s –  you can just make it up as you go, right? Not true. The only difference is that no one knows for sure when you’re forced to improvise to cover a mistake. The pressure of delivering a convincing, stylistically appropriate interpretation is replaced with the knowledge that the audience is judging you not just as a pianist, but as a composer.

On his excellent blog, pianist Graham Finch recently wrote a post entitled ‘But I can play it perfectly well at home!‘ I imagine this is a familiar feeling to all music students and an assertion well known to teachers. But I don’t believe this phenomenon is explained simply by allowing “sly corrections” in the comfort of one’s own homes. As Finch says, “what felt easy and natural when we were alone suddenly becomes treacherous and untrustworthy when in the presence of others”. For those of us who are not natural performers, properly preparing for a performance is crucial for coping with the stresses and strains of being in the limelight. I don’t yet know why adrenalin causes acute memory problems, but it’s definitely something I want to find out…


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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4 Responses to Performing your own work is nerve-racking

  1. Students so regularly come to lessons, play and then tell me “it sounded so much better when I played it at home” that I have banned everyone from saying this (including myself when I go to my lessons!). Graham talked about the “tightrope” when he gave a masterclass to some of my students last year. Playing at home, the tightrope is on the ground, it’s easy and one feels no anxiety. The tightrope gets higher depending on the performance situation. As far as I’m concerned, practising performance is the key to overcoming performance anxiety, while ensuring, in practice that pieces are learned deeply so that any slips or errors are not going to completely throw me. I have also taught myself concentration and focus (I recommend Barry Green’s excellent book The Inner Game of Music to help with this aspect). It’s hard, playing the piano!

    • Thanks for the comments – I like the ‘tightrope’ analogy! I must re-read The Inner Game of Music again at some point, and I agree it is excellent. Last year I found mindfulness meditation really helped with maintaining concentration during a performance (and there’s a post to come about this of course!), but I haven’t been doing much recently. Performance anxiety is just so irritating…

  2. Just wanted to stop by to say I loved your piece! And I can relate to your statement re: being judged not just as a performer, but also as a composer. It’s a different beast, and something I struggle with as I try to get myself to compose more.

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