Anxiety and Musical Performance (book review)

There’s a big difference between playing from memory and performing from memory. I’ve previously compared playing from memory with a high-wire act, but just how high is the tight-rope? The Cross-Eyed Pianist has an excellent blog post on this topic. When playing from memory at home, whether for practice or pleasure, the tight-rope is essentially lying on the ground, and there’s no fear of falling off. But in front of an audience, the rope may become “dauntingly vertiginous” and fear of falling can spiral out of control.

Much has been written on the complex art of musical performance, and it’s not something I specifically want to focus on in this blog except in relation to memory. Dale Reubart‘s book “Anxiety and Musical Performance: On Playing Piano from Memory” (1985) has some interesting insights on this topic. He asserts that the most essential ingredient for a successful memorised performance is the ability to concentrate, to maintain focussed attention.

But concentrate on what? Reubart separates the many activities involved in playing piano into different layers, and suggests that performers should “concentrate only on those facets of performance which he considers essential while observing subconscious functions without conscious intervention”. Specifically technique, note identification and fingering should all be excluded from conscious focus, not least because there are simply too many physical actions occurring in real-time to monitor consciously. ‘Haptic’, kinaesthetic, or motor memory alone is not trustworthy and does not provide a “faithful mirror of musical reality.” In contrast, the performer should focus on ‘auditory’ memory – hearing the music in the inner ear, and listening to the actual sounds produced. Conscious focus during performance should be directed towards musical values and the musical Gestalt, including one’s location within the overall structure of a piece. Should an error suddenly occur, the conscious mind can quickly refocus on the detailed information required. Far from being ‘lost in the music’ as many listeners perceive, the performer is acutely conscious of their musical goals, but only passively aware of detailed matters of execution.


My more successful public performances have certainly occurred when I’ve managed to silence the little daemon on my shoulder who constantly tries to knock me off balance by asking distracting questions like ‘what’s the next note?’ and ‘should I use the third or fourth finger now?’. Such questions are rarely consciously posed during practice (though perhaps they should be…) and are certainly far too detailed to be addressed in real-time during a performance. Knowing the notes is a pre-requisite to performing from memory. But questioning note-recall is a surefire way to wobble and fall off the tight-rope! As Neubart quotes, “Imagine the result, not the cause. Listen with all your concentration.” Afterall, we’re trying to make music, not an academic compendium of notes. And music is ultimately an auditory phenomenon.


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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