Finding Joy in Performance

By: Marie Smith

We all know that solo playing can be much more stressful than ensemble playing, especially as students. Almost every time we play a solo, it is in a situation where our progress and capability as a musician are being judged. This can really throw a wrench in the psyche and make fully enjoying performing difficult.

In addition to perceiving these situations as high-stakes events, we also face our own judgements of our playing. And at the student level, there is a gap between what we want to be able to do and what we can do right now.

Last month I played my first master’s recital. This was my third solo recital in as many years and was the one where I finally began to break free of the performance anxiety and just enjoy playing music. There were a couple of decisions that I feel made this possible for me. The first was to do everything I could to establish a habit of putting the musical message at the front of my brain and not the mechanics of making the right notes. (Something we always hear that we need to do and yet somehow the mental chatter always creeps back in, am I right?)

The second, and more difficult, was giving myself the space to rejoice in the progress I had made and to accept the best I knew I could do with my current capabilities as something to celebrate. About two weeks before my recital, I took stock of the things that were giving me the most trouble and sorted them into categories – 1) things I can fix/clean now and 2) things that I will be able to fix a few months down the road when I’m a better player. Of course I still worked on maintaining the highest technical level I possibly could, but accepting the fact that there were things I might not be able to play perfectly right now allowed me to prioritize the things I did have control over. I could maximize the strengths I had right now instead of beating myself up over the things I knew I’d be able to do better in the future. Paradoxically, I now had permission to succeed because I had also given myself permission to fail. I gained ease and freedom in expression by not pumping that energy into battling myself.

I still experienced aspects of my performance anxiety – physical fatigue, racing mind, shakiness, but this time it was so much easier to quiet than it had ever been before. I had so much fun playing this recital. It will probably live forever as one of my favorite musical memories. Because this time, rather than playing safe and then walking off the stage analyzing all the things that didn’t go my way, I found joy in the act of performance.  

June 8, 2016