Adult piano students may be surprised just how anxious they feel when it’s time to play at their lesson. Isn’t performance anxiety something that only kids experience at their dreaded piano recitals?
Unfortunately, no. Performance anxiety is normal. Nearly every music student feels it to some extent, no matter how long they’ve played. A little bit is healthy and normal. It may not even be noticeable to your teacher.
Yet if performance anxiety keeps you from playing for your teacher at the level you know you’re capable of, there are proven strategies to reduce it. Here are the five most useful approaches.
The most constructive (and obvious) strategy is to prepare well. As with just about anything in life, the more prepared you are, the more likely things will go well.
Preparing well for your piano lesson means practicing regularly and smartly. Put simply, endeavor to maximize the quantity and quality of your practicing.
Of these two – quantity and quality – quality is by far the more important. Twenty minutes of focused and meticulous practicing will pay bigger dividends than an hour of inattentive, mistake-ridden playing.
There are many ways to improve the quality of your practicing. The best strategy is to observe the Golden Rule of Practicing.
Play for Others
The benefits of gaining performance experience by playing for others shouldn’t be underestimated. Playing for your spouse, neighbor or friend is likely to be easier than playing for your teacher. Doing so is similar to the classic “systematic desensitization” strategy for phobias. By performing for a relatively non-threatening audience, you can build your confidence for higher-pressure performances (i.e. for your teacher at your lesson).
It’s Not About Perfection
The greatest piano virtuosos have made mistakes when playing for their teachers, and even for large audiences in the most illustrious venues. As a young man, Beethoven was a virtuoso pianist and considered one of the better players of his time. However, he was also notorious for making mistakes, and was often accused of sloppy, careless playing by the critics. His response? It was the emotion he was expressing through the music, rather than playing flawlessly, that mattered.
Beethoven had a point. Would you rather hear a piece of software perform a piece flawlessly without feeling, or a human being perform the same piece with sensitivity, and also a few mistakes – thereby reminding us of their humanness?
Indeed, what is perfection? There are dozens of note-perfect recordings of the greatest piano pieces. Is one of them more perfect than the others? In the end, “perfection” – if it exists – means something different to each listener.
Before playing for your teacher, remind yourself that the most important thing is to wholeheartedly communicate the feeling of the music in your own inimitable way.
Performance anxiety is a kind of stress. One of the most effective ways to quickly reduce stress is by being mindful of your breathing. Doing so for a few moments before beginning to play can make all the difference.
By focusing on the breath, we can interrupt the cycle of negative self-talk that feeds our anxiety – thoughts like “I’m going to screw up” or “I never play as well at the lesson as I do at home.”
Want to try it? Find a comfortable yet alert sitting posture. Press play on the following guided mindfulness exercise, then close your eyes and follow along.
Mindfulness of Breathing (Guided Exercise)
Read more about how mindfulness of breathing can reduce music students’ stress and anxiety.
It’s not uncommon for anxious piano students to perform their pieces too fast. This is caused by the unconscious desire to get to the end of the piece – and our anxiety! – as soon as possible.
But anxiety can impede the fine motor skills necessary for playing well. Playing faster isn’t just counterproductive, it’s actually the opposite of what’s called for. Rather, make a habit of playing slower at your lessons. A good rule of thumb is to play your pieces 80% of the tempo you can successfully play them at home. (Calculate this lesson performance tempo in advance. Then, before beginning to play, use a metronome to set it.)
You may want to run this strategy by your teacher first, but most would rather hear you play slower and well, than fast and not so well.
I count myself among them.
Feeling a slight degree of performance anxiety in piano lessons isn’t a big deal. You can even learn to channel it into the emotion of the music itself, resulting in a more stimulating performance. But if you feel that reducing the anxiety you experience when performing for your teacher would be useful, these five strategies are likely all you’ll need.