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Performance anxiety, part four...

Attending a ’live’ music performance is usually a more uplifting experience than listening to a CD. Nothing compares with the real sound of a musical instrument or singer. Today many people attend concerts expecting CD perfect performances but the reality is that things can and do go wrong. Musicians can easily stumble on complicated passages, inadvertently play wrong notes, skip bars, forget whole phrases or go blank and come to a complete halt.

Such recital flaws can be awkward and cause embarrassment but they really shouldn’t. Often the way you are seen to behave and deal with difficult situations is what counts most. A good thing to do when something goes wrong is to smile confidently while you work your way back into the flow of music. If you look distressed or annoyed the problem will be obvious to the audience and they might lose confidence in you. Whereas if you hang in there and show determination, you will most probably gain their admiration and respect.

If you lose your place and stop when playing from memory, there’s no need to apologise to the audience. Saying “sorry” is polite and understandable but can also be a sign of nervousness, inadequacy or fear.  Swearing is completely inappropriate and probably not appreciated by classical music audiences!  The great Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia is said to have resorted to pretending to tune his guitar on the rare occasions that he lost his place.  That's quite a neat strategy as it directs the blame onto the guitar and people understand completely that an artist wants his guitar to be perfectly in tune!  It's equally valid to simply smile and move on to a suitable ’land mark’ or new section in the piece you are playing. If you move on quickly enough there is a reasonable chance that few people will notice a problem and if you do something to make the next section even more beautiful, then any preceding problems will be forgotten. If there is a long pause in the piece, people might recognise that something has gone wrong and expect you to refocus and continue. Most will see the artist's struggle as part of the excitement of a music recital.

Your actions - how you deal with a problem - may depend on the type of performance situation. If playing for a small group of people in a house concert or semi-formal soiree, you might get away with a light-hearted remark such as ‘Don’t worry folks. Transmission will be resumed shortly!’ or something appropriate. On the other hand, there are situations where any comments are completely inappropriate such as when playing music for church ceremonies.

When the stakes are high and you only have one chance of playing accurately, there is more pressure and you have no choice but to do the best you can, accept whatever happens and above all keep going. High pressure performance situations are helped and made more possible when you have plenty of performance experience under your belt. It is easier to put yourself in such situations when you have regularly and comfortably coped with challenging performances. The longer you leave it between such performances the more difficult it is to cope. It is wise to embrace as many performance situations as possible, no matter how humble, in order to gain experience.

Most people understand that, no matter how talented and well prepared a musician is, mistakes can be part of live performances. If people demand or expect complete perfection then they might as well listen exclusively to CD recordings or accept disappointment. For many, the imperfections are what make a live performance genuine and anything else sounds artificial or fake.