Managing nerves during demanding performances Sam was attempting to play a difficult Beethoven piano sonata on stage in front of his teacher, his parents, fellow students and staff, in a masterclass I gave at a big school. He managed about half a page of music in his performance on stage and then collapsed over the piano, seizing up in fear.
This was a very heightened, emotionally tense situation that if not managed well, could have been a humiliating experience for Sam, or worse, could have scarred him for life. It was critical he find a way of turning around his performance around there and then.
In front of the audience, I started by asking him gently if he was happy to continue. He agreed, so with the utmost care, I started by encouraging him to breathe deeper as he played. Bit by bit, he started to calm. I put one finger on his left shoulder to encourage him to let go of his very tight shoulders, continually reminding him to breathe. I gave him permission to make mistakes and explained that mistakes can often increase when a musician tries to absorb new information. But also, it was essential for taking the pressure off in front of the audience.
As his playing improved, I asked the audience to give him positive feedback, something that is very powerful and reassuring for the student, especially in a public situation. The more he felt reassured, the more he calmed and the more his playing freed up and became more expressive.
By the end, he had faced his biggest fears in front of an audience. What could have been devastating became a triumph, and the relief on his face was palpable.