...on how to improve

Tips on how to improve your performance skills

The following ideas are by no means original. However, you may find these tips quite helpful when preparing your next performance:

Musicians are artists, performers, and entertainers

Music is art but it's also entertainment. When you perform, you are providing entertainment, albeit of a high quality. See yourself as an entertainer, not only a musician, and your performance will improve greatly.

The reason? Entertainers focus on the needs of their audience; this audience-centric view demands that performers place themselves in the shoes of the public. How much or how little you practiced, whether you broke up with your significant other last week, or are suffering from an upset stomach mean very little to an audience that is giving you the privilege of its time and attention.

By all means practice as diligently as possible to give a near-flawless performance. However, at performance time, stop focusing on minutiae which probably mean little to your audience. Instead, make it your mission to entertain them with your performance. In general, do not practice more than one hour on the day of a performance. At this point, focus less on the technical aspects and more on telling your story through intonation, dynamics and passion! Or, as my former piano teacher, Milton Kaye used to say, “I don’t care how perfect you play…just don’t be boring!”

Understand stage fright

Barbra Streisand, Elton John, and Van Cliburn are experienced, universally acclaimed entertainers. Yet they each suffer from strong, sometimes crippling stage fright. In an interview with Connie Chung, Andrea Bocelli was asked, “When you perform on stage, are you nervous? “ Bocelli responded, “Oh, it's difficult to explain how much. I have big, big stage fright.”

Stage fright is a frequent condition of performance and even very seasoned celebrities are stricken from time to time. A host of factors, including negative or irrational self-assessments, contribute to performance anxiety.

You can be nervous and still give a great performance. You can play less than perfectly and still give a great performance. Audiences tend to be very forgiving of nerves and a few missed notes. However, you have to play with complete passion and dedication. Not only are you going to move your fingers to produce a few sounds, you are going to reveal something wonderful and beautiful to us.

What are the musical elements of your piece?

Every musical and dramatic work takes its audience on a journey, generally consisting of the following elements:

Introduction and elaboration: The central melodic theme is introduced and often repeated in identical fashion or with variation. The “mood” of the piece is presented and established via use of dynamics, tempo and melodic arc. The performer must draw in the audience at this point, either with a compelling narrative subtext, or strong emotional message. Also, the performer must build gradual tension (when applicable), leading the audience to the musical climax.

Climax: The highest emotional point of the work, usually occurring 2/3 to 3 /4 of the way into the piece, requires maximum expression and melodic emphasis to evoke a desired reaction from the audience. This is also considered a reward point or “tension release” for the audience. The performer should fully understand the climactic point of the piece and clearly highlight it via the use of tone, dynamic expression and musical touch. The importance of the climax for audience understanding and satisfaction cannot be underestimated.

Resolution: This is the conclusion of the piece, during which all unresolved musical elements are resolved in a satisfactory manner. The performer must prepare the audience for the eventual end of the musical journey, a “return to reality.” Musical cues which aid this transition include:

gradual decrescendo and diminuendo,
a clear a decisive “end point” so as to not leave the audience with an uneasy feeling of something unresolved (unless the piece demands this conclusion).

You've only got 10 seconds

George M. Cohen, seasoned singer and dancer, once said, "The most important parts of any act are the first ten seconds and the last ten seconds...what happens in between isn't that important." This is the great challenge for any performer: how to gain, and hold, an audience’s attention?

Engage the audience visually: Before you play a single note, introduce yourself to the audience, and smile. Establish eye contact with a few friendly faces in the crowd while smiling. If you speak, use a warm, relaxed tone. These techniques show confidence and a willingness to perform.

Start out strong: As any good speaker knows, the first moments of a speech must provide a “hook”, some attraction point to draw in the audience. Likewise, a performance that lacks a hook quickly loses its audience. Does your piece open with a “hook”? The all-important opening must establish a certain mood and tone that listeners find compelling. Otherwise, you risk losing your audience as their attention wanders.

Are you “attracted” to your piece? An essential component of any effective performance, musical or otherwise, is passion. If you want to engage your audience, your piece must have a strong intrinsic meaning to you. Before your next performance, ask yourself "what does this piece mean to me"? Always look to perform pieces that you truly enjoy, even love.

Be confident -- you deserve it!

Be proud of yourself. It takes a lot of guts to stand in front of strangers and bare your creative soul!

Even if your piece has been performed a billion times, no one can or will ever play it like you do. Take pride in your uniqueness as a performer. When you stand up on stage, we want a revelation, a direct connection with you. Don’t be afraid of this spotlight, the audience is on your side; they want and demand your success.

Very few people attend a performance or concert to see someone fail. However, the public does expect you to take their time seriously and do something unique, even surprising, to hold their attention. If there is one thing you never want to be as a performer, it is boring.

Every musician has the capacity to perform in a way that moves his or her audience. You know what you like in a performer. You’ve been part of a discriminating audience for most of your life. Play for your audience the way you’d like someone to play for you.

Perform your piece with intensity, with absolute presence. Forget about the mistakes; focus on the overall message. Play your piece as if it’s the last time you’ll ever play, and make your audience to listen to your piece as if they’re hearing it for the first time.

Quotes from some of the greats

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

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