Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Is Stagefright Taught?

music student stage freight

Do teachers contribute to stagefright? Can we help students avoid it?

Stagefright seems to happen when performers focus too much on themselves–what people think, whether they’ll get through a tricky spot, whether some unforeseen problem will throw them off, whether they’re deserving of being out on stage.

It seems to me that when the focus is on the music, rather than the performer–when a performer has something musical he or she really wants to say–there’s much less of a chance for stagefright to take hold.

Some teachers are anxious to impress upon students the gravity of their practicing and performing responsibilities. They sometimes use lessons to put students through the ringer, essentially making students feel chronically underpracticed, underprepared, and liable to make a mistake at any moment. Performance can be portrayed as extremely serious, requiring the proper dress, the proper entrance, the proper demeanor.

Few students could get through lessons like that without feeling fearful of performing. For some, that fear becomes stagefright; for others, with courage and determination, it doesn’t.

But what happens when a teacher helps a student become invested in the musicality of a piece, the feeling behind it, the composer’s intent, and even the background of how and why it was written and used? Then the student can offer listeners something more meaningful than whether a certain passage was rendered perfectly.

Those who strive for technical perfection only to impress people or win them over are focused on themselves. Mistakes can be painful and humiliating for them, as if their fingers betrayed them.

A student personally involved in the musicality of a piece, rather than its virtuosity, is probably better equipped to put mistakes in perspective, and not be afraid of them in performance. This student may be more motivated to work on technique in order to make a piece music effective and compelling, rather than to make the performance perfect.

It’s fun to encourage students at all levels to experiment with musical phrasing. They can discover why the composer or editor wrote in certain dynamic markings–or perhaps find a new but convincing musical presentation. They can create a storyline and think of their music as its soundtrack.

We can also help students put mistakes in perspective. One basic way is to appreciate a student for getting what we are asking for, even if something else didn’t work. It’s great to be able to focus on a problem and solve it; it’s a bit daunting to focus on one problem but still get yelled at if you didn’t also happen to solve all the other problems at the same time!

Maybe in a future blog I’ll list some ways I like to help students explore musicality, and keep their mistakes in perspective. If you have some ideas you’d like to share, I’m sure we’d all like to read your comments!

Fear isn’t a very healthy motivator, nor does it have much connection to making music. I suspect that stagefright is one proof of this, and we teachers can do something about it.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

3 Comments

  1. Brandon Pearce (Support)

    Great post, Ed! I remember my teacher telling a story about Beethoven not fussing over a few missed notes, but if the performer didn’t catch the “feeling” of the music, that was the greater mistake. I’ve tried to convey that same concept to my students – that it’s okay to miss some notes here and there, as long as you keep the passage full of life and music.

    I often make mistakes when performing, and do at times get embarrassed because I’m focused on myself. At other times, I’ll laugh or make a goofy smile at the audience and continue on. I think the latter method helps relieve the audience as well and makes the experience more enjoyable for them.

  2. Gayleen Gandy

    I enjoyed your comments and perspective, especially since, for most of my life, I always experienced extreme nervousness when playing the piano in any type of performance. Sometimes, I would find my hands or knees trembling so badly that it was obvious to those sitting nearby. This always puzzled me because I enjoyed and looked forward to other types of performing without any stress or nervousness at all. It took many years before I realized that my nervousness came from a lack of confidence in my ability to recover from a mistake and go on with the piece gracefully. As a dancer or a speaker, I knew that I could cover my mistakes and go on. As a pianist, I only recently developed the confidence that I could do that. Now, when I am helping my piano students prepare for recitals or other performances, I encourage them to spend some of their practice time imagining that they are in front of an audience and to practice playing through mistakes – to keep going and “cover” their mistakes as best they can. Although I want them to play perfectly, I realize that they need to develop some techniques for handling mistakes and that this also takes practice.

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