A musician is a performer, and usually a performer is in some way an actor, there is a show that has to be given to an audience, but no one is born super confident, and it’s no secret that playing in front of a large crowd is an obvious reason to be nervous, insecure and even scared.


Of course if you are a cello player in a big orchestra, you may feel like the attention is not that focused in you but in the whole group of people playing, and even if you do feel nervous, it’s hard for the crowd to notice.

Things get a little bit scarier in a quartet or a piano performance, since there are not that many many instruments and musicians, the crowd can see what is happening with the few that are there, however, the crowd doesn’t really expect the performer to do crazy stunts, scream at the crowd or be extra confident, they are there, for a good performance in terms of musical prowess.

However there is a certain kind of magic that happens when you let yourself go, there should be a more clear way of putting it, but as a musician lets himself go, everything changes, body language changes, the performance itself becomes more captivating and fewer mistakes are made because of the lack of nervousness that makes a performer hesitate or doubt. This can happen in any genre of music, but it’s most notable in Jazz, Blues and Rock, as history has shown.

Moments such Elvis Presley dancing like crazy while singing, Jimmy Hendrix playing the guitar with his teeth, the alien energy of Chuck Berry or drug like magic of Charlie Parker and even the many times Kurt Cobain just jumped towards the drums, are some examples of this “letting go” experience a musician goes through when they let confidence take over.

Confidence in Experience

There is a very good article on the importance of confidence in music that shows a special session with Victor Wooten and how he encourages musicians to embrace their own unique styles.

I don’t remember details but at some point, the conversation came to whether the students in the room felt like they were “good” at their instruments or not. A lot of students said no. I think it’s because they didn’t want to come across as “arrogant”. Wooten countered that. He made a point that I will never forget: he said whenever someone asks you if you’re good at guitar, your answer should always be “yes”. He said it’s not arrogant to do so. Remember, you’re not saying you’re the greatest or anything, all you’re saying is you’re good. And who’s to say you’re not? Even if you only know one scale, there are so many great things you can do with that. Or, so what if you can’t sweep pick just yet — who said that’s the only style of playing? If you keep telling yourself and others that you’re not good, the only person you’re harming is you! Constantly downplaying your ability and constantly doubting yourself will make you not want to pick up the guitar ever again. And when you don’t play, that’s when you stop getting good! He didn’t say all these things, but even his first comment made me think of all these thoughts. I figured it was time to stop making excuses and telling myself I wasn’t ever going to get “good”. I realized I already knew quite a bit, and I was going to use that as my foundation and keep building.

Alper Memioglu

The point here is that confidence begins by understanding that everyone has their own style, and that if a musician doesn’t trust in his own ability to play and get better, no one else will. Music is a language and if confidence is what is being put out there, the people who listen will get it.

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Being a virtuoso has a lot to do with something that is near magical, sometimes some techniques and compositions come from a place that can hardly be copied, that’s why is so easy to know when someone is being replaced in a band, someone that really made it shine, and the new person filling the spot feels like an imitation.

There are two interesting subjects that can arise when bringing up the subject of virtuosism, first there is the virtuoso as a composer and original perfomer and then there is the question of, is another virtuoso good enough to satisfy the hearing of a person that enjoyed the orginal composer?

Of course there is also another imporant part of this virtuoso dilemma that should be taken into account, which is the question of, is there virtuosism in performance only, or is it present in composition as well?

Virtuoso Performance

When it comes to performance, it’s just about playing, a musician can be a virtuoso without having the need for composing. Technique alone can make someone a virtuoso.

In concerts, the virtuoso approaches each performance, each interpretation as a unique occasion – something I feel is increasingly hard for performers when high-quality recordings are so readily available, benchmarks by which pianistic prowess is measured and which lead audiences to expect a certain manner of playing in live concerts. The virtuoso appreciates that there is no one “perfect” rendition of a Beethoven Concerto or Chopin Étude; that one should never aspire to have the “last word” on any work. It is for this reason that many of us seek out the same virtuoso performers in the same repertoire, either on disc or in concert, to hear how their view of certain works changes and develops over time. Yet for some musicians the constant revisiting of certain works (the Beethoven piano sonatas, for example), or playing them on different instruments (fortepiano, for example) suggests an overly reverential or literal attitude to the composer’s “intentions” as they perceive them, and a wish/need to make a final statement on this music and set it in stone. Such performances, for me at least, may come across not as virtuosic but rather as academic, mannered or overly precious.

The Cross-Eyed Pianist



The concept of virtusism is generally more tied to the performance itself, and by 19th century standards which is when this notion came to be, it referred mostly to a masculine artist that was able to perform complex pieces of music with fast and precise playing.

While this may be true, what about the composition itself? Well in the 19th century the virtuoso was the composer many times, but there were cases in which the composer would rather someone else play it. How is it that something can be thought but not performed as the composer intended it to be played?

What do we actually mean by compositional virtuosity? – A compositional sense of technical virtuosic display or mastery in the context of that art or practice in a similar or parallel sense to that of the performer. As a composer, I am not trying to steal limelight from the performer, but I am aware that the composer as an artist also must possess appropriate technique, stamina, technical agility etc. in order to be a master of their art. This is better perceived in the finished artefact (either score or performance) rather than in the process (in as much as one can separate the process from the finished result of course).

This was presented by Peter Fribbins at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium.

So in a way one must be a virtuoso in both categories in order to be able to compose something that only a virtuoso can play. However there is another factor that can’t really be measured by how polished the technique is or how fast the musician can be, sometimes it’s something else.

There is the example of one of the two greatest pianists/composers of all time Chopin and Lizst who actually shared quite a lot during their prime. Chopin said: ” I would love myself to acquire from him[Liszt]  the manner in which he plays my etudes.”

Why Lizst, shouldn’t Chopin be better at his own composition? Or is he a better composer by aknowledging the fact that someone else is better suited for the performance, not because of virtusism but Lizst personality and approach to music.

So yes virtusism is present in composition but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s also present in performance. While there are no concrete answers, thinking about this may be useful when teaching or as something to just reflect upon.

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There is nothing like a live performance, while making records and streaming music is usually the way that music gets to a large amount of people, there is something about it being played and heard in the moment that makes a deeper bond and greater connection with the audience.

Jack White has an interesting “rule” when it comes to playing live. Live performances usually follow a setlist, which is the order of songs to play during the show, however Jack White doesn’t follow this structure, and the reason behind it is that he believes that the crowd and the player sometimes feel a certain way and other times react differently, the way he does it is that depending on how the crowd reacts or feels, he will then react with a song.

I want the show to be alive,” he says. “And I want each show to be different so that the crowd is in control of what’s really happening onstage, whether they know it or not.

Jack White

He thinks that there is a connection that arises during shows on stage that makes musicians feel in sync even if they don’t know eachother very well.

Maybe one day, it’d be interesting to do a tour where none of the musicians are allowed to speak to each other. They only see each other onstage. That would be an interesting experiment.

Jack White

This makes the experience even more unique as the musician and the crowd interact in the same way a band reacts to improvisation.

Live Performance and Improvisation

Improvisation is also an important part of the live act, not just as a planned part of the show but also as a way of dealing with unforeseen events such as a string breaking or tumble on stage, or some sound malfunction. The idea of going prepared and with specific orders in mind can only take you so far, there is a whole other reality when everything is happening.

Of course depending on the music genre, there is a different approach to these situations, for example, Rock is a lot more malleable and free in terms of improvisation and “going with the flow” but on the other hand, a string quartet has to follow a strict pattern in which every sound and every movement needs to line up. The way a Rock band deals with a broken string could be with humor, rage and even keep playing without any concerns whatsoever, but in a string quartet, if a string were to break (which is highly unlikely) the piece could not go on. That is not to say that one live experience is better than the other, it’s just a different thing

It is important to remember that classical music once welcomed improvisation into their performances, mostly piano composers, but why isn’t it a common thing now?

The great piano composers were all fluent improvisers. Bach, Mozart, Chopin and so many others are reported to have improvised to audiences regularly. Beethoven’s improvisation duel against Daniel Steibelt, which he won to become the most lauded improviser in Vienna, proves this point whilst it also demonstrates how many virtuoso pianists of the time were skilled improvisers. So when did improvisation cease to be part of the job description for classical pianists, and why?

Phil Best

The reason is not really a strong one, in reality what happened was a combination between the separation of composer/performer and the idea from the 20th century of bringing all the music to the most faithful interpratation possible.

While there are still some pianists such as Robert Levin and Gabriela Montero, it’s not a very regular thing to happen today.

There is much to talk about when it comes to live performances, but it’s good to remember that some of the things that happen in those situations cannot be reproduced or copied, every show, every event is a one in a lifetime thing.

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