Overcoming Performance Anxiety, Pt. 1: The True Purpose of Performing

It was late 2018 and I was driving to go teach a piano lesson. On the radio was On Being with Krista Tippett, and she was interviewing the great cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. At the time, I was helping my students prepare for a recital, which was just a week or so away. In the interview, Ma said something that really hit home and was so relevant to the mental preparations my students were making heading into their recital. In regards to performing, Ma stated:

“That’s not why we’re here, to watch the bad things that happened. So whatever you practice for on the engineering side that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose; the greater purpose is that we’re communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all?

So it’s not about how many people are in the hall. It’s not about proving anything. It’s about sharing something.”

That statement from one of the greatest living masters of music was so profound, yet so simple. Students and professionals alike can get so caught up in the execution of their music (or as Ma refers to it, the “engineering side”) that they lose sight of the true purpose of musical performance. Truly, we are there as musicians to share our work with the audience. Specific to a student recital, students have the opportunity to share the results of months and years of hard work with their families, friends, and teacher. We all get to take part in that experience together, regardless of any technical mistakes that may be made.

As teachers, it’s important to continually convey to our students that they’re not out there to prove something, but to share where they are musically at that moment. Mistakes are an expected, inevitable part of the process which we should not be overly concerned about. It’s not about showing off, and it’s not about executing their piece flawlessly. If we can get that point across to students, it can go a long way toward alleviating the pressure and anxiety that come with performing. One thing I often tell my students heading into a recital is that everyone in the audience wants them to succeed. No one is out there following along in the music, counting mistakes. Many, if not most, students want desperately to give a flawless performance and then perseverate on their miscues after the recital. The pressure students put on themselves is crippling to some and detrimental to most. As teachers, if we spend sufficient time in the weeks leading up to the recital conveying the idea that the recital is about sharing our music with others and not about impressing people, we can help students carry a more positive mindset into and out of their performance. Of course, we’d all like to play our piece perfectly, but if we realize the mistakes aren’t of great importance and instead put our focus into sharing a genuine musical moment, we can produce performances that are more musical, relaxed, and gratifying.