There is a story I heard about Vladimir Horowitz that may or may not be true — I cannot recall who told me, or find verification. Horowitz, one of the most famous concert pianists of the 20th century, was practicing in his Manhattan apartment in a relaxed state, free from the stress of a critical audience, when he heard shuffling feet in the next room. The sound of his cleaning woman was enough to bring on the nerves and an awakened awareness of passages where his fingers were not as comfortable as he thought they were. He shifted into high gear and practiced with more care than when he thought he was entirely alone.
The idea of this acclaimed artist feeling nervous when his cleaning woman was close enough to listen is both comforting and revealing to me. It suggests how universal this being human business is and how important it is to practice the heightened consciousness that comes with the pressure of an audience. When practicing in my childhood home I experienced this state of consciousness when my Dad would briefly stand by the piano watching me me practice. My Dad is not a pianist nor someone I felt undue pressure from to impress at the piano, but his attentive listening and watching was enough to make me focus differently and help me recognize where my fingers lacked confidence.
My students feel the same way when they play in my studio and experience the frustration of the performance not going as well as it did in the practice room. I used to respond by focusing almost entirely on strategies to address performance anxiety until I observed a masterclass at the Goshen College Piano Workshop a few years ago. The performer, a wonderful pianist, had several memory slips that she struggled to recover from. Her stress and exhaustion when finished was evident as she said, “I KNOW this. Why can’t I play it better under pressure?” The masterclass teacher kindly observed that when this happens we need to acknowledge that the main issue at hand is that we may not actually know the music as well as we think we do. Nervousness, a real issue for all who perform, is much tougher to overcome if we have any doubt about our preparation. He then shared various techniques for ensuring and testing our knowing to such an extent that we are able to stare performance anxiety in the face and say with true honesty, “I see you and feel you, but I conquer you because I KNOW this material.” Supplemental practices such as breathing and meditation exercises also help, but perhaps the ultimate way to overcome nerves is to be supremely confident with what we have prepared.
Even though I was taught this same message by my own teachers and experiences (see this earlier post), the masterclass mentioned above was an important turning point for me as a teacher and musician. For many years I explained away any trouble in performance as all about nerves, not recognizing my own lack of knowing. This is easy to do when skill level sometimes camouflages reality. In my piano practice there is an exciting breakthrough point with difficult material when the music is finally “in the fingers” after lots of hard work — I’ll call this half knowing. This stage is where I have problems recognizing the limits of what I know. In moving from half knowing to full knowing, I now try to engage in lots of testing by trying to capture a good unedited recording the piece. For less unforgiving testing than a recording device I’ll ask someone nearby to sit by me and watch my hands closely while I play. In practice I make sure I can start at any measure of the piece and that my hands are as comfortable playing alone as they are together. I practice the piece and listen for evenness at different speeds: very slow, very fast, and at its ideal tempo. If I am working on memorizing, I depart from the piano and close my eyes and imagine my hands playing every single note of the work. Finding out where I lose it as I think my way through the piece sends me back to practice until I feel ready to test again for fully confident knowing.
There are times when an ideal level of knowing is not possible — if I’m asked to accompany a student in performance at the last minute, I have to rely on my sight reading skills and take a different kind of musical journey, one with high adrenaline at the somewhat terrifying thrill of playing something I haven’t fully prepared. Expertise allows the privilege of winging it from time to time. But too much of this puts me at risk of a lazy arrogance that usually comes before an unfortunate fall.
I don’t want to diminish the reality of debilitating performance anxiety. Indeed, Horowitz himself struggled with this to a great extent, with various extenuating circumstances. There are times when we do the work, only to find the fear cannot be conquered. Other responses and strategies are necessary in these situations. However, without an honest accounting of what we do and do not know, we may too easily explain away what happened and lose the opportunity to achieve fully confident knowing the next time. While I cannot confirm the veracity of the Horowitz story above, I love the concept behind it because it reminds me that any listening ear can help us know what we really know.