The purpose of music is to bring joy and inspiration to its listeners, to offer them light, fulfillment and maybe a new meaning. Good music has the power of awakening the best in us, of making us look at our life from a deeper perspective.
However, in order to be able to express all the complexity of a musical piece, a pianist has to pass through the challenging studying process: dead-lines, exams, complicated problems and lots of emotions – how to cope with all that?
No matter what we tell ourselves, concerts and exams are totally different things. Concerts are (or at least they should be) pleasant, enlightening experiences – both for the public and the performer. Exams are a ‘necessary evil’, being a perfect illustration of Nietzsche’s words: What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. After passing through the thorns and blood of a serious piano studying process, everything will seem easier – even the most difficult concerts.
But the question remains valid – how do we cope with exams and the tremendous performance anxiety they involve?
The first thing you should be aware of is that it’s impossible to completely eliminate all you emotions while you’re performing on stage. What we need is to get rid of negative, destructive forms of anxiety and to keep the positive emotions and the necessary levels of concentration. Positive emotions are always necessary for bringing life to a musical piece. A performance without a spark of emotions which reflect the content of the piece is extremely boring.
Now that we’ve delimited these two different forms of emotions, let’s move to the next step and learn how to eliminate (at least partially) the destructive ones.
1. Changing Your Attitude
A Buddhist proverb says: All the suffering of this world arises from a wrong attitude. The world is neither good nor bad. It is only the relation to our ego that makes it seem the one or the other. This fundamental concept can be applied to all the areas of our life.
What is your attitude towards music and piano performance? Does piano playing bring you joy and fulfillment or is it just a duty, dictated by your parents, relatives or maybe just something meant to make you look more sophisticated? Only in the first case the positive emotions can conquer the negative ones.
Then, what’s your attitude towards exams and contests? Of course, there’s no need to be hypocrite and say that exams bring you pleasure. However, you should also understand that they are not public executions either. Treat them with calm and even a little humor – after all, there’s no way we can skip this necessary step on the long stairway towards becoming a professional pianist.
2. Practicing More
The second (but not less important!) secret that will help you cope with exams is hard work and daily practice. Yes, it’s as simple as that. Instead of worrying, being superstitious or complaining that the pieces are too difficult, you should concentrate on your practice. When you’re studying, leave the emotions aside – simply practice, with patience, dedication and perseverance. Soon, you’ll discover a simple truth: the more you practice (and I don’t mean mechanical, brainless practice – only the mindful practice really matters), the more confident you’ll feel and the less anxiety and negative emotions you’ll have during the exams.
3. Lowering the Importance of The Event
In the end, anxiety is fear of failing. Did you ever try to analyze how anxiety appears? In fact, it’s very simple: we give a certain event – in our case, the piano exams – a huge importance, as if our entire life depends on our performance. Fear of failure becomes then a natural consequence – after all, our subconscious tells us that failure is absolutely unacceptable. Fear creates tension. Tension creates insecurity. Insecurity leads to stress and anxiety. All these factors, instead of making us play better, are in fact causing even more problems. The more we’re afraid, the more tensed we’ll be ad the more mistakes we’ll make during our performance.
So what is the solution? Lower the importance of a certain event if you want to succeed! Don’t be afraid of failure! I know it’s easy to say this, but how can we really do this?
Again, by changing your attitude. So what if you make a few mistakes? Accept the fact that failure is not a disaster, but an important step towards success. Nobody will kill you for failing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – in most cases, we’re our most severe critics.
Only after accepting this simple truth, you’ll notice a wonderful paradox: the less importance you give a certain event, the more chances of success you have. This is, in fact, one of the most powerful laws of our existence. By using it wisely, you can truly become the master of your life.
But beware of a dangerous trap: giving less importance to something doesn’t mean being lazy, disrespectful, disorganized and unserious. Just do your work (or your piano practice) with love and concentration, and let the universal balance do the rest. Only by stopping worrying you can have wonderful results in all the areas of your life.
Besides the change of attitude, the confidence which appears as a result of constant mindful practice and the ‘adjustment’ (in your mind) of the importance of the exam, there are other necessary things that every musician should do – not only for emotional control, but also for improving his/her physical and mental health and well-being.
4. Mastering the ‘Relaxed Concentration’ Technique
One of the most important ‘mental techniques’ you have to learn is the relaxed concentration. It’s that state in which you’re calm and focused, controlling all the details of your performance without losing your serenity. You’re mindful without being tensed, relaxed without losing your awareness. The best way of learning how to master this state is to practice meditation.
5. Learning How to Breathe
Correct breathing is also crucial in controlling and eliminating anxiety. My advice is to start practicing yoga today and continue to practice it for rest of your life. Even if for some reason (though I cannot imagine one) you don’t want to practice yoga, you can still learn how to do separate breathing exercises.
The breathing techniques are proven means that will simultaneously harmonize your physical and mental states, equilibrating your nervous system and the functioning of your entire organism.
6. Controlling Your Energy Flow
After learning and applying the basics of correct breathing, you can start studying how to work with your energy. There are different methods of doing this. Yoga remains one of the best ones, because it combines many elements which are essential for our health: correct breathing, energetic training, flexibility, endurance, strength and patience.
You can also learn how to channel your energy by practicing martial arts, meditation, Tai Chi or simply visualizing the main energy channels and learning how to control the energy flow. I will not explain in detail all these techniques, you can find lots of specialized information online and not only!
7. Balancing Your Static Practice Routine
Besides all these rather sophisticated techniques and methods we should never forget that our static piano practice routine should be compensated by constant physical exercises and a dynamic lifestyle. Being active – walking, jogging, playing team sports or practicing any other activity that you enjoy will not only keep you in good physical shape. By activating your body’s hidden potential, physical exercises will bring forward the best in you: you’ll be healthier, stronger, more confident and full of energy; at the same time, you’ll feel happier, more positive and flexible not only physically, but also mentally.
Problems that seemed unsolvable until recently will be just minor inconveniences. This way, the whole process of learning how to cope with exams can be regarded as an upward spiral: you start by having a healthy attitude, you practice enough for developing more confidence, you start learning breathing and energy exercises, you begin having a more dynamic lifestyle and you reach a new, higher level of awareness that will automatically generate a healthier, wiser attitude.
After a while, exams will stop being insurmountable obstacles and causes of uncontrollable anxiety. They will be simple steps you have to take in order to be able to become a better pianist and musician.