It’s the end of the semester, and the usual flurry of recitals and juries has come and gone. Players emerge from practice rooms to the harsh glare of the footlights and are to some degree – lesser or greater – astonished at how different performance can be under the glare of the stage lights as compared to the practice room. The plaint of some (“But I could play it in the practice room”) is oddly seldom followed by any introspection on why that is, what exactly is responsible for the change, and most important, what to do about it.
The difference between the two venues is stage presence. The difference is how comfortable you are on stage.
Part I – You
There are several ways to acquire this comfort.
1. Practice focussing the mind regularly. Every time you practice the horn, take a minute or a couple and put your entire attention on one thing, e.g. your breathing, a spot on the wall or page, or repeat soundlessly a mellifluous word in your mind. When your attention drifts, bring it back and continue.
2. Master the piece in every detail. Oh, and pick a piece that you can master in the time available to you to practice. Don’t perform a piece you simply wish you could play. Perform a piece that you can play without ado 3 or 4 times in a row. This might mean taking a piece apart well in advance of the performance; for advanced pieces this could be several years. But the confidence that you can play it consistently very well will slow your facing-the-audience heart rate as much as anything will.
3. Perform a lot. The first time you perform a new piece is always a kind of shakedown cruise. Stuff happens, often stuff that never went astray in practice. Ideally, if you have an important performance (e.g. degree recital), that performance should be the third or better fourth time that you have performed the pieces in public. Doesn’t matter where. Anywhere you can get an audience: schools, nursing homes, house concerts, weddings, funerals, supermarket openings, hospital lobbies, roommates, grandparents, passers-by, pets, stuffed animals, anyone, anywhere. Be proactive: get out there and make calls and send emails and set up dates and times for performances somewhere, anywhere. Take your show on the road for an off-Broadway debugging before you bet the farm on it in the Big Concert. You’ll be really really glad you did.
3a. You can get more experience performing if you take not only your Big Concert pieces on the road, but other stuff as well. The Big Stuff takes much time to prepare. So have a slate of Little Stuff that you can play practically at sight with a high degree of confidence and play that everywhere, just to add to your stack of Performing Experience. Every time you play something somewhere, you get a little bit more at ease with the process. If you only do Big Stuff, you might not get to play so much. Little Stuff gives you the wherewithal to perform all the time. What constitutes Little Stuff will expand over time and you will gain both repertoire and stage presence, a nice two-fer.
3b. An alternative to Little Stuff is improvised stuff. Make up part or all of your program for these variegated Road Concerts. Your audiences will enjoy it, and you will acquire the same experience standing on stage as with written stuff. Don’t improvise yet? Then just do two things: 1) find a partner on any instrument and start making up music together. One accompanies. The other solos. Later, weave the two roles back and forth in ever-smaller intervals. It’s fun. It’s easy. It’s a great addition to your impromptu concerts. 2) For a how-to and lots of specific ideas on doing this, [ad content to follow:] get my book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians.
Part II – Them
How you feel up on stage is part of the battle. The other part is how you make the audience feel. It is possible to make them feel good about you up there before you even play a note.
It’s called: Acting.
Audiences want you to do well, and they want to feel comfortable being your audience. So you put them at ease by controlling the nonhorn signals you radiate that “tell” them how to feel. Some ideas:
•Move slowly. Or what feels like slowly. Time and space warp in the Stage Zone. Consciously make your movements slow, deliberate, and not too many.
•Don’t fidget. Not too many movements. Walk out. Smile. Bow. Then stand there, moving very little until it’s time to play. Actors conventionally convey calm and power by moving very little, or convey nervousness or powerlessness by constant, random motions. They can do this in a matter of seconds with no dialogue. This is because we all have our doctorates in Body Language, even if we aren’t aware of this.
•Video yourself in practice and performance. Then closely observe the impression you project. Do your eyebrows “comment” at every clam? Take notes. Make corrections.
You have the power to look cool and collected. In the Middle Ages, courtiers worked at sprezzatura, defined by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort… [displaying] an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.” In other words, we want to look at ease up there, making it look easy, so that our audience can relax and know that it can relax, too, that all is well.
You show them that you feel just fine, thanks – regardless of how well your unruffled exterior corresponds with your interior.
They will relax, and what’s more, they will forgive the occasional clam because they are on your side, which is “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.”
So let your sprezzatura guide and glide you through recital/jury time.