By Dr. Erin Aldridge
There is nothing more freeing, or terrifying, than performing on stage. Essentially it is putting oneself out there in a completely vulnerable position. Most of us perform with our hearts on our sleeves which makes the audience reception that much more crucial, and if most performers are honest they would agree that they like a positive audience reaction.
We are taught from little on that when you are on stage you need to show confidence and happiness. There is never any room for expressions of unhappiness or anger…the audience might catch on. I have heard many times throughout my career “oh you make it look so easy,” or “that must be an easy piece for you.” I whole-heartedly assure you that nothing I play is easy. In fact, there is a long process of both technical and mental work that goes into a performance before I even think about hitting the stage.
The creative process is a very personal one. There are practice techniques that are universal for everyone, but it isn’t until you truly understand yourself as a musician that you can find what works the best for your own personal style. I have said to the majority of my students that playing is 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental. I certainly don’t mean to negate the importance or weight of the physical preparation, but in order for the physical to work in a good and healthy way your head has to be in the game.
I have found that as I get older the weirder my playing psychosis gets. I think as youngsters we have no fear, but as age creeps in you become all too aware of what is at stake. Sometimes those types of thoughts can become so overwhelming that they can negatively affect a performance (aka performance anxiety). My performance anxiety translates into one of the worst issues – second-guessing myself. As a violinist, I have hundreds of decisions to make as I am playing including which fingers to use and when, dynamics, direction of the bow, etc. Yes, most of those issues are resolved in the practice room but there also needs to be a sense of freedom on stage. The problem that I sometimes experience is that no matter how much I will practice a tough spot, I will get to the performance and question if I really know what to do. That is a very scary feeling. I have enough performances under my belt that I am able to work through my sudden “second guess-itis” during the performance, but it is very uncomfortable to deal with. Unfortunately I have found that the only way to combat this is to practice more (anyone who knows me will know why that is funny). The practicing that I have to do is not simply running through the piece that I am playing (although that is a step in the process). A lot of the time is spent breaking down the music section by section, phrase by phrase to get the notes exactly right both technically and musically. In essence, it is like choreographing a dance and making sure each step is placed just right to convey the best performance you can.
The pressure most of us put on ourselves for perfection is unrealistic, but will always be there. When the performance doesn’t go well you have this sinking feeling of failure that will freak you out. Sometimes bad performances happen…that is a part of the profession. The important thing is to learn from that experience and to create a better one the next time. The problem is that it is nearly impossible to have that happy “gosh it will be better next time” attitude when you have just laid out your heart on the stage and stomped on it in the process. Unfortunately it is a lot easier to just say any or all of the following (although I have never done this haha ): I am bad. I should not be in music. I can’t believe I am so stupid. I can’t believe that just happened. Oh no…so-and-so is in the audience and now my career is over. I should have just stayed in bed this morning. I wonder if there are any jobs available at McDonalds. The hardest thing in the world is to pull oneself out of that really bad place and get ready for the next performance. That is again where practice comes in. The more positive repetitions you can have, the more secure you become, the more your confidence will grow, and the better the performance will be.
The road to a performance can oftentimes be a grueling one, but it can also be interesting and rewarding if you are open to the process. Ultimately if you can get on stage and walk off happy, you have accomplished your goalDr. Erin Aldridge is the concertmaster of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.