Rehearse Realistically

I Blanked

I’ve mentioned that I get practice with public speaking through the Toastmasters program.  One day, I got up to give a speech about ways to reduce stress.  I listened to my nice introduction and walked up to the podium.  Then my mind blanked.  I couldn’t remember what my speech was about.  Even though my introducer had just mentioned my speech title, I couldn’t remember it either.  Everyone waited anxiously to hear what I was going to say.  I was anxious to hear it, too.  After about 20 eternal seconds, it finally came to me.  It also came to me that deep breaths and having realistic expectations wasn’t enough to control my stress.  So, I studied and found out what the next level of preparation was.

Fire Fighters, Commandos, and Musicians

Photo of firefighter walking towards fireFire fighters and commandos have to perform difficult, complex tasks and their lives and the lives of their comrades are at stake.  There’s no doubt that this creates fear and stress.  Somehow, they’re able to prepare themselves to face this stress.  Somehow, they still have enough body and mind control to remember complex instructions and do things that would have the rest of us frozen with fear or running away.  How do they do it?

The answer is that they rehearse as realistically as possible.  Fire fighters practice their skills on and in real fires.  Commandos practice with live fire going overhead – and worse.  Through slowly conditioning themselves with lesser hazards, they bring their ability to handle stress to a high level.  When they go out on a real mission, there aren’t any aspects that they haven’t dealt with before.  Only the particular combinations of circumstances and tasks are new.

As musicians, our lives are not at stake in a literal sense.  However, some performances are important enough that you feel they will change your life, that is, life as you know it may end or a new life can begin.  That’s certainly cause enough for you to feel stressed, so it’s cause enough for you to prepare as the pros do.  It’s reason to rehearse as realistically as possible.


As a musician, it’s realistic to expect distractions.  Some distractions are external and sudden: car horns, cell phones, coughs or dropped items in the audience.  Some are internal and sudden: a muscle twinge, gurgling stomach.  Some are a constant annoyance: staff clearing tables, noisy air systems, your pounding heart.

To prepare, you’ll have to recreate either the distraction (best) or the effect it has on you.  This list is only a start, and you’ll continue to fill it out through brainstorms, your colleagues’ stories and your own experiences.  Then practice your concert repertoire with each of these distractions, first singly, and then in realistic combinations.

For audio effects, simply record them or download sound samples from the Internet.  Create a mix with random sounds at random times.  Set up a loud fan to simulate a ventilation system.  A fire alarm will let you recognize the sound if you ever encounter it, and it would be a good idea to rehearse what you’d tell the audience.  After all, attention will already be on you, making you the unofficial leader.


At your performance, you know not to expect more from yourself than you’ve regularly achieved during practice.  But that simply pushes your expectations of your practice sessions higher.  Also, it’s naïve to think you’re not concerned about the expectations your audience has – or you think they have – about your performance.  In short, it’s realistic to expect to be stressed at your concert, so you’ll need practice in performing under stress.

I find that I feel the stress of expectations when I record myself, either in audio only or video.  I tell myself that I’m going to put this recording on YouTube or make it a part of my portfolio.  Of course, I want that to be my best and I assure you that I’m nervous.  I often find that after a few tries, I’m not ready to post this recording yet.  That’s when I sense I’ve lost my edge, lowered my expectations, and am no longer stressed.  Any more recording in that session is useless and if I continue, may make it harder to create a high stress level in the future, so I quit recording.  Whatever your method, just remember that your goal is to create the same stress in your practice session that you’ll feel at your performance.

A side benefit of a video recording is that you can play it back and hear and see yourself during the difficult portions.  By playing it back fast, slow, and pausing, you may discover why the parts are difficult for you.  Perhaps your posture, hand position, fingering, or other cause will become visible.  And eventually, one of them will be good enough to add to your portfolio.


To fully recreate the stress of performing in front of an audience, you’ll need to perform -in front of an audience.  Don’t start with the worst case, though.  Firefighters start with small, controlled fires before they practice on real houses and other hazardous situations.  Likewise, you’ll do best if you ratchet your stress level up from low to high by mastering each situation along the way.

The least stress is with a small friendly audience.  Note that “friendly” may not mean your friends.  Though your friends want to support you, you may feel the stress of trying extra hard to impress or please them.  You may be able to play in a hotel lobby, in a church or synagogue (not your own), or to acquaintances in your network.  You can expect such an audience to at least be polite, if not friendly.  If you want to do well, but won’t punish yourself for the occasional error, then that’s a good amount of stress to start with.  Play your most confident repertoire, so that you can focus on feeling and handling your stress without the distraction of actually playing the music.

A higher level of stress is an average audience.  Select some people who know you and want you to succeed.  Fill out the audience with their friends and acquaintances.  The hotel lobby, church, or synagogue might still work if you know some of the people there.  Or, invite a few of your friends to the venue.  Start with your most confident pieces, and if they work out well, increase the difficulty with subsequent sessions.  This should some create some stress, because you’ll want to do your best.  By now, your best will be well within your grasp.

When you can handle this stress level, then you’re ready for real concert-like situations.  By now, you know which pieces you can handle even when you’re stressed.  Set up a small recital with friendly, but musically knowledgeable guests.  You can select from family, friends, former professors and schoolmates, and others from your network.  These people will recognize a good or poor performance, so you’ll want to do well for them.  This will create the stress level you want to practice handling.


One other predictable stressor is audience interaction.  Especially if you’re an introvert – and many musicians are – talking to the audience is distracting and sometimes upsetting.  They give you well-meaning, but conflicting advice.  They don’t hear it the way you played it or don’t seem to have listened at all.  At the least, keeping track of all the guest’s names, welcoming, and thanking tends to crowd out thoughts of your performance.

It might be helpful to have someone you deeply trust as a go-between.  This person can explain the purpose of this concert and introduce you.  Your introducer might ask your audience members to fill out a simple review form.  This person can also collect the verbal or written comments from audience members after the concert and distill them down into something useful.  If your go-between discovers that several people did (or didn’t) like your concluding piece, that’s useful information for you.  If it’s discovered that one person thought you played some section too fast and one other thought it was too slow, a meaningful conclusion is elusive.


To prepare for performing under stress, do what other professionals do: practice as realistically as possible.  You’ll want to get more ideas for what that might imply from a variety of sources.  Certainly, it’s realistic to think distractions, expectations, and mingling with the audience will be part of a performance.

To become good at handling those stresses:

  • Ÿ Practice with pre-recorded distracting sounds at random times
  • Ÿ Practice with the stress of doing your best for a recording
  • Ÿ Practice with the stresses of live audiences
  • Ÿ Practice with the stresses of audience interactions

With this ever-increasing comfort level with stress, you’ll be able to perform “under fire” too.  You’ll go out to the stage with the confidence that success is not only achievable, but is already a habit.

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