The following notes are based on the handout from my performance skills workshop. The focus of my workshops was to build confidence as well as competence, so these notes are necessarily focused on the psychological aspects. A workshop is undoubtedly a better way to learn about performance skills than an essay, nonetheless these notes might prove useful to you. The techniques herein are powerful and have been deployed over decades to thousands of students with excellent results.
performance skills ~ notes for performers
A performance is different from a painting, for example, in that musicians need to interact with their audience to present their art. Successful performers manage this interaction well. Performing is a skill, so it can be learned, with the right help, by anyone. Counter-intuitively, extroverts don’t always make great performers. The ability to perform well is a skill, not a personality type.
perspectives on performing
Music is about sound and feeling. We need to play and sing from the heart to move our audiences. Firstly, we need to be in the right mind-set, not overly tense, nor overly focused on technical matters but in tune with the spirit of the music. Audiences tend to ‘mirror’ the performer’s mood. If we are in the right frame of mind and enjoying the music, the audience will probably enjoy it too. Children can be great performers. They love showing-off and we don’t mind when they do. We adults sometimes need to un‑learn some of our grown-up-ness in order to perform effectively.
In Shakespeare’s comedies a jester acts the fool and is funny. We laugh with him at his humour. There might also be a real fool, like the folly‑fallen Malvolio in Twelfth Night. We laugh at him for being ridiculous. Like the jester, we need to give ourselves the freedom to forget our cares for a while. Our audiences will then give us a fool’s pardon.
Jonathan Kay is a British comic who uses his Kingdome-Freedome model to teach performance skills. As grown-ups, we are often in the Kingdome: responsible, in control and perhaps taking ourselves a little too seriously. Both domes form the sphere of our existence. To be effective performers, we need to be in our Freedome: care‑free, childlike, emotional and true to our hearts
The highly acclaimed Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London run a postgraduate performance skills course and teach the following principles:
- reaching in to reach out ‑ performers need to get in touch with their inner creativity and confidence to express their music meaningfully and movingly
- the middle way ‑ is a balance between an over-disciplined and an over‑free approach – this balance is key to getting the technical aspects right, whilst still expressing the emotion of the music
- a spirit of engagement ‑ a performance should be involving, inviting the audience to become part of the experience
It helps to know yourself a little, such that the persona you project is consistent with who you are. Quentin Crisp wrote: ‘style is being yourself, only more so’. When we perform, we need to be larger-than-life for our personalities to come across, else we risk looking small on stage.
Because we are holistic beings, adopting positive body language, as well as looking good, will help us to feel better too. The paradox of performing is that fear holds us back in our discomfort zone, where we punish ourselves with negative thoughts and limiting beliefs. Letting go puts us in a new state, where uncertainty rules. Here our inner creativity takes over and we instinctively know what to do. We focus on the music, emotion & interaction and loose our inhibitions.
Quite apart from the performer’s discomfort, nerves can manifest in distracting body‑language and make the performer look ill‑at‑ease. This can be infectious and the audience may find it hard to relax and enjoy the performance.
Expectation is one of the main causes of nerves. Don’t expect yourself to be faultless or even a great performer. Just do your best and the audience will enjoy you and your music. Whilst it is noble to aim for excellence, perfection is unachievable. You will only make yourself unhappy by striving for it.
Audiences are generally not unduly worried about mistakes and may not even notice them. You might laugh them off, showing that you are well‑adjusted and it may even help to build rapport. Certainly, don’t focus on mistakes after they’ve happened and generally be kind to yourself.
The brain is just an organ in the body to support the heart. Let the heart rule and manage your mind and your thoughts positively. Banish negative thoughts and self-doubt, as they can become self-fulfilling prophesies. It might help to distract your mind by giving it something else to do, like thinking about the emotion in the music or the meaning of the song.
Know your material well. By all means try out new music in a low risk setting but generally play material you know really well. The late, great guitarist Isaac Guillory taught me: ‘no‑one’s going to know that you’ve got limitations until you’ve exceeded them’. So play material which is, for you, simple and play it well.
Try not to rehearse parrot-fashion. Quality rehearsal is hard work, it’s not a quick run-through. It means getting everything right, including feeling the emotion of the music.
Set off early to the venue to avoid travel delays and arrive relaxed. Use any spare time to familiarise yourself with the venue and warm up by playing and/or singing something simple. This is not normally the time for practice or rehearsal, which is different from a warm-up.
Guillory also taught me: ‘nobody’s going to have a good time watching someone who isn’t enjoying themselves’. So look forward to the performance positively and try to enjoy it at the time. Remind yourself that sharing your music is what you want do.
If you make introductions, briefly say something positive about the material and how you feel about it. Speak from the heart. This will help the audience to appreciate the material and help to put you in the right mindset. Then hold on to those feelings while you play.
Keeping your heels on the ground will help you to be centred and allow nervous energy to flow up the body into your hands and voice, adding expression to what you are delivering. If it’s appropriate, move with the music. This will relax you, look comfortable and help the audience to relate to you and your music.
Smile, when you perform. This releases endorphin hormones and will put you in a more relaxed and positive frame of mind. It also looks reassuring, as though we are on top of the situation, even if that’s not how things seem to you at the time.
Remind yourself what you love about the music you are playing and focus on that. Live for the moment and try not to look back or think ahead. Immerse yourself in the feeling, the emotion, the meaning of the music. Remember, you are performing to entertain, not to impress, so make a gift of your music and it will be well received.
after the performance
Allow the audience to applaud you and receive this graciously. The audience might feel cheated if you deny them the right to thank you.
Listen carefully to positive feedback comments. These will be, by and large, sincere and represent quality feedback, especially if they are specific. Constructive comments from the organiser or venue may be worth thinking about too.
Manage negative comments, suggestions and observations carefully. Generally, they are not about you. These criticisms are often fulfilling the needs of the giver, not your needs. If you need help with something seek out a supportive tutor and generally be wary of unsolicited advice.
Every performance is imperfect, yet most are successful in many aspects. Don’t be overly self-critical but hold a positive memory of your performance. This will give you confidence for the next one. Over time, and with several successful performances under your belt, your nerves will tend to diminish and your personal confidence will grow.