It is not unusual to feel disappointed about your own performance. Part of the reason is that in our daily practice we perform every section of a specific work beautifully at one point or another. All those beautiful sections, put together in our mind, become our ideal performance, and anything less than our ideal performance can feel disappointing.
At a festival I attended recently, a fine young clarinetist told me: “I was not happy with my performance. Even though I knew how difficult it is to put this piece together with piano, I assumed all would be fine with my new pianist. It is also hard to play for a room full of clarinetists…”
There is a lot we can and should do to produce a great performance, as well as to avoid feeling disappointed even when our performance is not perfect. Here are the tips I find most helpful:
Multiple preparatory performances:
Performing in front of others requires a set of skills that we don’t necessarily develop when practicing by ourselves. It is necessary to perform in front of others, as well as to include a number of different settings in our practice, as part of our concert preparation. Most professionals schedule several preparatory performances (such as home concerts or semi-private run-throughs) prior to a public concert. There are aspects of performance that we can work on most effectively while performing, such as flow, fluidity, projection, diction (or the dimension of our musical gestures), big-picture concept, climax-building trajectories, energy level, and so on. The more we perform a piece, the better these aspects get.
Record yourself and keep marking your score to zoom into the areas that need work. That will make each performance better. Be sure to use apps such as the Amazing Slow Downer to listen to your performance at slower speeds without changing the pitch. You’ll be amazed at how much is going on at the micro-level, and how much work there is yet to be done to improve your ensemble, intonation and other basics of performance. Listen to your own recordings with an analytical mind, without getting caught up in the shortfalls of the sound quality. The sound of the clarinet is particularly difficult to capture with a phone, tablet or Zoom. So, don’t worry: your sound is not as bad as it seems in the recording. Be cool and move on to listening to other aspects of the recording. Keep refining both the details and the big-picture.
Practice techniques to increase your performance control and confidence:
The best way to achieve a great performance is a great preparation. There are several specific strategies we can include in our daily practice to increase performance control and overall confidence on stage. Here is a shortlist:
Confidence is built over time. When you see the results of effective practicing in your own performance over and over again, you begin to trust your work. You get to know that as long as you prepare for a performance in certain way, the level will be very high.
Keep mapping ahead and moving from grabbing-note to grabbing-note:
In many ways, performing is like delivering a speech. You can’t let small glitches disrupt the projection of the main message in your performance. You prepare for this by practicing by sections, mainly at slow tempos. Each section comprises a musical gesture that you practice with great intention, with enormous clarity and exaggerated expression. For this, you need to exaggerate the phasing of the specific musical gesture you are repeating. Grab the note at the climax by holding it one bit longer and looping the passage (this way you grab with your hearing); by adding more air support to the note at the climax (to grab with air); and by adding more finger pressure for an instant at the beginning of the note at the climax (to grab with your fingers). Once each musical gesture and its corresponding climax is practiced separately this way, you perform by mapping ahead from musical gesture to musical gesture, and feeling in control when you move from grabbing-note to grabbing-note.
Play always perfect when you practice:
When you practice you need to play perfect (yes, even when you are starting to learn a new piece). That means you need to play slowly for a while, before you start to get a bit faster each time. Otherwise chances are you won’t include everything you are working on.
No, I am not talking about appliances. We too can benefit enormously from performing with great energy efficiency. Every time you play a passage, ask yourself: ok, now can I do it with less effort? An easy example is to hold a high note and to gradually decrease the biting, or vertical tension in your lips, until you go flat. Be sure not to change your embouchure and don’t lower your tongue; simply decrease the biting gradually. Doing this often times brings you to realize that before you go flat your head resonance increases and your sound becomes fuller. That means there is space for you to bite less, or, in other words, you can play with less effort and, at the same time, improve your sound. Make sure your feet are well-grounded and that your body is aligned and relaxed. Only the sides of your mouth remain engaged and holding the embouchure. Everything else is relaxed: your face and head are resonating, your fingers are relaxed until they grab specific notes (and engage for an instant before they go back to relaxation), your larynx is relaxed and low, your shoulders are relaxed, your diaphragm is free and ready to help you inhale a deep breath, with your mouth well-opened and producing a low inhalation pitch. Make sure you feel comfortable and relaxed on stage at all times.
Your performance should engage your audience:
Your performance should engage your audience, but an engaged performance must not be an aggressive performance. Going back to the speech delivery example, you quickly realize there are many different tones and speech styles that can be equally effective. You just have to find your own voice; your own pace. Don’t over-do it or you risk sounding aggressive like an over-the-top salesman. Match your projection to the acoustic you are performing at and always be honest to the music and yourself. While delivering a speech you are most engaging when you are yourself. The same happens in performance.
Peace of mind:
There is no failure in performance: even a disappointing performance is a learning experience that will make you stronger. Did you know that some of the most successful people out there failed a lot of times? If you learn from your mistakes and are able to collect yourself and move on, you will be successful. Trust your good work and go for it. We all have something important and unique to express through our performances.