How to Prepare
Many things have been written about the public performance of music (anxiety attacks, stage fright, cold hands, etc.) and I have gone through a few books dealing with the issue hoping to read something like "in order to eliminate that butterfly feeling from within yourself, you must do the following..."
Take my word for it, you will never read this anywhere. Further down I list a few pointers that will help you alleviate the levels of anxiety, but just as with everything else in life, you will master the skill one concert after the other.
Renato Bellucci in Concert. December 2013.
Having played for many years, practicing constantly, and having received the highest grades in college, are by no means the indicators that you are fit to play concerts. Concert playing is a special vocation within the vocation. Playing flawlessly is not what it takes and having the guts is neither. The whole issue has to be examined from a different angle. Start by asking yourself:
Why do I want to play concerts?
If the answer is any of the following:
1) "I played for many years and it is time for other people to see what I have been up to".
2) "I think people need to know my interpretations which are simply better than the ones by other players".
3) "I need to feel the energy flowing between the audience and me".
4) "I won all the major competitions and I deserve to play for real people".
5) "I think that in a materialistic world playing music brings people closer to their spirit".
Then: remember that most hard workers are never known but discovered at best, what you think about your playing is just that, what you think, there is no energy flow in concert giving but a lot of sweat and very patient people waiting for you to finally play Recuerdos, the sure thing competitions give you, besides an over-inflated ego, is a huge, ugly repertoire and the music scene is so prostituted lately, that souls will most likely be disappointed by your silly virtuosity.
Music making is neither about doing finger acrobatics nor a matter of who plays a piece in less time.
I agree with you that, unfortunately, there is a lot of showing off going on by players all over (In the violin and piano world this has simply been going on for a long time). The roots of this evil are sponsored by major competitions that push players to give up musicianship and embrace circus acts. Classical guitar magic is not about speed record breaking but an idiom that common people love because it supposedly makes art music available to everyone. Yes, just about everyone I know owns a guitar or knows someone who does... an old 50 bucks guitar maybe, but a guitar nevertheless.
The piano and the violin intimidate common people, the guitar does not unless you aim at doing that on purpose. The "show off" have made the road very hard for the rest of us. They may fool common people, but they sure do not fool me. I have attended MANY concerts where the audience looks around to "understand" whether they just attended a good guitar concert or not. They need "someone" to certify, maybe with the nod of their head, something... anything, because they simply understood nothing.
They made it all the way to the concert hall, paid for the ticket, and got slammed in the face by the very artist! They waited and waited and they were never given the gift of hearing those somewhat familiar tunes (Recuerdos, Romance, Estrellita) because, come on, the interpreter was too good to indulge in that easy stuff. He was there promoting some ugly contemporary piece.
Renato Bellucci at Channel 9 Live Concert 1986.
It is easy to hide behind unknown pieces. It is easy to impress at 200 miles an hour than at 5! Guitarists think that everyone has heard enough of the classics! NOT TRUE! If your reasoning has become so distorted that you truly believe that, it is, either because you are attending too many guitar festivals, or because you think that everyone has a Segovia or Williams recording. NOT TRUE! The guitar repertoire does not need to be expanded. What the guitar repertoire needs are true musicians with their feet on the ground who make a great effort to make the tunes common people love "guitar playable". That is a challenge!
What about the other horror of imposing pieces in competitions? Or the even worse horror of being judged by fellow colleagues, when in the real concert scene our survival will depend on the audience and not those ridiculous judges!
Imposing an age limit! Talk about discrimination! It shows that the very organizers of these monstrosities do not trust the audience which, ultimately, will make the event happen. You are all making part of a dark chapter of guitar history.
All the above answers converge on one big truth. Our ego craves to be fed.
When your reasons start sounding more like, everything else I tried does not make me happy nor puts food on my table (usually these two truths converge in life) or, there are simply not enough players in my town, or... I want to remind my fellow human beings that the human body and brain can persevere silently for hundreds of hours in the pursuit of perfection and music brings happiness to the soul, then you will at least sound honest or have a clear idea of what concert giving it is all about.
Ultimately, all musicians, will have to learn how to co-exist with the physical and psychological sensations that concert giving bring along, and the million-dollar question: "Why did I have to book myself for this concert in the first place?".. will always hound us in the hours or days prior to a concert.
Some musicians have a character that allows them to deal with the concert scene in a more "detached" fashion, others are masters at choosing the repertoire, others simply practice so many hours that they do not have a life, and others should simply not have bothered. If you are an anxious person, you can deliver but will probably suffer a lot. You see, artists in general, are romantic, soulful, and sentimental people plus all the normal human mixture of feelings. This explosive mixture is not exactly what you seem to need when it comes to facing a crowd.
Renato Bellucci 1979
Choose your repertoire wisely and wait for the right time. If audiences are not ready for you yet, be extremely patient. A musician suddenly happens to find himself giving concerts and, forcing the issue, will simply make you frustrated and miserable. If you are not giving 100 concerts a year, wait and think about it because you might actually get what you are asking for. Make sure it is what you really want and can handle.
We have to learn to accept the fact that we all fear the possibility of this virtual disaster... a monster shaped as a guitarist getting stuck in the middle of a piece while people throw tomatoes and lettuce at him, our colleagues nodding "no good, no good, I want my money back" or "Thank God I didn't have to pay for this %?$", the critics saying "A disastrous concert by John Smith" or people pointing at us in the streets saying "That's the guy who got stuck in bar number 25 while tomatoes were flying".
I have felt and will surely keep feeling these monsters attacking me every time I decide to play for people. The only thing that has changed with the years, is my attitude towards these phantoms... they are my friends now and they change into angels the minute I walk on stage. You better be willing to accept this truth because as long as you are from planet Earth, this will be the norm.
Just like any other human being, we prefer the intimacy of our studios rather than the coldness of a stage. Yes, stage is cold no matter how cozy we try to make it. It is here that we have to start examining a series of factors that will surely put things in perspective and help us see the whole thing in its real light. I will tell you what I do when I practice and prepare for a concert: I am always in a "giving concert mode" in my practice. My faith has thought me that I always have an audience, one made of my children and wife, Angels, Saints, and God himself. Having said that, and, admitting that faith takes more work and dedication than guitar playing, it is easy to understand that when I go on stage I have: all of the above plus a few struggling souls very much like me helping me fulfill my mission in life. Mistakes on stage: I see them as nothing compared to mistakes behind and beyond the stage and the applause: It helps me to think: "If these people heard my Confessions, they would certainly not clap their hands!". I recommend you consider these issues very deeply.
Renato Bellucci Concert at Teatro Municipal, 2013.
Scientific and psychological approaches to the concert situation, which is an intellectual activity, have some good answers and it has been proven that the right amount of anxiety and total control is the ideal place to be for optimum performance. The term that describes this situation is called hypomania (hypo=less than usual mania=strong desire for something). In other words, a controlled desire. Being professionals gives us the know-how while being intelligent gives us the right perspective.
Several tests have shown that good humor is a powerful trigger that helps balance these two factors. I often walk around backstage with my Walkman, hearing stand-up comedians. It is a great moderator. It is far better than playing scales like crazy.
It helps if you remember these facts: Emotions are, in essence, impulses to react instantly in order to handle life. It is a mechanism that evolution has instilled in us. The root of the word emotion is "motere", Latin for to move, plus the prefix e = "move away", suggesting that a tendency to act is implicit in every emotion.
- Anger makes blood go to the hands and generates adrenaline, not good for performance.
- Fear makes blood go to the legs. We tend to freeze. Not good for performance either.
- Happiness general rest and readiness and enthusiasm for whatever task. Great for performance!
- Love calm and contentment. What do you think?
- Sadness, depression drop in energy. Forget sadness and performance.
What I have discovered throughout the years is that there is a place, very deep within ourselves and, at the same time very much under our very skin, where we are all great, unique performers (practice and dedication are the foundations and are our peace of mind).
I'll take the word from the movie Jerry Mc Guire (Cuba Gooding Jr and Tom Cruise), the key is the Kwahn (Flow). A state where we reject any type of tension, a place where nothing really matters, where we are not ashamed of what we do because what we do is beautiful and, most importantly, glorifies God. I am not into yoga or transcendental meditation, actually, I can say nothing about these practices which are far from my upbringing or surroundings. But the word delivers and I think that in the music world it is very handy.
As we become worried or anxious, we tend to tense our muscles and that is precisely what we do not need when a major run or challenging musical phrase is coming up. As these tricky parts approach, what we really want is to "lose control" and not the opposite. If you make a mistake, do not tense up, relax more and let yourself go.
Learn this technique in your practice. Feel totally relaxed, do a "muscular check" to see if there is even a tiny amount of tension in any body muscles, and, if tension is present, send the command RELAX. As you pick up the guitar, you must do the "muscles check". Every once in a while, send the command -relax- as soon as a minimal amount of tension appears anywhere. If you work on relaxed practicing, you will be learning to perform without tension... every performer's worst enemy.
Eventually, we will never have to send the command, or we will not be aware that the command is being sent (real objective). The live performance must be the "ultimate relaxation state" and I know this sounds impossible, but it is the only place where the whole you and I will come through. Energy flows where knots are not present... let us make sure that our muscles and phantoms do not create the knots. Every time a concert is over, it is time to make an evaluation, an objective one. Whatever happened is ok, as long as it makes us better performers and better human beings.
Performing live is a skill that needs us to deepen into two very important aspects of music making. One is physical, and the other is psychological. These are two very vague terms that poorly describe the challenges involved in the live performance of music. The physical aspect can be better described as the technical (see the technique page) facet of playing plus a literally physical growth of our muscles, bones, and tissues involved in playing. What this means, is that we must allow for time to do its work, and we will be wise if we accept the fact that a given technical difficulty will simply cease to exist given the right amount of time. When our left-hand finger 4, say, will have grown that extra millimeter or two we need to reach that elusive note, we will have witnessed this phenomenon taking place.
TRUTH! There is always more than 1 possible fingering and, at times, literally many more than 1.
When I started working on Bach's Chaconne with Maestro Carlevaro in 1986 (I was 24), he made it clear to me that I was not physically fit to play certain passages yet (I must stress that he was a Maestro in the way he pointed it out to me avoiding words that might hurt my feelings). I was mature enough, loved, and respected the man so as to listen and wait... 10 years passed before I could record it. I think that the Chaconne is not the kind of piece you play to an audience. It is more like a piece you play to an audience after a one-week "Chaconne in D minor appreciation class".
Renato, Charla Gramo 2013
We worked out alternative fingerings, moved a few notes here and there, and in the process, he took the time to show me his own fingerings from different times in his life. He made me buy 3 original copies of Segovia's arrangement and told me I would need them when the markings on top of the markings would make reading the notes impossible. He was right, so right.
Most non-guitarist composers, work with a guitarist during the composition process (a good one will do), which shows the composer the technical difficulties, the sound capabilities of the instrument so as to create the best possible piece of music for the instrument and the guitarist that will premiere the work. Carlevaro worked with Vila-Lobos on the 5 Preludes in order to make them more guitaristic. Vila-Lobos was not in close contact with Segovia (to whom he dedicated the pieces), and the exchange of ideas was made mostly through mail.. Carlevaro's fingering of Vila-Lobos Preludes is a must-have and then again, he re-examined every single bar with me to help me figure out how to adapt his concepts to my hands, and in the process, helped me create MY technique.
Guitarists feel close in terms of the instrument we share, but can be very distant when it comes to body size, arms and fingers length, muscular flexibility and stamina, nail shape and thickness, character and personality, interior life and presence of God and, since art is the sum of thousands of small parts bonded together, we must understand that these physical, mental and spiritual properties are the cement which keeps the parts together. Therefore, we better be extremely patient. Know yourself very thoroughly. You must learn that you are body, mind, and soul. You cannot neglect your soul or your body and mind will falter.
I foresee a time when guitarists will be so specialized in their repertoire that they will be able to play only a handful of pieces. What creates anxiety is the times we live. Anxiety is well described as “Being here but wanting to be somewhere else”. It is like a non-synchronized part of our being and definitely one of the most deterring emotions that a human being can withstand. This is so true that during one of the introits of the Catholic Mass we pray "Free us, Lord, from all anxiety..."... We forget that Bach never heard any of his masterpieces as well played as they are played today. Actually, some of his masterworks were never performed during his lifetime. We forget that we are always improving as performers and all that is asked of us is that we do our best with all our best.
Anxiety was approached scientifically in the early 1960s, by Richard Alpert who noticed how anxiety affected him negatively during tests while his classmate, Ralph Haber, was affected positively by it. Eventually, Alpert discovered that it was not the anxiety that influenced the performance but the response to it. Roll May, one of my favorite psychiatrists, considered Anxiety to be good and said that we have to learn how to use it to our advantage and prevent it from causing harm in our lives.
The other thing that a professional musician will discover with experience is that anxiety can be anticipated. A good example to explain this phenomenon is the first-time skydiver and the professional skydiver. The novice takes all his anxiety to the very moment prior to the dive, while the professional undergoes a longer anticipated anxiety which is evenly distributed in the hours or days prior to the jump itself.
I often look at a painting I have on my studio wall. I see its colors and shadows change as the light in the room changes according to the time of day. Art is an idea we have in our minds and all we really need is the light to make it visible. The same thing happens to my playing: I considered it beautiful many years ago and I still consider it beautiful, though, little has remained unchanged if nothing at all. All we have is the composer's ideas on a musical score.
The moment we walk on stage we are saying: “Now, I will try to re-create this work of art” still, we'd be crazy if we believed we were Bach, then Tárrega, Barrios, and so forth through the concert program. We grasped the overall idea and mixture of feelings the composer had at the time he sat down to write. The time and dedication of our patient practice plus the audience's expectations will be the tools we have to achieve the goal.
Nobody would throw tomatoes at Van-Gogh if he did not replicate his Starry Night exactly the way he did once... The same applies to us and, yes, the rest is only what other people think or say. Applause will be there for the idea, the effort, and the moment... maybe, not certainly, for the flawlessness.
A lot has been written about the practical things we can do in order to give a good recital. These are some of the things I learned and apply to me.
DO NOT PLAY A PIECE OF MUSIC IN PUBLIC UNTIL YOU LIKE IT IN PRIVATE. Do not think for a second that the mistake/s we make while practicing won't appear on stage. They will FOR SURE.
PLAY MUSIC YOU REALLY LIKE and avoid competitions unless this point and the previous one are ok and make sure you go there to win and not to learn. Everyone knows who the winner is after the first round is over... the rest is meeting the scheduled dates. Learning should be left for practice time, not for competitions and as Berlioz once said "Competitions are for horses, not for musicians".
REMEMBER THAT ONLY 0.5% of the public will notice a mistake unless you put a TAG on it (like saying I am sorry).
99.9% of the people attending are there to cheer you up, make sure you are one of them.
If a PRO is there, you are lucky.
START THE PROGRAM WITH THE PIECE OR PIECES YOU ARE TOTALLY FAMILIAR WITH. In other words, start off on the right foot, unless you are in for the thrill of your life.
IF FOR ANY REASON YOU DECIDE THE CONDITIONS ARE NOT RIGHT FOR A GIVEN PIECE, SKIP THE PIECE. Trust your feelings, nobody gets a receipt on the way in or out of a concert hall.
CHANGE THE STRINGS AT LEAST 3 DAYS BEFORE A CONCERT.
IT'S PERFECTLY OK TO HAVE YOUR SCORES ON STAGE.
YOU ARE NOT THERE TO IMPRESS ANYBODY.
REST ON THE DAY OF THE CONCERT, even better, have a great time, laugh a lot!
ENJOY THE MOMENT and make your own personal list.
LOOK FORWARD TO A BAD REVIEW, It's better than no review at all and you were at least worth the ink.
These 3 letters separated by a dot have been an inspiration throughout most of my adult life. I was first introduced to them when reading a J.S. Bach Biography when I lived in Spain in the early 1980s. I was 22 years old. My insatiable pursuit of mastering the classical guitar with the great Spanish Masters Andres Segovia and Narciso Yepes was only shadowed by an equally insatiable thirst for a deeper meaning to life. By then, It had become clear to me that as soon as "an apparently unattainable goal" in life was reached, it was immediately replaced by a new apparently unattainable goal that needed to be accomplished with at least the same urgency as the previous one. My heart knew that there had to be more to life than the continuous pursuit of dissatisfactions. I was totally convinced when I read St. Agustine's immortal saying: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” A series of providential coincidences orchestrated by God himself (I invite you to hear the story here) took me by the hand and I was revived to my faith. Although I come from a Catholic cradle, my faith had been dormant. But it all changed in the Spring of 1983. I understood the infinite meaning behind the 3 letters that Bach used to dedicate all his work to God: S.D.G. Soli Deo Gloria. To God All the Glory.
But of course! That was the great secret to a heart full of joy and meaning! What else could a human heart desire beyond having performed with and for God himself? There remained nothing to be desired! From that day on I learned that the endless hours of practice were never in vain. To this day, I never know when I will be facing a live audience or if I will ever give another concert but I do know for sure that when I embrace my guitar for practice today, in the silence of my home, in the morning or evening hours, I will swiftly look at the Crucifix on my practice table and tell Him: "This Concert is for you". I know that all the Saints, Angels, The Virgin Mary, and the Blessed Trinity are all attending this "private" session and my heart needs no more. This has been the driving force allowing me to persevere with the classical guitar throughout the years.
In the image above I am playing Bach Fugue BWV 1000 for my Celestial audience one Summer evening in San Bernardino Paraguay. March 9, 2015.
-Trick your brain...Just before getting on stage, stretch up your arms and breathe long and deep from the diaphragm. This will take care of a good chunk of tension.
-It’s about the performance, it’s not about YOU. The people in the audience are not there to see or hear you. They’re just there to see a performance, and, this day, the performer happens to be you. They hardly care about you as a person.
-Imagine a familiar face is watching. Your wife and children, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Angels, and the Saints that you always pray and play to are all sitting there like they always do when you play.
-Imagine that a shield of Angels surrounds you. They allow your music to go out and impede anything negative to come in.
-Make a list of success stories from your career to think about when negative thoughts assault you. When you list them, you will find that all your concerts were success stories. You always succeeded at winning over stage fright.
-Get on stage to give because that is what you are really there for. It is all about giving.
-Gratitude: Be grateful because only a handful of guitar players get the honor to be on stage to perform for others. Be grateful for being in good health so as to be able to perform, be thankful for your talent, and thankful for how blessed you are
-Everyone attending is on your side, they all want you to do good. You are the only one who's criticizing yourself.
-You can only be WHO you are and WHERE you are today. This stage is the magic moment you have been waiting and preparing for, this moment is now and is not somewhere in the future.
-Breathe, Breathe and let go
-Stay focused on your music. Music is what you want to deliver, not your personality. Do not get distracted but stay focused on the music you play. The more you Focus on delivering your music to the audience, the less you will be thinking about yourself
-Deliver your music as if the life of the audience depended on it.
-Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts
-People have bad short-term memory... they will not remember, they will forget even if you have the greatest performance of your life
-Get a walk around the stage
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