Why I f’ed up: thoughts on performance anxiety (Part 1)

Assuming one is adequately prepared, why do mistakes still happen in performance? Some possibilities from my personal experience:

a) Distraction: Thinking about something non-musically related and performing on auto-pilot. Sometimes auto-pilot works just fine, but switching focus back to music is when things go wrong.

b) Evaluation: Thinking, “That could’ve been better,” or “This is going well!” Whether positive or negative, evaluation means I’m thinking about what already happened instead of listening and being in the moment. Not much different from a) in effect.

c) Self-doubt: Thinking, “Do I remember the fingering/notes here?” “Can I play this part?” Obviously the answer is “yes,” but the second I doubt it, I screw it up.

d) Forgetting: Some things require extra concentration or intentional counting to execute, and I don’t remember to do it unless it’s written in my score. (I’m sorry to report this worsens with age.)

e) Accidents: Sometimes mistakes just happen because we’re human.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Strategies to avoid f’ing up!

Tips for relearning music

As I child I used to hate when my teacher asked me to relearn pieces I had played before. One teacher tried to persuade me, “Relearning a piece is like visiting an old friend,” an analogy that meant little to 13-year-old me.

Nowadays I’m so inundated with new music that I’m usually relieved when I don’t need to learn a piece from scratch. Although in a few cases I’ve thought relearning a piece was more like visiting an old enemy than an old friend, I have a few tips to ease the process for friends and enemies alike.

Relearn it while you sleep. I swear by this trick, but it still amazes me every time. The first day, I’ll play the entire piece once through without stopping, mistakes and all. After a night’s sleep, my brain seems to retrieve the music from long-term storage. The next day my memory of the piece is magically improved, and I continue practicing from there.

You can read more about the phenomenon of learning while sleeping over at Bulletproof Musician.

Fingerings: take them or leave them. Sometimes I kick myself for not writing down the fingering I used previously. Sometimes I try my old fingering and think, “Who came up with this shitty fingering?” In the past I’ve wasted time trying to master a previous fingering, thinking that if it worked for me before, it must work again. Now I just give fingerings a try or two and come up with a new one if they don’t work.

Don’t begin at the beginning. Instead of relearning the piece from beginning to end, I start with the most difficult passages. If nothing stands out as being particularly troublesome, I work from the end to the beginning, since most likely I learned it the other way around the first time.

How do you feel about relearning old pieces? Do you have any tips or tricks?


Tidbits: A resolution, IMSLP fee, Powerball

I’m trying to form a new habit. Call it a new year’s resolution if you want. While I’m procrastinating on practicing resting my arms, I will listen to recordings of the music I’m learning. My streaming service of choice is the Naxos Music Library, which I’m fortunate to access for free through MIT’s institutional subscription. The user interface is outdated, but you can’t beat their library of nearly 120,000 classical CDs.

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IMSLP instituted a new membership plan for $22.80/year. Although Slipped Disc purported a “rising surge of anger” from musicians (disputed in the comments, natch), I was happy to hand over my money and surprised they didn’t ask for more. A trip to the library takes me 30 minutes each way, and earlier this week I purchased two Henle scores for $60. $22.80/year to download scores in my pajamas is a pittance.

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When fantasizing about winning the $1.5 billion Powerball, people often say they’d quit their jobs, but I’d keep mine with few changes. I’d hire somebody to make photocopies for me, and I’d hire a page turner for sure. Alas, my reliable (volunteer) page turner left to get a graduate degree in mathematics. #MITproblems