“The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness.”
-Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Technically, I am not “supposed to” enjoy the spotlight. I am an introvert.
I used to berate myself for not being a more glittery and gregarious performer…
…but all attempts to emulate such a creature were disastrous. I eventually learned (and am still learning) to be a performer on my own terms, and to love the process of sharing music — which I have always felt driven to do.
I recently compiled a list of performance tips for a harp student of mine who was going to play publicly for the first time. It started as a very practical list, which you will see below. But even after the lesson was long over, the list of advice kept growing in my mind and becoming increasingly philosophical (as you will also see below).
These tips, advice, and musings that I have collected might be helpful to other students and new performers. Especially those who have similar temperaments to mine. In other words. Introverts.
It’s not that extroverts are unwelcome here! But I have doubts as to how much value they will find. Extroverts are naturally focused outward, on the world around them, and are likely to feel like their interaction with an audience is natural, easy, and even vital. They might not have much use for advice about connecting the inner life of a quiet mind to performing music publicly.
Still, even extroverts can have issues with public performance. As Susan Cain points out in the aforementioned book Quiet, social anxiety can certainly strike extroverts (e.g.- Barbara Streisand, paralyzed by stage fright). And conversely introverts can be very comfortable in social situations, as I am.
If you are a musician who feels brilliant while playing in your own kitchen, but inept and stiff when confronted by an audience, I hope you will benefit from some of my thoughts. If you have ever sat down to play your harp for others and felt so disoriented by your audience that you looked at your own instrument and thought, “what the hell is this?” — perhaps my point of view will give you a few insights.
I love to play my harp for people. But I do not love to “perform” in the classic sense of “ta da! here I am! Me me me…” I spent a long time earlier in my life wishing that was me. I know I am not alone in this. But let’s stop asking Santa for a unicorn and see what else he might have in his bag…
First, some practical advice for harp students and new performers:
1. Detach Experience from Place.
2. Dress rehearsal.
Play for other people before playing for the “target audience.” Enlist neighbors, close friends, the UPS driver — anyone you can get — to listen to you play a little. If you can do a “test performance” at a nursing home or for a group of friends, do it! If you really cannot manage that, record yourself. Hearing yourself on tape or on video will teach you all kinds of things about your weak spots. And the act of recording will provide a kind of performance pressure that you can use to desensitize yourself.
3. Over prepare.
As a new performer, whatever you intend to present publicly has to be beyond ready. Introverts especially must over-prepare their music, because we are not wired for external distraction during performance. Our brains are actually, physically different from those of extroverts. (Read Introvert Advantage for more on this.) Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones, and can “wing it” with pieces that are not rock solid. But most new performers should not depend on adrenaline or luck to pull them through a weak section. Do not be like the Dilbert cartoon that shows his Project Timeline with a big sign in the middle reading “Insert miracle here.”
4. “Play like you practice, practice like you play.” – Sports maxim.
If it is an outdoor performance, practice a bit outdoors. A nighttime event, practice at night. Candlelit Christmas Eve service, turn off the lights, get a good stand light, and light some candles. A background music event, turn on the TV and the radio to simulate distraction. Ask a friend to distract you with an ill-timed question, by pretending to talk about you within earshot, or by singing along. Practice blocking it all out.
5. Performance day - practical tips.
- No miniskirts. “Miniskirt” for a harpist is defined as anything above the middle of your shin. Seriously. Either go long or go with pants. You do not want to provide entertainment unrelated to the music, and this is no time to ride side-saddle.
- Nails short (unless you play wire-strung) and clean. No nail polish unless you are used to seeing it there when you practice. No jewelry unless you’ve practiced successfully in it.
- Know the floor you’ll be seeing behind your strings. If it will be white, beige, or color-patterned, or if you are not sure, bring a black cloth to lay down so you can see your strings.
- Bring a zip lock baggie with a damp (not soaking!) wash cloth to clean your hands between pieces. You may need a dry one too, but something about hand sweat is very sticky when plucking strings, even after drying. It’s nice to have a way to clean your hands during longer sets.
- Before playing, wash and/or soak your hands in very warm (not hot) water if you can. Many public bathrooms do not provide warm water, so consider bringing some in a thermos. Hands immersed in warm water will respond much like they do to a physical warm up on the harp: capillaries open up, finger feel nimble, skin is softer – producing better tone.
- If you have to wait on or near a stage (in other words, out where people can see you), use the waiting time to open and close the fingers flat to the palm, slowly and deliberately, to keep them limber.
- Micropore paper tape: use a small piece to hold rings in place if you have floppy rings. It can also be used to cover small cuts or hang nails if they are not on the string contact spot.
The Mind on Stage
We are artists, but we cannot go look at our paintings on the eve of the gallery opening to reassure ourselves that, indeed, we really do have a lovely body of work. We see only our own hands, and they are empty. We know our brain is full of music, but the doubts and fears can block our view. Let us look at some ways to cope with the mental aspects of performing.
In some situations (such as background music performance), you can begin with some improvisation in the key of your first piece as an introduction to the piece. Improvisation helps the mind feel control and a sense of ownership. As a new performer, improvisation can help you avoid feeling like you are walking on stage to take a test, or face an enemy, or fall into deep water. But always practice improvising at home. It sounds like a contradiction: do something completely new, but practice it first. The point is to feel comfortable just “doodling around” on your harp so you can do it in performance.
It is crucial that you practice covering “mistakes” during your regular practice! If you play a wrong note, or forget to move a pedal or lever, or you just realize you went to the “B” part too soon — it is a normal part of playing live music. We are so accustomed to the perfection of recorded music. But many “takes” and much patching takes place in the studio to clean up every track. The late Lynne Palmer, an extraordinary musician with a career spanning many decades, told me she could count the number of truly perfect performances in her life on one hand. That means she played hundred of times with flaws. And you will too.
How do we live with flaws? By dedicating a certain amount of practice to “covering.” If you always stop and fix mistakes in practice, you will never learn to cover. Use some of your practice every day to consciously, deliberately, continue playing past mistakes, and see what your amazing brain can come up with to get you back on track.
When you make a mistake, preserve the ongoing rhythm of the piece – do not pause. Keep playing something! Practice this. It really does come more naturally on stage if you have been doing it at home. Be very aware of your key signature and preserve that tonality. Identify “repair points” in the music, where you can go if there is a total “train wreck” and you need to just time-warp to another spot.
When I was in a high school play, I had to stand on a ladder back stage and open a window in an artificial wall, facing the audience, and deliver a single line. In true introvert fashion, I opened my window, saw the audience, and went completely blank. Someone taped the play, in which I saw my head flop forward – chin to chest (was I fainting?), then jerk up as I delivered a different line from later in the script. My eyes at that moment looked insane. I have no memory of how I got out of that. I have no memory of thinking or problem solving. That is not how the brain works when it is rescuing you! The answer comes from a place that speaks no words and has no logic. No one wants an experience like this – for years I cringed at the recollection – but if you have one, believe in your brain and trust that it will bail you out somehow.
Let us leave thoughts of train wrecks and fainting and now discuss what will happen, and that which we go forth to do…
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” -Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems.
Your music is art-in-the-moment. Why are you there, if not to spend a part of your wild and precious life sharing music? “Well, it seemed like a good idea back in March to play at my sister’s wedding, but now…” Perhaps you need to reach back and recreate that mindset, that the wedding is in four months, not four minutes. If you can, this bit of mental gymnastics might calm you considerably.
But as an introvert, I believe the wild and precious moment is also an intimate one. As much as I need my audience to give life to my playing, pulling that harp back onto my shoulder is like putting a call on hold. They no longer matter, temporarily.
I realize this is not standard protocol, and certainly not how an extrovert would handle an audience. Advice from that quarter might ask you to view your audience as friends, or as naked — or any number of mental tricks to minimize their distraction. For me, I know after years of experimenting that I must view them not at all. Not once I begin playing.
The second I start thinking about my audience, or how I look to them (“smile!”) — the second my attention strays from the music, I will fall. Skip a beat, miss a note, do something that requires me to dig out my “covering” skills. So why not just get inside your music and stay there?
“It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.” -Sir Winston Churchill
Resist the urge to think of the next section, or the next song, or even what notes are coming up in a few seconds (unless and only unless that’s how you always practiced it, with the mental experience of looking ahead). Your brain is going to experience the music sequentially, and all your fabulous muscle memory goes straight out the window if you engage in frontal lobe debates over whether the next measure begins on D or D#. Don’t do it! If you have doubts about an upcoming note, follow the music in your head and let your fingers take you there. Think about bowls of fruit or horses in a meadow if you must, but do not question “while the ball is in play.”
Never say “sorry” if you make a mistake. That takes your head out of the music and into the eyes of your audience. I guess if you feel sorry you can apologize mentally to the music itself – anything to stay focused on the music. For all you know, people may not have even heard the flaw, and if they did it was not the Gong of Judgement that you experienced in your own ears.
To get inside your music, let your imagination conjure up places, images, and feelings as you play. Reach for, express, and be conscious of every color in the music, its dynamics, rhythms, imagery and tones. Do this in practice every day so that performance is not different, only richer.
This has been quite a difficult post to write. I feel a responsibility to convey all that I’ve learned about performing, which is impossible. If you have further insights, please leave a comment. And if you want to read my ongoing analysis of how an introvert performs music, I will be creating a new category for blogging about this in the future: “Performance experiences.”