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I’m trying to overcome my performance anxiety. Being watched whilst I’m going at it, is something that I have to get used to. I know that people like to watch, but I find that as soon as I spot them, my mind goes off the job. And if i‘m not careful it can affect me so much that I can end up prematurely finishing, causing frustration for all parties. Although I am getting better, the more I do it.

For those with a smutty mind the above is about piano, only. Last Saturday I was called on again to play in public. My piano teacher organizes two get-togethers a year for her adult students. Everyone is expected to perform; no exceptions. I think this is a great idea. I’m naturally inclined to never quite perfect a piece; moving onto the next one once I can play the previous fairly well. Knowing that you have to perform in front of your peers, nearly all of who are much better players, really focuses the practice. I follow quite a few piano blogs and the majority of the public performances are recitals. Piano on stage, with the audience sat in rows like at concerts. Ours is not like that. The summer one is planned as a barbeque, although the weather doesn’t always play ball. This Saturday was fortunately glorious*, so everyone got to sit outside under a warm cloudless sky. This helps relieve the pressure on the players, as otherwise when everyone is inside they tend to congregate in the music room where you can see them watching you.

Our teacher kicked off proceedings with an improvised classical piece. She’s done this before and each time I’m amazed at the melodies and harmonies that she can produce, always making a coherent, but varied piece. She was followed by one of her most advanced players. He’s a doctor during the day, and plays incredibly complicated classical repertoire on the piano, as well as the cello and the bass guitar. I rarely recognize the classical pieces, but am often in awe at how complex they are: a lot more Radio 3 than Classic FM.

By the time I got to play I’d had about a pint and a half of beer. Enough to help reduce the inhibitions, but not too much to rend me incapable. I started off playing the jazz track. There were quite a lot of mistakes, but fortunately is the sort of piece that you can just power through. Overall I was happy enough with how it went. I had practiced it earlier in the afternoon and struggled to play even those parts that were well under the fingers. I genuinely thought that I was going to make a complete hash of it, knowing that once the nerves kicked in they would be unlikely to improve my performance.

I do seem to have a better grip on my nerves nowadays, although I’ve yet to be tested on a stage. I remember at the second barbeque, I had only been playing for a year and a half and attempted to play Watermark by Enya, a relatively simple (but beautiful) piece. I completely lost my way three quarters of the way through and was really annoyed with myself. It’s not the only time I’ve done that on that piece. We once visited the National Trust house of Lanhydrock in Cornwall, where they allow you to play on their very old Steinway piano. I couldn’t resist it, again I tried Watermark, but I couldn’t even complete it. OK so I didn’t have the sheet music, but the real problem is that once you start to think about those around listening to you, you’re sunk. You can’t think of anything else, and a simple mistake gets amplified in your mind and like a set of dominoes more and more notes are knocked off the clefs.

Back to Saturday, and my second piece Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair went much better than I was expecting. I’m sure there must have been a couple of mistakes, but what pleased me the most was that I was able to get some dynamics into it. Normally this is the first victim of the nerves. Later in the night the doctor came up to me to ask if it was me playing La fille aux cheveux de lin, my look of incomprehension were the cue for him to try again in English.

One of the less confident of the students took the opportunity whilst food was being served to play her piece. She explained to a new pupil that this is her tactic to get it over with without people looking over her. The new pupil had only been coming for lessons for the last three months. She had had lessons as a child, but hadn’t played since, and had decided to take I up again when her daughter started. When I spotted he sneaking up to play I went up to stand by the door and listen. Although I made sure to keep out of sight, there’s nothing worse that having someone stood over you when you’re nervous.  She played a nice piece from Pam Wedgwood’s book It’s never too late to learn to play piano. Which is the book I started with, and I made sure as to cheer her on and congratulate her as she finished, it really was good playing for someone who has only just taken it up again.

A shot of me playing on the night taken by my wife  from my not-very-smart phone

A shot of me playing on the night taken by my wife from my not-very-smart phone

Another notable performance of the night was by one of the students who is a BA 747 captain. He’s an accomplished trombonist, but has only recently taken up the piano. His schedule doesn’t allow him to practice much piano; it being tricky to get one on the plane. But he is able to play the trombone, as he takes his own plastic (in his case purple) trombone with him when he goes away. He had brought it with him and played quite a few tunes. You would think being plastic that it wouldn’t sound very good, but he explained that it was better than many cheap metal ones, and can survive the inevitable knocks. The next day he was off on a four day trip to South Africa, so I guess his piano practice will have to wait…..

* In fact the weather in the last three weeks in Britain have been great, with 19 consecutive days over 28 degrees, although it finally broke yesterday bringing some much needed rain.