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I'm a brass player in a UK brass band. We spend lots of time practising things:

  • we practise our technique so that we can perform fast or slow phrases without stumbling;
  • we practise ensemble playing so we are in tune with the other players and our articulation is in accord the others, so we all play notes the same length and the same shape;
  • we practise dynamic variations so we can get louder/quieter smoothly and at the same rate as the other players;
  • we practise playing at extreme ranges so we can perform high/low notes securely;

We rehearse these things (and lots of other stuff besides), individually and in ensemble, over and over again and they improve.

However - during performance, nerves kick in and these have an unwanted adverse effect.

Here's the question: is there any way, during a rehearsal, to reproduce the physiological changes that normally only occur during the performance, in order that we can rehearse strategies for dealing with those unwanted side-effects?

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    Some of this suggestions in What are good tips for remaining composed during one's first public performance? will also be useful here.
    – Aaron
    Mar 20, 2023 at 16:01
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    Note that nerves and stage fright are commonly experienced even by experienced musicians. A psychological trick I've read about (YMMV) is to reframe that feeling as excitement. In other words, make a conscious effort to interpret your physiological response to a stressful situation in a positive way rather than a negative way.
    – ibonyun
    Mar 20, 2023 at 22:51
  • Do you have spectators when you practise? I noticed I have trouble knowing I'm being observed by a relative/colleague/recording camera which I put there myself.
    – Clockwork
    Mar 21, 2023 at 20:03
  • Busk :) While I was in school I was lucky enough to find a music store that put a piano out on the street. I played it on lunch breaks and the gathering audience behind my back did wonders for my confidence. Soon I was offering to play at events (more trepidation, more pushing through it). Mar 23, 2023 at 2:45

6 Answers 6

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You've hit on a very important point. I give this speech often to my students, that we "practice practicing," but rarely "practice performing." Especially for a non-professional, a student might spend dozens of hours in lessons per term, and hundreds of hours practicing, and to every single hour performing in a term-end recital.

My best advice is not precisely what you asked for, but simply to "practice performing" more often. If an important concert is coming up, schedule a handful of less-formal, lower-stakes performances beforehand. Call an open rehearsal, invite your friends; busk on the street; play in a coffeehouse. Every time you "survive" such an experience, you teach your psyche not to fear it. Every time you have a successful performance, you train yourself like Pavlov's dogs to welcome another.

But you asked what elements you can incorporate into a rehearsal. There are a few things you can do:

  • If you're not already, practice playing pieces all the way through, in the same way you will in the performance. Some ensembles (or conductors?) are terrible about disciplining themselves to do this; even in the dress rehearsal they'll stop often to fix things. Similarly, it can be helpful sometimes to rehearse without the full volume, or without all the expression or rubato that might be present in the final version. But you do want to also rehearse at least a few times with these. The performance shouldn't be the first time you play the piece "that way."
  • A bit of physical exercise can to some degree replicate some of the physical effects of nerves. Jog around a bit, do a few pushups, and then play: you'll have a bit of muscle shakiness, an elevated pulse and heightened circulation, like the effects of adrenaline.
  • One can do a lot just with the imagination. Envision—or act out—every step of the performance experience. Imagine waiting backstage, filing out onto the stage—imagine the lights, the audience, the applause—getting settled in, waiting for the downbeat. Imagine yourself in your concert attire, or even wear it! If possible, have a rehearsal in the performance space, so you don't add to performance nerves by also being in a strange place.
  • One performance challenge is simply thinking straight and staying level-headed while so many neurons are firing excitedly. You can try adding distractions to a rehearsal. Keep going all the way through the piece while someone shouts random things at you—trash talk, maths questions, anything to try to steal your focus. Walk a line while playing (welcome to marching band!). Try to play while someone plays a different piece.
  • Maybe the simplest and most effective is as mentioned above: turn a rehearsal into a performance by inviting a small audience. Friends, family, strangers off the street.
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    Some great advice there. In particular, I found visualising the performance really helpful. As you say, it's worth visiting the venue in advance if possible, so you can picture yourself there and have an idea of what you'll see, where you'll be looking, etc. (That's especially important if your performance may involve moving around, e.g. singing solo.) — And one advantage of having a small audience for practice is that they can give helpful feedback, especially on non-technical aspects you may have overlooked.
    – gidds
    Mar 21, 2023 at 0:26
  • Visualization is popular and has even helped me, despite my rampant cynicism. Also I've found other performances help with comfort in performing. Public karaoke is one way I've gotten practice with stage fright, since I'm not much of a singer and I do it sober. Mar 21, 2023 at 5:02
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    Only thing I'd add is that I personally find it very helpful to do as you describe at the venue if at all possible. You'll often find something's quite quite different about the acoustics of the venue at the place in it you are performing (vs. where you typically practice), and you have to adjust in real-time. I don't want to be doing that in the middle of the actual public performance.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 22, 2023 at 13:42
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Make a perfect recording of your part. That can be surprisingly tricky even when you are sure you've got everything.

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    I tried that once — and saw a greater improvement in a few days than I had in the previous month! It forces you to be aware of all the little fluffs and insecurities that you tend to overlook in rehearsal.
    – gidds
    Mar 21, 2023 at 0:20
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    I came here to write this answer. In addition, it can be beneficial to alternate between performing mode (I'm not stopping for anything!) and practice mode (let's work on where I heard rough spots when I ran through it in performing mode). Just decide which mode you are in before each play through. Mar 21, 2023 at 1:38
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Don't forget to get used to playing the pieces all the way through! I remember one brass band I played with for a bit which practiced every section of the 'contest' piece meticulously, not realising they'd never actually played it top-to-bottom. And I'm not sure we even rehearsed the separate sections at the same tempo! Too much detail, no over-view. The performance was... interesting.

The nearest I can think of to concert stress might be 'red light stress'. Get someone to bring in some recording gear. Make it as obtrusive as possible, a microphone up as many people's nose as possible! No hiding place! An actual red light would be good too!

Or invite someone - preferably with some musical credentials - to assess a run-through. Or end each rehearsal with half-an-hour of 'friends and family welcome' and play through the pieces you've been rehearsing.

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This actually applies to all players, not just horn players!

A lot of good points from Andy - particularly his 1st - when everyone has had their part dissected and perfected, that's the time to play through top to bottom, with repeats, dynamics, just as it would (should?) be at a concert.

Making a recording at the rehearsal will put pressure on all players to get it right 1st time - peer pressure comes in here.

Having said that, there needs to be some 'concern', brought on partly by adrenalin flow, that makes a performer have that 'edge' that's needed to play their best, so it's not surprising that it occurs in performances. As you say, getting it to flow in rehearsals is the thing!

Some pieces may need a click track, or metronome, which in itself can be stressful to keep to, others with rubato need the conductor to make timings, so he could exaggerate things, keeping the band on its toes. Same with dynamics, to a degree. Something sadly neglected until the end of a rehearsal for some, but making the difference between a loose and a tight band.

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    "Dynamics? I'm already playing as loud as I can!"
    – arne
    Mar 21, 2023 at 9:56
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    @arne - don't remind me of so many auditions I went to...
    – Tim
    Mar 21, 2023 at 10:55
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You have to find a setting, where you can practice and it matters. I.e. like saying, you'll play the whole concert program which takes two hours and you're not allowed to take breaks or start over again after a wrong note. You will feel a certain pressure even if it's just a practice.

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When I had to audition for my university placement in the music program as an 18 year old, my hands and mouth shook so much I could barely get out a note on the flute. It was awful. The main thing I learned was to expect to be nervous--it's okay, everyone is! Even professionals. Practically, I forced myself to perform as much as possible, and one learns coping strategies and it gets easier. And if you REALLY want to feel secure, memorize your music.

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