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Yesterday I performed my favorite piano piece "Liebestraum no.3" by Franz Liszt in an audition.

I forgot a lot of its musical notes although that I prepared it very well and I even played it a lot in the last few years. I feel now very bad and depressed.

I usually forget the musical notes while performing in concerts. So how to avoid this issue?

Is this normal for a pianist to forget the musical notes? I feel that I am a bad pianist. This is my favorite piece and I really feel bad because I did not play it well last night in concert.

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    It's common to get anxious in live shows if you don't have a lot of experience of performing; this doesn't make you a bad pianist, you just need to perform more frequently – Shevliaskovic Apr 2 at 14:16
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    Unless you have a very poor memory I suspect this is to do with practice. It is necessary to practice in a particular way to prepare for performances. especially for memorised pieces. The slightest of weaknesses and uncertainties will make themselves apparent under pressure. I have proved this many times. . – PeterJ Apr 2 at 15:21
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    @Christina - Yes. Much of this is about psychology. Telling yourself not to forget notes is like telling yourself not to think of an elephant for five minutes. – PeterJ Apr 2 at 15:32
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    Isn't this the point of auditions? To create this stressful situation. They don't care if you can play it in the privacy of your home. – Michael Curtis Apr 2 at 15:48
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    This is the point of carrying a flask of whisky when playing places that don't serve it. Keep busy until magic time somehow. Butterflies are ok after that, because once you sit down, they should go away: now is your time up there. Do your thing. – Mazura Apr 3 at 4:38

11 Answers 11

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For some reason, practice isn't always enough for prepare us for a performance. That's not unusual. Some things that have helped me and others I've talked to include:

  • "Practice" performing in situations that are less high pressure. Singing karaoke at a small bar or taking an improv class are examples.
  • Meditation and/or visualization on a regular basis can help you manage your stress level. I know a professional singer and musician who fully visualizes every performance beforehand, watching himself play everything completely and correctly. I've read about athletes and other performing professionals doing the same. Daily or weekly meditation can help in general.
  • Physical fitness at least removes distractions, and at best improves our ability to manage stress. A healthy diet, generous amount of sleep, and cardiovascular exercise tend to improve all aspects of life.
  • Ensemble practice and/or performance can help you both be more comfortable dropping notes without the music suffering and with continuing calmly after mistakes. Improvising with others in practice is a great confidence booster.
  • Remember (and remind yourself before a performance) that the fundamental aspect of music is not hitting all the right keys at all the right times. That's not music - a computer can do that. Music is about expressing something inside that can't be expressed any other way. Work on letting your heart come out through your fingers and connecting with the audience and neither you nor they will care one bit about missing notes. A couple notes played with a lot of feeling mean more than hundreds of unplayed notes. And the audience is not there to find fault, they are there to experience music, and missing a few notes isn't going to ruin that for them.
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    I think your third bullet contains a hidden gem: being able to handle forgotten or missed notes in a performance is an important skill. If you stutter or stop, the audience will know you messed up. If you just keep playing and act like nothing happened, people may not even realize you missed notes or played the wrong ones. The audience's perception has more to do with how you carry yourself than with whether or not you played 100% of the notes. – dwizum Apr 2 at 18:41
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    @dwizum i'm confused. Do you mean fourth bullet? The third is about physical fitness, but the fourth talks about continuing after mistakes. – Aethenosity Apr 3 at 3:50
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    Remember that the audience is not sitting there with scores in front of them. Unless the piece is extremely well-known, people are unlikely to notice the odd fluff — as long as you continue confidently and don't make it stand out. My theory is that when recording, you should aim to have as few wrong notes as possible; but when performing live, you should aim to have as many good notes as possible! – gidds Apr 3 at 8:58
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    +1 To add: to execute the last two points, don't only learn to play the piece from beginning to end, learn to know the piece so that if you mess up, you know where you are and what follows next even when your muscle memory fails. – JiK Apr 3 at 14:35
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    Regarding less less high pressure situations: A friend/acquaintance would go out to practice on one of those public pianos in train stations (not sure how wide spread they are in the US, but here in Europe I have seen them in 5 different nations). On one hand the expectations are pretty low (you see kids, teenagers, homeless, etc. play on them), but if you do well you will end up with a public. – David Mulder Apr 4 at 8:20
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Dealing with pressure

Get a sound recorder or use your phone and record your performances. The extra pressure of recording yourself will cause similar pressure to an actual performance. Also practise occasionally with a metronome - once again, the pressure of having to keep a strict tempo will distract you. You may be surprised that your tempo is off, especially at the difficult bits.

Practise with a recording of the piece playing in the background. Drop out at random moments and pick up again. If you have someone willing to help, they can tap you on the shoulder - you hold the beat in your head until they tap you again, whereupon you continue.

Important - instrumentalists often make a big mistake when they perform. The rush of adrenaline makes them think quicker and so they tend to speed up the tempo. The trouble is that your fingers are used to a slower pace - you may stumble.

Memorisation

If you have a good visual memory then take the time to memorise the score visually (or just the melody notes) then you can read the music in your mind if necessary. Memorise the sounds, memorise the finger movements, memorise everything with every sense.


Note. If you memorise only the finger movements then, by the time you can play by heart, you have delegated the memory to your cerebellum (the part of the brain that knows how to walk or ride a bike). However, under pressure/fear your conscious mind tries to take back control. Everything shifts to the neocortex and the amygdala. Suddenly you are trying to remember with the wrong brain area and your mind may simply go blank - you have bypassed the cerebellum completely.

So practise playing by adding stress of any kind!

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    Recording yourself is a really powerful tool. After the first time I tried it, my teacher was amazed at the improvement! You may not even need to listen to the playback; you play differently when you know someone/something is listening, even if it's only a tape-recorder. – gidds Apr 3 at 8:54
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    Great advice! This is something I noticed when I decided to record myself playing. It suddenly made me feel more anxious, similar to an actual performance for an audience. It can also help you improve the way you perform, by being able to analyse your performance with full attention. (On a side note: I also found out my posture and movement behind the instrument looked a bit weird, which I had never noticed until then...) – MeanGreen Apr 4 at 14:18
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A good practice exercise I've found to help with this is to play along to a metronome and not play every other bar. For example, play bar 1, then sit in silence for bar 2 whilst imagining the sound in your head, then play bar 3, silence bar 4, play bar 5, etc.

Once you have done this a few times the next exercise would be to silence bar 1, play bar 2, silence bar 3, play bar 4, etc.

Variations on this could include both hands bar 1, left hand only bar 2, both hands bar 3, right hand only bar 4, etc. Or any other combinations.

The problem is getting too accustomed to playing in flow. If you are too used to playing in flow, then when something breaks your flow during a live performance, it can be hard to know how to react.

By practising with breaks in the flow, it gets you used to picking the piece back up after mistakes.

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    This seems like a good idea. Not tried it before. +1. – Tim Apr 3 at 12:05
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    In the same vein, I've read that this can help: practice playing the piece at very slow (VERY, ridiculously slow) tempo, so that the "flow" is totally broken and you have to think of each note in its own. – leonbloy Apr 3 at 16:01
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Mistakes are inevitable. Learning to play through mistakes is its own skill, one that has to be learned. The technique for learning to play through mistakes is different than the technique for learning to play a piece.

I've learned two ways to practice a piece: Practicing for perfection, and practicing to perform. They compliment each other, but are done differently.

When practicing for perfection, it's important to not repeat mistakes, lest they become muscle memory. As you probably know, if you make a mistake when learning a piece, it's important to stop, slow down, and play the difficult part correctly several times before continuing. That's because once you've played a section wrong a few times, it's going to be muscle memory that will take a lot of work to correct. But if, after making a mistake, you stop, slow down, and correct the mistake a few times before continuing, you'll have a much easier time of learning it correctly.

Unfortunately, this way of practicing can have a side effect: It trains us to stop whenever we make a mistake. But you must not stop during a performance. So the way we practice to learn a piece correctly can give us a bad habit that hurts us when we play.

That's why there's a second mode of practice: Practicing to perform. After I've learned a piece using the above, careful technique, then I will practice it for performance. During practicing for performance, there is no stopping, for any reason. If I forget a part of it, I pick it up where I remember. If I play a wrong note, or chord, I keep going as best I can, however I can.

While practicing to perform, I remember where I goofed up, or what I forgot, or what felt difficult. Because after practicing to perform, I go back to practicing for perfection and carefully work on the parts I had trouble with. After which, I go back to practicing to perform again. It's an iterative process.

The key part is that every time I start to play the piece, I deliberately put myself into one of these two practice modes. If I am practicing for perfection, then I will stop and correct mistakes. If I am practicing for performance, then I stop for nothing.

During the next practice section, I will practice the piece for performance, cold. That's to check what it will be like when I perform it for others. This will probably show me weaknesses which will lead to some practicing for perfection, which is followed by practicing for performance.

  • wow this is a great answer from you!! I love it. Thank you a lot for your suggestions!!! practice for perfection and practice to perform. Great! – Christina Apr 3 at 15:33
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    @Christina I'm very pleased you found this helpful. – Wayne Conrad Apr 3 at 21:03
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    This is very insightful, +1. – MPW Apr 3 at 21:14
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There is a difference between practicing for performing and practicing for practicing. When you practice, do you experience that the first play-through is worse than the second or third? When you practice, do you keep playing the same piece or part of the piece over and over again?

If that is the case, you are practicing to improve practicing. You don't get to play the same piece multiple times at a performance. You can improve your performance by practicing your first play-through. Play the piece once, then play something else, and then return to the original piece.

I got the inspiration from Bulletproof Musician. I joined Noa's mailing list and read some of the resources on his website, everything I've read there has been free.

Best of luck to your next performance.

  • yes I totally agree!! thank you a lot for your answer and suggestions! – Christina Apr 3 at 15:34
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Given what you've said about that piece being a favorite, and one you've played many times over many years, I think it's fairly clear the issue is not one of not spending enough time on rote memorization.

In the past, while performing or speaking publicly, I struggled with a tendency to completely lose the flow of something that I supposedly had memorized well. I would experience a kind of tunnel-vision (sometimes quite literally), and acute self-consciousness, often accompanied by a feeling of being exposed. Sometimes the experience was minor (a few missed notes), sometimes more dramatic (let's try not to remember those ones).

While perhaps related to stage fright, it could happen even when I wasn't really scared about the performance in the first place.

In these situations, attempting to apply conscious effort to "try harder" to remember just seemed to make the situation worse. I'm no psychologist, but it seems clear that my hyper-sensitive "thinking" brain was getting in the way of the part of my brain that knew the material.

If you have had similar experiences, I don't believe more effort at memorization is the answer. What has helped me is quite simply forcing myself to perform or speak publicly more often, getting used to that feeling of being in the spotlight. The more routine that has become, the less I seem to "think" myself into forgetting my material.

Another answer suggested recording yourself as a proxy for public performance. While certainly no substitute for the Fear of Other People Watching You, this is something that you can do far more often than perform/speak publicly, and that seems (to me, at least) to exert a similar kind of pressure.

  • This is a very important point I was also thinking of. If someone needs to practice to overcome stage fright it won't help to know the piece 150% by heart. He has to practice performance. The only way is to practice the situation of performance and today we have many occasions to get this. I used to play for older people or little children. You can invite them at home or visit them in a children garden, sunday school. Your church responsibilities would be happy to have someone for a little concert on the next meeting for elder people, or even in the primary school in your neigbourhood. – Albrecht Hügli Apr 4 at 8:33
  • @Myk WillisThank you for your answer! yes I agree that this is a very interesting point from your view! – Christina Apr 4 at 9:35
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There is one problem we could overcome when memorzing music if we consider how the form of a music piece would look like if there wouldn't be the layout of 3 bars per line as most sheet music is designed. I hope that my advice can help you for the next performance but you should regard it from the beginning of practicing a new piece:

If we compare a piece of music with a poem or a ballade or a song, it is always awful to see how the form of a song is hidden or got lost only to bring the notes and bars in a line. Imagine a poem written like a prosa text. Think how much creativity and time the poet has spent to give this form to the poem! I always think this is ignorant and stupid especially today when every music could brought in the original form and shape to show the inherent construction.

So if you notate the song in 4 bars relating to the phrases and periods, you will discover such a lot of relations and similarities you normally hardly notice or overlook and then you will have a schema to learn and memorize much better what you will have to play. (A simple example is the blues schema but you can adapt my thoughts also to sonatas, suites, concertos etc.)

Also helpful could be drawing a mind-map or a lead sheet - always regarding the formal aspect.

(Many further important points of memorisation, practice and dealing with stress are already mentioned by others.)

If you have problems with stage anxiety, you can form a small vocal group or help accompany a choir in your neighborhood, to train the performance as I have mentioned in other commentaries, such as in kindergartens or senior groups. Some would be grateful if you only help them to find the pitch and later give the chords that support them. There are many people who would be grateful to have just a little contact or a little communication.

  • An important point. Since a lot of pieces are far more like poetry rather than prose, it makes sense. Not practical for printers, though, uses too much paper! +1. – Tim Apr 3 at 12:08
  • yes, that's why I mentioned the lay out. I also think songbooks could be re-edited as pdf regarding the form. This would be a fine alternative project to IMSLP – Albrecht Hügli Apr 3 at 15:27
  • It's the reason I write out my chord charts generally with 4 bars on one line. Most songs fit well into that format, and readers can see where they are easily. – Tim Apr 3 at 16:04
  • I'm not sure about the modern era of digital music typsetting, but for most of the history of musical theatre, music was written four bars per line. That way edits could be literally cut and pasted bar-by-bar and you always knew how much space on the page a bar occupied. Of course that also drove composers away from the smallest note values, since it would be difficult to impossible to cram a bunch of 32nd notes into 1.75". – Todd Wilcox Apr 3 at 21:16
  • My purpose wouldn’t be to have printed sheet music. It would be fine to have the pieces in an xml format to transform them Into the desired shape, lie you can watch the screen in landscape format. – Albrecht Hügli Apr 3 at 21:27
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A common technique I use is memorizing discrete chunks of a piece (one or two lines to a page long), and mixing them up. For example, I will play from memory the entire piece backwards (chunk 20 to chunk 1), and then I’ll have my teacher call out numbers and I’ll play that. It’s very challenging, but after you master that you are much better prepared for the concert, because even if you mess up one section you can move easily to the next section.

You can memorize these chunks by finding a unique bit in that chunk (a key, an arpeggio, a flourish) that you remember, and you can make chunks that are similar to each other and practice them side by side. For example in the liebestraum, practice the beginning side by side with the end. Then make chunks for the flourishes, and then the middle and think about the keys (f minor, c major, a minor, e major I think). Chunk the transitions and practice them from memory side by side. The more connections you make the better.

Furthermore, after using this technique, go and perform in public but in less stressful situations. Perform at a friend’s house or a public piano to put yourself under some pressure. Ask your teacher or another authority in your life to simulate a formal concert. As some answers have said before me, record yourself at these events! You’ll hear yourself so much better from a different perspective.

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I'm no longer a performer, but I've had this happen to me a lot, even at the later stages of my 'career' as a performer. To a lesser extent, I would say that 'trivial' such moments happened in probably every performance, but weren't necessarily noticeable by the audience (at least not the polite part :p ). But, I have had 'less trivial' lapses in important performances, so I sympathise with the frustration. It's one of those things that, I realised, happens to some performers, and not others. I agree it's a very demoralising event, but one that you should learn to put in the larger context. Also, you should not take advice from people it does not happen to; it's like being fat and asking for diet advice from a person who's never been fat and eats whatever they want: there's no point, any advice they give you will simply not apply to you, and it will probably do nothing more than frustrate you. In a sense, if you're one of those people it happens to (like me), then there is no way to avoid it entirely, but you can try to mitigate the situation slightly.

There's a number of issues here at play:

  1. When you practice, you practice the piece, not the performance situation. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to simulate a performance situation, except by arranging other performances. So one tip is this, if you're preparing for an important performance, arrange a small number of performances before that, which are of less importance, but still not contrived enough to not cause you to feel like you're performing and exposing your performance to people who matter.

  2. Part of the above, but more specific in nature, is that when practicing, we often rely on muscle memory without realising. During performance however, the extra stress might distract you enough to effectively nullify the muscle memory. If you haven't paid conscious attention to flagging the parts of a piece where you're exercising muscle memory more than conscious understanding of the melodic line and harmonies involved, then chances are you'll find out where those parts are during your performance. One way to mitigate this, as stated above, is arrange practice performances, i.e. 'lesser but still stressful' events, to help you flag where those muscle-memory parts are that might reveal themselves during these performances. Another way is to try to use completely different fingering; if your ability to perform the piece heavily relies on the fingering used rather than your understanding of the piece, chances are you're relying on muscle memory more than understanding of underlying structure.

  3. Another issue is that, often enough we take the quality and mastery of certain passages for granted and not pay full attention to them, but in reality they are always rushed and glossed over, and it's not until the performance that you realise this is the case when you're suddenly overcome with stress and paying full attention. Worse still, the realisation that you're not quite sure what you're doing there, starts a cascade where you're trying to figure it out on the spot, taking away from precious focus and muscle memory. One way to mitigate this might be to practice with the explicit intent of flagging such 'taken for granted' parts. Play your piece from start to finish, and the minute the tiniest mistake happens, start again. Often we happily 'wizz through' the difficult part without thinking too much about it. If you're forced to stop, you'll eventually flag a passage where you realise that, actually, you're not as in control of what's going on there as you thought you were.

  4. Some of the above happens because we get used to a certain 'flow' from start to end. In a performance situation, however, my experience is that this flow can get disrupted, often from the tiniest stimuli (external or internal, such as thoughts). When I'm performing, I'm often very surprised by what's going on in my mind at that point; literally, it could be anything, from taxes to how tasty that doughnut was the other day. Then you suddenly snap out of it, and find yourself in the middle of a performance in terms of muscle memory, but effectively having to start re-thinking about the piece you're performing from that point onwards in terms of current focus! So the way to practice this, is to intentionally start practicing your piece from midpoints as well, and not just from logical points, but random. Try to understand at any random point, how that part connects with what preceded it and what follows. This is not certain cure, but at least it makes it less likely that you'll stop at your tracks, completely unaware of what follows or how you got there, and can therefore minimize such memory damage during performance.

Ultimately, however, learn to enjoy the piece, and aim to display your musicianship more than your ability to remember notes. Typically the more you enjoy the piece's interpretation, the less likely you are to start playing mechanically and start thinking about doughnuts, and the less likely you are to suddenly snap out of doughnut-mode and panic about what comes next.

Hope that helps :)

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I think it's important to realize that performing means enjoying yourself playing the music.

However, instead of joy, you feel stress because of the people listening, you don't want to let them down, so you are scared of mistakes. So you are not actually enjoying playing the music.

But these people are not there to judge your performance*, they are there to enjoy it. Just like you should be, playing it.

What helps for me, is to imagine you are playing at home, for friends. Because in reality, it's not so far from that; your audience are your friends, and they don't mind if you miss a few notes :)

Good luck!

*) Some people MAY actually be doing just that. But I don't think they understand what music is about, so forget about them ;)

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Congratulations on getting out there and playing in front of others! Similar to what others have said, I like to think of music as a beautiful gift that you have the opportunity share with your audience, that they have the privilege to hear. If you think of it this way instead of a gruelling task that must be completed to perfection, this might help you to relax and enjoy the moment instead of worrying about making a mistake.

One suggestion is to play for family and friends more, for example at a birthday party or holiday gathering when there is no pressure. Or at church if you are into that. This way you can work your way up to the more pressurized situations like auditions (the worst) or recitals & concerts.

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