William Fitzpatrick - violin expert

Why do I play so much better in the Practice Room?

Learn how to cope with stage fright

In this video, Prof. Fitzpatrick gives you some useful tips to cope with stage fright.

Released on May 4, 2016

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

So you're playing in front of your teacher, and it doesn't go as well as you planned. You look at your teacher, and you say, "But I just played it a little while ago in the practice room, and it was so much better. I just don't understand." Well, this certainly begs a very serious question: Just why do I play it so much better in the practice room? So with that question, I would like to welcome you to VirtualSheetMusic.com's Meet the Expert. My name is William Fitzpatrick and I am the Henri Temianka Professor of Violin at the Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music which is located on the campus of Chapman University. I am, as well, Director of MusiShare and the MusiShare Young Artist Program.

Well, first of all, what one has to understand is that playing in front of your teacher, or playing in a concert, or even just a little house performance is stressful and will probably lead to anxiety of some kind or another. But we need to admit that this anxiety is a part of performing and needs to be practiced, just like a shift or any other part of performing. As Dianna Kenny says in her book "The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety'," some anxiety is needed to render an exciting performance. Years ago, I read an article in the magazine "Psychology Today," which said that the conditions in which we learn something has to be identical to the environment of the performance, if we expect to obtain the same results. What perhaps occurs when one plays in front of people is that we suddenly are really aware of what we are doing, and if we did not have that same awareness during our practicing, we simply can freak out, see white, have a memory slip or just simply want to leave the stage.

I remember when I was 17 at the then Memphis State University and preparing to walk onto the stage to perform Beethoven's F major Romance, you know, the one that goes like this [plays violin].The person at the entry to the stage looked at me and asked, "So you don't seem nervous." And I replied, "No, why should I be nervous?" I understood that I had never been nervous before, so I did not see why I should be nervous now. Then the person at the door said, "Well, let's see, you're going out to play for the professors and your friends and you're not nervous, good for you." So they opened the door and I walked onto the stage, as I was bowing, I glanced at the audience, and just as they had said, I saw the professors, my friends. I then started to play, and here's what happened [plays violin]. My bow shook from the very first note to the very last note.

A few years later, I remember walking onto the stage at George Peabody College for Teachers to play a recital, and finally starting with Mozart's E minor Sonata, this one [plays violin], well, I started to play [plays violin] and I didn't have any shakes in my right hand. Well, how did I do it?

Well, here are some ideas that I tried during this journey and found useful. One way is by practicing and imagining yourself in the space that you will perform in. Visually create the space in your mind and record yourself so you can find out what worked and what didn't. Don't forget that there is, as well, the stress of recording yourself. After that, then use that information from that recording to create strategies that could help overcome the challenges.

So again, Dianna Kenny, in her book, says that performance preparation such as visiting the venue and practicing in the performance setting maybe helpful to anxious performers. So with that in mind, I remember the very first rehearsal that I ever had in Carnegie Hall in New York. The space was so impressive that I decided to stand near the conductor's podium and just look around and put these images into my memory of the hall. While these images became very useful to me, as from then on, I would use them to help me induce the stress of a performance. You see, I would imagine myself standing there and playing what I was working on to a full house. I felt that if I could do it there in that situation, in that hall, then I could do it anytime, anywhere, any place.

All right, let's look at another way, which would be to put chairs in the room and place very important, intimidating people in them. For me, that would have been Isaac Stern, Perlman, Ms. DeLay. Now, I would play the passage, not allowing myself to stop as I certainly could not do that in front of them. Again, I would record it to find out what worked and what didn't, and use that information to channel the strategies that I had discovered in my scale practice -- those that I had used to work on pitch, shifts, speed, you know, the things we should be working on when we play our scales.

Yet another way would be to ask someone to spare a moment and play a specific passage for them, just to see if you can do it under stress. For example, if you're at school, step out of the practice room and ask someone if they have a couple of minutes. Or if you're at home, ask a family member. But as always, I would, if I could, record it, to find out what worked and what didn't.

Now awhile back, I remember that I was visiting my wife in the hospital in France, and a doctor passed by me, stopped, looked at me, and then asked if I smoked. I said, "Yes." And he then said he was going to give me two reasons why I was going to stop. The two reasons lasted about 30 minutes. And yes, I smoked about two packs a day. Well, I won't get into a long storytelling thing, but I did stop smoking. Well, it was then that I had this performance of Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen and Ravel's Tzigane with an orchestra composed of students at the Conservatory and professors at the Conservatory. The concert took place in a beautiful and big hall in Paris and it was a full house, well over 1000 people in attendance.

Now I must tell you that for all my life as a performer, in the first few moments of every performance that I gave, my bow would shake [plays violin]. But after a minute or so, it would settle down and all was fine. I tried everything to stop this but to no avail. I sincerely thought that this was just going to be how it was for me for the rest of my life, so I simply put up with it.

Well, let's get back to the performance. You see, I played, got a rousing standing ovation, and when it ended I went down to my dressing room. It was then that I suddenly realized that my bow didn't shake this time. Despite the fact that this was an enormously stressful moment, it didn't happen. But I had asked myself why? Why didn't it happen? Then suddenly it hit me, this was the first performance that I had done since I was 17 that I hadn't smoked before I played. Usually, I smoked until just before walking out on to the stage. Well, what that meant was there was no nicotine in my body. I had finally figured it out. All those years, all those performances, I had been experiencing a nicotine withdrawal. My shaking had nothing to do with my nerves, it was just the absence of nicotine which caused me to shake momentarily.

This also explained why I never shook when I played in late night soirees at the Moulin Donday [SP] in France. You see, when I played these events, I always smoked, put the ashtray very close to the piano, a cigarette was always very near, and this was why, I now understood, I did not suffer the same withdrawal symptoms. This is why my hand did not shake.

Okay, so I must repeat what the article in the magazine "Psychology Today" said, "The conditions in which we learn something has to be identical to the environment of the performance, if you expect to obtain the same results." You see, I would have to go on stage and smoke, which I don't think would have worked very well.

So that's it for my thoughts about why do I play so much better in the practice room. Take care, and I hope that this discussion helps you achieve even better performances. Ciao.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Margaret * VSM MEMBER * on May 11, 2016 @6:06 pm PST
I've experienced my bow arm shaking when I perform no matter how I try to breathe deep, relax, etc. and I am not a smoker. This article blames his shaking on nicotine withdrawals. I wish the source of my uncontrolled nerves could be identified that easily.
William - host, on May 10, 2017 @12:37 pm PST
Sorry for the late reply! I teach someone who has focal dystonia and we have worked to create a new neural pathway around her shaking. This has been working for her... I would suggest trying to locate tension as a start and exploring ways to eradicate it...here's hoping that you find your way!
Cynthia Faisst on May 5, 2016 @1:57 pm PST
I always instruct my students to audition the outfit they will wear from head to toe, including the shoes before they play a concert. Quite literally, do a dress rehearsal and get comfortable in their own skin while playing making sure they have no distractions.

With young children, it makes sense to put the parent they feel most secure with right there in the front row. By the same token put the face of your most adoring parent on the scariest people in the front row and play for them.
Cynthia Faisst on May 5, 2016 @1:49 pm PST
This is a good piece for older students college and up. I don't think any of my younger students smoke. But perhaps there are other toxins in their environment that they unwittingly subject themselves to.
William - host, on May 11, 2016 @6:29 pm PST
Very true Cynthia!
Shirley Gibson * VSM MEMBER * on May 4, 2016 @1:00 pm PST
What a wonderful, helpful lesson! Please don't hesitate to include and use your personal experiences as teaching tools - so inspirational and fun! I really look forward to the e-mails which say there is a Prof. Fitzpatrick "Meet the Expert" video waiting for me - Thank you so much.
William - host, on July 14, 2016 @11:24 pm PST
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