Performers on Performing: Performance Tips from the Pros (Part 1)
In today’s video (and the next one), we’re going to look at advice from 10 different modern-ish performers. These are A-list performers who are very famous and very skilled – everyone from Barenboim to Argerich.
We’re going to look at their diverse opinions on performing, and get some performance tips from them. Some of them struggled with performance anxiety; others have never felt it.
Since they all perform, or have performed, for a living, I figured their words on the subject would be much more meaningful than my own.
I’ve been wanting to begin a discussion on aspects of performance, as well as performance anxiety, for a while now. Looking to the experts seemed like the best starting point, so let’s jump in!
A note that this is a two-part video; we’ll talk about five performers in this video, and another batch of five in the next – in no particular order!
Let’s start this video off with Valentina Lisitsa, a Ukrainian-American performer born in 1973. She found fame mainly through her very popular YouTube performance videos – check them out if you haven’t already.
Lisitsa is one of those people that exasperates me, because she doesn’t get performance anxiety. She would rather be performing than practicing. In her own words,
“I liked tremendously being on stage and performing for people. That’s what I liked. I didn’t like the practising part, or the lessons part, at all. Not at all!”
In her opinion, music that isn’t performed, and therefore isn’t being communicated from one person to the other, “doesn’t come fully alive.”
She also says,
“I can tell you honestly, stage fright has never entered my mind. What does trouble me sometimes is over-excitement, which can affect everything, from the way I come onstage and bow, to my playing itself. I could talk of some anxiety, perhaps, yes. But stage fright, never.”
Lisitsa’s Performance Tips
So perhaps Lisitsa is not our teacher for conquering stage fright, but she gives us important insight into why she doesn’t get anxious. Probably part of it is she was born that way; the other part is that she feels at ease with performing in a way that you might feel at ease having a conversation with a friend.
She views performance as communication. She feels she has something to share with the audience, something worthwhile.
Next up is Evgeny Kissin, another young performer, born in 1971. Kissin is Israeli-Russian-British, and comes from the Russian piano school.
And, like Lisitsa, Kissin was practically born to perform, with no anxiety to speak of.
When he was young he spent time composing music, but eventually felt that “[he] had nothing more to say.” Instead, he became more involved in performing, something he felt was a better vessel for his creative energies.
When reflecting on his first performance at age eleven, Kissin says,
“I had such a feeling of relief. During intermission, I was impatient to return to the stage. My teacher had said that there is good nervousness and bad nervousness. If you are not prepared, that’s bad nervousness. But I think I felt only excitement and pleasure.”
In fact, he loves performing so much that he often puts extra seats around the stage, so more people can watch him play. Kissin says,
“It’s strange, but the more people there are in the hall, the better I play. It’s necessary for me to play a piece in public to master it. The whole perception changes. I feel people’s attentiveness, and my performance depends on it.”
In addition to his love of performing and general fearlessness, Kissin is a note-perfect performer, very seldomly making technical errors.
Kissin’s Performance Tips
So what can we learn from him?
Like Lisitsa, performance seems like it’s Evgeny’s most natural form of communication. Interestingly, he’s a man of very few words with a bit of a speech impediment, so it seems that music is his primary way to communicate with people. He seems at ease with piano playing in a way that a writer is with writing, or a painter is with painting. It’s the vessel in which he communicates best.
Next up is the esteemed Arthur Rubinstein, a Polish-American performer who lived from 1887-1982. His performance career spanned eight decades, but despite that, he experienced significant performance anxiety – most notably in the minutes leading up to a performance.
He would get anxious in the cab ride to the concert, worrying that he’d have memory lapses or that he would disgrace himself. Often he’d arrive at the hall right before the concert started, just so he wouldn’t have to spend time backstage worrying.
Rubinstein accepted his own fears, calling them
“The price I pay for my wonderful life.”
Rubinstein was not a note-perfect performer like Kissin, but he explains how that isn’t the point. In response to a student’s fears on hitting wrong notes while performing, he said,
“I have reached the age where I don’t worry so much about the wrong notes; but I am very concerned about the music that comes between them.”
His advice for a great performance is eloquent and insightful, and even a little steamy. He says,
“At every concert I leave a lot to the moment. I must have the unexpected, the unforeseen. I want to risk, to dare. I want to be surprised by what comes out. I want to enjoy it more than the audience. That way the music can bloom anew. It’s like making love. The act is always the same, but each time it’s different.”
Rubinstein’s Performance Tips
Rubinstein, like many of the great performers, demonstrates a deep bravery on stage. He takes risks, and is therefore allowing himself to be fully in the moment. This is extremely difficult for the self-conscious among us to do, but it’s an important lesson nonetheless.
A lot of us amateur performers have a tendency to clam up when performing – we get scared, feel vulnerable, and then hide inside ourselves. But Rubinstein reminds us that we need to do the opposite for a satisfying performance experience.
Next on our list is Martha Argerich, a supreme Argentinian performer born in 1941. Like Rubenstein, she’s also suffered from performance anxiety throughout her life.
She’s infamous for cancelling concerts, but that’s more because she detests having a long-term schedule as opposed to stage fright. One time, at age 17, she even cut one of her fingers to get out of playing a concert.
Some other performers on this list actually benefitted from Martha’s tendency to cancel, including young Evegny Kissin and Yuja Wang. She would ask them to fill in for her, which got them on big stages.
Martha also dislikes solo performing, and would much rather perform in a group like concertos and chamber music. She explains it as being a lonely experience, but fright probably plays into it as well. She’s quoted as saying,
“Audiences are not important for me now and they never were.”
So basically the opposite of Kissin or Lisitsa.
Argerich’s Performance Tips
My big takeaway from Argerich’s performance style is that it’s okay to defy convention. She plays powerfully and has been described as “manly” in her performance style, which is an irksome thing for any woman to hear – why can’t a woman be powerful without being manly?
She follows an untraditional schedule of sleeping until the afternoon and practicing very late at night. Performing doesn’t define her entire life, and that’s okay. Music, it seems, is more for herself than anyone else.
Vladimir Horowitz is the classic example of a performer with extreme stage fright. He was a Russian-American musician who lived from 1903-1989.
Apparently he sometimes grew so anxious about a performance that he had to be literally pushed on stage, and he even stopped performing for long periods of time because of anxiety. Some of the things he experienced before a performance were stomach convulsions and excruciating mental anguish.
Horowitz’s Performance Tips
He never really conquered his nerves. He retired from performing twice, both due to his extreme nervousness. So in that sense, he doesn’t have much useful advice for us.
However, he was an incredible performer despite his anxiety, so we can still learn from his amazing performances, anxiety or not.
Here’s what he has to say on note-perfect performances:
“I must tell you I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake you hear it. If you want me to play only the notes without any specific dynamics, I will never make one mistake. Never be afraid to dare.”
The way he talks makes it sound like going to the piano was like going to war. But playing with heart, and not being so concerned with wrong notes, is similar advice to what Rubinstein had to say.
And that wraps up the advice from our first batch of master performers. Stay tuned for the next video where we explore the wisdom of five more great performers, and see what kinds of performance tips they have to offer us.