Performance do’s and don’ts

In my last post, I began a dialogue about musical performance. This dialogue was inspired by a fellow musician, who wrote to me recently with questions on the subject.

One her questions was how to remember music when you are in front of an audience.

I reflected on this question. Remembering lyrics has always come easily to me. I have been singing since I was much tinier than I am today. I used to dance around the living room wailing on songs from Annie, West Side Story, and my mom’s 45s.

“Dumb dog, why are you following me?”

“I can’t see me lovin’ no body but you for all my life…..”

You get the idea.

So lyrics, not a problem for me. It is the chords that I have trouble remembering.

I grew up playing classical piano. Having been trained in the serious classical tradition, I was always taught that it was unacceptable to bring sheet music to a performance. I would memorize 15 page pieces of classical music for the piano.

When I performed, I hid behind an enormous instrument, and I tried to think as little as possible. I have trained my fingers, hands, wrists, and arms to perform a musical dance. If I started thinking about what I was doing, I would experience a complete blank. Scary stuff, especially when I was in elementary school and studying with a seriously frightening Russian woman who would cover my hands with hers and slam them onto the piano if I did not play to her liking at a lesson.

“This is what you sound like,” she would screech. This did not inspire confidence for musical ability or performance.

In beginning to perform in my life after classical music, I have eased up on the rules and regulations. Sure, I would prefer not to bring music with me, but my choice of whether or not to add to my comfort in a vulnerable situation with a small crutch like sheet music has more to do with the venue and my stress level.

If I am busking downtown or going to an open mic, I will not hesitate to bring sheet music. I may never even look at it, but knowing it is there eases my anxiety immensely. As I have become more relaxed as a performer, I find that I still bring the sheet music but rely on it less often.

Another method I use is to choose a number of tunes appropriate to the venue.

Open mic = 3 songs, 4 tops


For me, this is a reasonable number of songs to practice and feel comfortable playing without feeling stretched thin.

How do you remember lyrics, chords, finger picking patterns, and so on?

What do you struggle with in performance?

What techniques have you figured out to help with your performance?

Join in the discussion, and share your thoughts!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Well this is helpful.
    I have my own confidence tear down story, now when I was a little girl I was singing happily as little girls tend to do.
    My mum, mimicked me and then went ‘Ewwwww’ I clammed up and never again sang in when there was anyone around, not even hum to myself. I guess she didn’t realise it would have a huge impact on me and my confidence. I don’t she ever noticed.
    So now actually getting up and singing in front of people is my own personal achievement.
    For me I think the fear of leaving the sheet behind, maybe because quite a few years ago, I had my go at performing poetry, I think being in front of an audience of any kind is a real confidence builder, I tried to do so with my poems as I knew them inside out. I left the page at home with a determined confidence, went along began really well and then froze. Mind went completely blank. As soon as I left the building it all returned. So I’m imagining my fear has built from then. I learnt not to trust my brain-thanks brain.

    Chords, work for me in different ways, sometimes its the shape of the chords, at the moment I’m not doing too complicated a chord structure, so a few chords, depending on which ones, I can visually see a pattern forming. Other times it maybe part of the performance that a chord works with a certain physical movement- a look to the left and shake of the hips, things to emphasise the routine-however I’m still developing and finding my way. Although I have to not focus too much on the movements I can get jumbled up and mess up the strum. I think if the songs are fairly short and repetitive I can manage, but I don’t want to end up falling into the safety of doing only simple songs and never progressing and evolving.

    Strumming patterns for me also can get frustrating, I inevitable fall into the same strum, I have to consciously sit and strum and strum till I feel I am going crazy and have to take breaks, I think it really is a case of training your fingers and brain to new patterns.
    I like where you have likened that to ‘a musical dance’ with your fingers, I think this is absolutely correct.

    Sometimes I am frustrated as I want to play the song I can hear in my head and trying to fit all these elements together till I find it turn it into something I can play, can feel quite maddening at times. But there are those times it works smoothly and feels great. It’s just that dreaded song sheet, I guess there is a large issue of trusting my self that it’s fine. I guess also another good piece of advice I received was to remember the audience doesn’t really know what the song is supposed to sound like so if I mess up they won’t really know. And if they do remember my song, if it’s different slightly, they may just assume I’ve changed it, updated it etc.

    Who would have thought there was so much involved, in just enjoying the fun of the sound?
    I am intereted to know also how others cope with those questions?
    Sorry I think I really went off on a tangent here.
    Thank you for your helpful and inspiring blog x

    1. mslovin says:

      Thanks for sharing your stories, Chee! It is amazing to me how much I believe in the negative things I hear from the people around me…the hurtful words tend to outlive the words of love and support. Your description of how you remember chords reminded me that I memorized how every looked on the written page for piano pieces. So, my hands were trained but so too was my memory. I would be following note for note on the image of the page in my mind as I played. Your questions have inspired me to really reflect and begin to remember much that I have forgotten, and those experiences have shaped who I am as a performer today. Thank you!

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