Nerves and contests

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As I have done many times over the past 10 years or so, I spent the last two days judging a state piano competition for high school students. I have always enjoyed it because I like being around musicians who are passionate about music. It is a joy to get to know those young musicians a bit.

I wish I could say that everybody always plays well, but that would not be the truth. In some cases, students are just not prepared or are playing a piece beyond their capacity. That is rare though. What usually gets students is just old fashioned nerves. After you judge for a while, it becomes easy to spot when that is the culprit.

Most students feel bad when their nerves get the better of them in competitions. I see them leave the room in tears too often. But here is my little secret. I don’t think less of a student who bombs a piece because of nerves. I really don’t.

The truth is that playing the piano is a skill. Controlling nerves is another skill. While controlling nerves is an important skill for any musician to learn, it is pretty much independent of learning to master the piano. There are very fine young musicians who can’t handle the pressure of performing well. The nerves affect the way they play just as a sprained finger might affect the way they play. I know that situation well; I have been there.

So, a fine pianist who performs poorly in a competition is still a fine pianist. She is just a pianist that needs to learn an additional skill: handling pressure. Learning to do that is not rocket science. The easiest way I know is to take every opportunity possible to perform. Play in public, accompany groups, and enter competitions. It really is that simple. Well, actually, there is one other thing: prepare as well as you can. Preparation breeds confidence; confidence kills nervousness.

To be honest, I rarely get nervous on the piano today. There are a few exceptions but not many. Even for big shows, I might get excited but not nervous. If anything, I find myself leaning the other way; I sometimes struggle to get excited for a performance.

But have I always been that way? Not hardly… I remember at least two recitals during high school where the teacher had to bring up the music to me because I forgot my music due to nerves. I remember playing poorly in competition after competition, also because of nerves.

When I got to college, I started performing a lot. I probably performed in a few hundred churches. I played for groups. I played for student body. I played for piano exams. After college I performed a lot too in church. Eventually, I started doing concerts. I have done a lot of concerts.

And somewhere in the middle of those hundreds of performances, I won the battle with nerves. That is not to say I never mess up because I do. But I do not usually mess up because of nerves.

It took a long time to get to that point. I can’t expect high school students to be there yet. The key is to realize that controlling nerves is a skill you need to learn and look for ways to learn it. In other words, perform! Students that perform a lot are going to do better than students that don’t..

But there is one other thing I would say to those students who feel bad because of how they do in contests. Stop worrying because in the long run, contests are not as important as you might think. In 20 years, you won’t remember much about them. I can’t remember the contests I played in in high school for the most part. I don’t remember the songs I played for sure.

But I do remember one thing about those contests: I never won any of them. Seriously, not one. I got a second place or two as I recall but no blue ribbons for me. My friend Allison always destroyed me. Other pianists did too. When I got to college, it was the same way.

That is OK. I have not lost any sleep over it. You will understand some day. I don’t know that many futures of musicians are changed because of winning or losing high school contests. I suspect there are not many at all. There are things that matter far more than those contests.

So if you messed up a contest recently, sleep easy and don’t sweat it. Just decide that you are going to work on developing the skill of handling pressure and nerves.