Falling apart when playing the piano for an audience

It’s OK to fall apart when performing for an audience. In fact, this is the only way you can learn not to fall apart.

Seriously. You’ve got to go into that scary place and renegotiate whatever you find there. It’s the only way: through the fire and over the bridge and on we go to Grandma’s house.

Maybe you think I’m being idealistic. Maybe you hate when I make assumptions about what you’re thinking.

Doesn’t matter. What matters is only your own willingness to explore your fear.

What makes me so confident?

I’ve fallen apart before, I’ve been afraid to fall apart, and I know what the fear does. All the tension, all the anticipation, the hesitation, the aversion…all a result of trying not to fall apart.

What’s the big deal? What happens if you fall apart?

I have no idea, and you don’t either. The only way to find out is to experience it.

Your mind is telling you a story, but you don’t know the reality until you experience it. Pay attention and notice what your mind says. Is the story even complete and coherent?

This is piano technique, not psychology.

The mind and body are one (there’s some new-age BS for you).

One time, I was playing for an opera rehearsal. I was filling in for the usual pianist and I was sight-reading the score. At one point, I made some mistakes and the conductor looked at me impatiently and said “come on, Michael, get it together.” I felt embarrassed and angry.

It didn’t make me play better.

I want you to try it

You don’t need to be convinced of anything here. My words aren’t intended to convince you. They’re intended to inspire you.

I want you to try it. Put yourself in a situation where you might fall apart and see what happens. How far can you let yourself go?

  • Play for your friends.
  • Play for your teacher.
  • Play for teachers you don’t know.
  • Play for strangers on the Internet.
  • Play live on Instagram.
  • Play for your smartphone camera and never share it with anyone.
  • Play for a paying audience.
  • Play for a non-paying audience.

Each of these experiences will provoke different stories and sensations in your reality. Even the same type of experience on different days will be slightly different.

The goal is flexibility

Throw yourself into the fire and learn how to swim. You’re more capable than you realize.

But, if you’ve lived a life of fear, hesitation, and doubt, you’ll never know. You’ve been protecting yourself your whole life, staying small, out of the way, hidden, safe.

Why? So you don’t offend anyone? So no one has to suffer the pain of hearing you fall apart?

What part of you can’t stand it? Who’s that little kid inside you who needs protection?

“Fear” isn’t a bad word.

It’s OK to be afraid. It’s even OK to succumb to the fear. If that’s what you need to do to feel safe, that’s what you need to do. I’m not trying to take that away from you. In fact, I want to validate it, to let you know it’s perfectly fine to live in fear.

It’s also OK to stand up to the fear. You can thank it for doing its job and reassure it that you’ve got it from here.

One time, I took a placement test for an aural skills class. It was online, and I did some sight-singing exercises over Skype. I sucked. I felt so embarrassed. I said to the teacher, “I was feeling anxious, and I think I would have done better if I weren’t so anxious. May I try again?”

She said no and I felt frustrated and even more embarrassed.

Your experiences define you, but the stories you tell about them don’t

The stories are arbitrary.

I can sit here and type whatever I want. I can reach into my memory bank, pull at these loose threads of narrative, and see what I grab onto. They’re purely functional, purely pragmatic.

The stories serve a purpose when they serve a purpose and don’t mean anything otherwise. They’re just stories showing up in the moment.

You can choose which ones define you.

And, if that’s too overwhelming, that’s fine, no problem. Sometimes you have to feel into them, to let them take root and grow and see where you find yourself.

So, perform for others

Let yourself fall apart.

Let the pieces put themselves back together however they want. Every experience you have will give your mind new opportunities that make useful stories.

Every time you fall apart, you’ll learn something new about what that experience is like. You’ll learn what causes the falling apart and what needs to happen to put yourself back together.

It will happen automatically. The part of you that’s looking to be held together will make sure of it.

You only need to provide the willingness.


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