Seattle Shakuhachi Study Group


An experience shared by virtually all shakuhachi players is nervousness leading up to and during a performance – whether it’s playing for our teacher during a lesson or in front of an appreciative audience. What most of us have discovered is that it only takes a small amount of muscle tension to effectively ruin the quality of our playing. And conversely, the very best sound is made by playing intently but in a way that is fully relaxed.

In this blog I want to talk about one source of performance anxiety, something that is obvious and fundamental but rarely talked about: How it is that not being fully prepared for a performance results in feeling anxious. This is an amazingly straightforward consideration and yet, in my experience, one that is often neglected in discussions of performance-related jitters. Though several books have been written about mastering music performance, the point that basic competence is the necessary condition for a relaxed and successful performance is typically not emphasized.

[Brief but relevant digression: Anxiousness related to performance is one of the many flavors of fear – the emotion that comes up whenever I perceive that there is some kind of threat to my wellbeing. Take this as being axiomatic: anytime that I find myself feeling frightened (or worried, or anxious, or wary, or any of the other fear-based feelings we’re capable of), that emotion has arisen because I’m feeling threatened in one way or another. So what does the threat of harm imply about being nervous in the context of a musical performance? What’s the perceived threat to my wellbeing? The most obvious fear of course is that I’m going to play badly, which will be embarrassing and perhaps humiliating to me, as well as being a bad experience for the audience.]

So, first and foremost I have to be able to play well. Competence is the forerunner of confidence and confidence allows me to be relaxed and present which, in turn, are the qualities that make for an enjoyable performance for me and the audience.

That in mind, one of the most important solutions to the anxiousness problem is also very straightforward: PRACTICE! We need to practice regularly and sufficiently, with two particular goals in mind. First, we need to be able to play well in our own private practice space. Think of this as the technical goal. I need to be able to play the song I want to perform well and accurately.

Second, we need to carry that ability over to the performance space, which requires having the chance to practice playing in front of others. This consideration also tends to be overlooked in my experience. Think of performing for others as being its own skillset that also, of course, improves with practice. So the question we always need to ask is whether or not we’re playing enough in the right way to satisfy these goals.

What I have briefly explored here is only one kind of experience that can impair our performance by contributing to nervousness. Others will be explored in future blog topics.