Stage Presence for Musicians
Many musicians struggle with stage presence and feel a lack of confidence as a result. Fortunately, by practicing mindfulness, we can improve our stage presence, feel more confident, and play better.
In this article, I will give several tips for developing a confident stage presence.
1. Have a clear intention when performing music
A confident musician has a very simple idea of what the performance of a piece is. Compare this to reaching out for a glass of water. If we analyze this movement to the greatest degree possible, we can easily become overwhelmed by detail. Which muscles are involved? To what extent do they need to contract and relax? Exactly how much force is required to pick up the glass? What direction do I need to move my arm in, relative to my torso? What angle should I hold my forearm at, to prevent the water from spilling?
This is way too much to think about. It is far more practical to have the intention of simply “picking up the glass”. If I organize my actions around this intention, then over time, I will figure out how to make everything work.
You may object “I don’t have a clear intention yet, because I don’t know the piece well enough yet.” It can be difficult to commit to an intention when you are still worried about concrete details which you know are wrong. Nonetheless, this is what you need to do. Choosing a clear intention will serve to focus your mind, and make it easier for you to observe cause and effect relationships between your actions and the results you get. This is key to improving your stage presence.
When you practice, try setting clear intentions. For example, you might say "I will play from the beginning to the end of this piece, no matter what happens".
2. Don't correct yourself
Many musicians will play a wrong note, and then immediately correct it before going on. This is not confident playing.
It’s true that correcting your mistake brings attention to it, and that the audience is less likely to notice a mistake if you simply brush it off (especially if they are unfamiliar with the piece). This is not, however, the main reason I suggest avoiding corrections.
Corrections feed distraction.
They make it impossible to focus on the big picture, and encourage you to worry about details. They prevent you from entering a state of real connection to what you are doing, because your brain is constantly scanning for potential mistakes to correct. This is not the way to have a good stage presence.
When you make a mistake during practicing, don't stop. Instead, keep going, and decide to fix it later. If you practice this way, you will find it much easier to perform this way. This is one of the most important habits to develop if you want to know how to develop confidence as a musician.
You might think that if you don't correct yourself, you will learn the piece wrong and will never be able to fix it. I am not arguing that you should turn a blind eye to mistakes. However, while you are playing, do not correct them.
3. Stop hesitating
Music has a beat. Don’t interrupt it.
You might think “if I don’t play carefully, I will make careless mistakes.” If so, consider that “playing carefully” is its own kind of mistake.
Notice how music can give you confidence.
You can keep a steady beat even if you aren’t sure of the notes you are playing.
Don’t believe me? Try it. Find a piece that you don’t even know very well, turn on the metronome, and play from beginning to end. Allow yourself to play wrong notes. Work on this until you see clearly that there is no need to hesitate.
Record your “careful” playing, and listen to it. Can you hear how careful it is? How, exactly, does that carefulness come across in the sound? Is that the intention of the composer?
4. Never apologize
Developing this kind of confidence is one of the main benefits of learning a musical instrument. Certainly, low self-esteem and insecurity aren't really supposed to be part of being a musician.
However, in lessons, when students make mistakes, they look sheepishly at the teacher. They have been trained to feel as if they have done something wrong, or that they are bad pianists/students/people as a result of it.
This is a distraction. You should be focusing on the music, and on your playing, not on the teacher, and not on your self-image. Notice how it affects your playing. This is always the key.
I don't think anyone sincerely believes that you should apologize after making a mistake. No one would argue for that. Then, why does it happen?
Remind yourself that whatever you do is right, because you did it. If you don't like it, you can always do something different next time. But, own what you do right now.
5. Take your fears along with you
You might have a fear of performing music with confidence. Perhaps you think:
- It will be a sign of arrogance.
- I will be embarrassed if I play confidently and still screw up.
- Others will be angry with me.
- I haven’t yet earned the right to play with confidence when I still have so many mistakes in my playing.
- I’m only a beginner.
These fears, if you succumb to them, will ruin your confidence and stage presence.
Don’t try to argue with your mind. Instead, simply notice how all of this is affecting your playing. Allow the fear to exist.
Give it a try in the practice room. Try it in a lesson. Try it for 5 minutes at a time, and see what happens.
6. Don't wait for it to be earned
A final concern I hear frequently is: “I can play confidently once I learn to play well, so I should work towards that first.”
The underlying idea is that confidence for performers is something that needs to be earned.
Many people reach high levels of achievement and do not feel confident. Sometimes, they have learned to perform quite well despite having no clue how to be a confident musician on stage. Sometimes, confidence surprisingly decreases as skill increases (you gain a better realization of how much you don’t know).
Try to maintain a beginner’s mind, and try to make friends with your incompetence. Musicians who have good stage presence are not trying to impress the audience with their expertise. Instead, they are present with themselves as they are.
It can be challenging to approach things this way because it is so different from the order society generally teaches us things must progress in. I find, however, that this will help you play better. You will be able to focus more on what you are doing, and less on yourself.
Is art about apologizing, or is it about expressing yourself?
Every time you practice, try to become a beginner again. When you are practicing something that you aren't very good at, this is precisely the time that you should try extra hard to be confident.
You can be a confident musician on stage
We think skill is necessary for confidence, and we think we need confidence to develop skill.
Making progress feels impossible.
We tend to think that the feeling must come before the playing. This is a result of the common experience of trying to play confidently and failing.
However, just because this is a common experience does not mean that it has to be this way.
Is “confidence” in music-making something that is inherent in the performance, or is it more about the one doing the playing? If we don’t understand the difference, it is very easy to say “I can’t possibly play confidently, because I’m not confident.”
Do you find this inspiring or motivating? Is there anything I'm leaving off this list? Take a look at your own experience and see what it tells you. Also, get out there and practice mastering your confident stage presence! Leave a comment and let me know how it goes.