13 Ways to Prevent Piano Panic

Hell, by 15th C. painter Hans Memling

Hell, by Hans Memling, 15th C.

Piano panic sucks, but for the collaborative pianist, it sucks even more. Because if a collaborative pianist can’t perform, nobody can perform. Those singers, that pit orchestra, are absolutely depending on you to at least plunk something out. It’s your community responsibility, as a musical theater accompanist in particular, not to panic. Much more than a soloist. If a soloist panicks, it’s embarassing; but if you panick, it can bring down the show and thus set back progress in the greatest art form in human history, musical theater.

Ah, but who hasn’t had piano panic? Whether at your 2nd grade recital or 2nd to last performance on Broadway, sooner or later, every pianist has this moment when they become profoundly self-conscious and aware of the fact that they’re playing the piano and are potentially capable of screwing up royally. That’s where all piano panic begins: when you stop being engrossed in the music, and, mentally, sort of, step back behind the bench and, shocked, see yourself playing. It’s all quite Zen. Buddhist masters have taught for millenia that the root of suffering is in self-consciousness.

Ah, but the Buddhist masters had a solution to the problem, and so do musical theater pianists. Let me teach it to you, young grasshopper.

1. Know what piano panic is and how to recognize it. Like herpes, piano panic has obvious signs. But the first time you experience it, you might not know it’s happening. So here’s what you look for:

  • You are thinking about what other people in the room are thinking about you. Perhaps it is your Music Director, whom you are worried has already been doubting your competency. Perhaps it’s that hot soprano who seems to filrt with you in proportion to the quality of your playing.
  • You are playing way sub-par a piece that you normally can handle. You get it right in practice, but now, you’re hitting wrong notes that were no problem privately. This indicates an issue not with your technical ability, but with your psychology.
  • You’re sweating. This may seem obvious, but it’s actually literally true. When people have piano panic, their fingers often become moist and it feels as if they’re sticking to the keys. That, of course, makes you play worse, which, when you realize it, may cause you to panic that you’re screwing up. Panic is a vicious cycle. [Update, April 20: Reader Kattzalos over at Reddit reminds us to use baby powder to prevent sweaty fingers.]

2. Label it. Literally, say to yourself, “this is piano panic”. The first step in battling an enemy is to name the enemy. I think Harry Potter said something like that.

3. Slow your breathing. Even if you’re in mid-piece when you discover your panic, you can still keep playing, but give a little bit of your concentration over to just dropping your rate of respiration. With changes in breath come changes in levels of anxiety.

4. Say to yourself: I am not importantBecause you are not. What is important is the music. Whether or not you are a good pianist, what the Music Director thinks of you, whether the soprano is going to snog you at the cast party — none of these matter, so stop thinking that they do, you selfish dork. When you realize that you’re just a bunch of carbon atoms strung together with a life span of perhaps 75 years, and then you will not exist for the entire rest of the 60 billion years left in the universe, you won’t give two cents what anyone thinks of you.

Repeat this phrase to yourself, I am not important, until you are sick of hearing yourself say it and your concentration shifts back to the music.

5. Plunk out the melody and the bass. As we have discussed in previous posts, the melody and bass are the minimum needed in most situations for the singers to keep going. By switching like this, you reduce the difficulty level of the music you are playing (dramatically if it’s Adam Guettel) such that your anxiety about failing to play property drops precipitously. Your confidence will increase, and when it does, you can go back to more complex versions of the accompaniment — for example, the actual orchestra reduction. (Unless it’s Adam Guettel, in which case quit and go and cry. You’ll never be able to play it right.)

6. Imagine everyone in their underwear, as recommended in the Brady Bunch. (My goodness, my post is getting tasteless.) You may remember that episode in which Marcia Brady is nervous about public speaking, so her father, Mike Brady, gives her the slightly risqué advice to picture everybody in the audience in their underwear. Well, you may not wish to do this precisely, but the point is that whomever you’re trying to perform for, they’re as ridiculous as you are. If you’re having trouble convincing yourself that you’re not important, then remind yourself that the people around you are not important. And they aren’t. Even if it’s Donald Trump. Even if it’s President Obama. People are people are people. Only Stephen Sondheim is greater than all the rest of humanity, so if he’s in the audience, disregard this entire post, kiddo.

7. Keep a “piano awesomeness” fileWhat this amounts to is some kind of document — a scrapbook, a diary, or just a really long list — of all the times that anyone has ever complimented you on your piano playing. Write down memories of your greatest performances in great detail. Include that picture of you freshman year in your tuxedo playing the pit part for West Side Story. You know, the time when all the music lovers in the audience came up to you after the show and said, with this idolizing look on their faces, “how did you hit all those jazz thirds correctly?!?!” and you smiled smugly, shrugged your shoulders, and just said, “luck, I guess.” But you knew it wasn’t luck. It was your awesomeness.

Read this file regularly and then, in moments of piano panic, you will remember how awesome a pianist you are and that there is no need to panic.

If you don’t have such moments, then make them up. Write a little fiction story about when you won a Tony award and read it over and over until you believe it’s true.

8. Practice, you silly personIf you practice your part until you can play it during a bombing raid, then you won’t have any problem with piano panic. Ability = confidence = relaxation and there’s just no substitute for that equation.

9. Keep a good luck charm on the piano, like some little dog statuette or one of those stress balls. The point of this item is that you mentally associate it with relaxing states. You bust this thing out whenever you’re in a chill-out situation in real life (in a sauna, having a glass of wine, watching the Food Network), and keep it in your field of view. Then, you bring it with you to rehearsals and performances. You put it on the piano someplace, like way over on the side, such that you don’t look at it except if you start panicking. If you look at it at other times, then you’ll start associating the charm with other things besides relaxation, and it will lose its effect.

This, by the way, is the single technology driving most world religions, which is why they are so scientifically accurate, and such pillars of social morality.

Here are some things that don’t work as good luck charms: pictures of ex-boyfriends, weapons (guns, ammo, etc.), dead animals. Basically, anything you couldn’t bring on an airplane.

10. Pedals. All right, I realize that this is a totally cheap trick, but it’s worked for me. When I’ve been panicking, the thing that I have felt was basically, I want to crawl out of this room and disappear. But of course, I couldn’t do that, so I did the next best thing, psychologically. I used the soft pedal. Not a lot. Just for a few moments. For short enough a period of time that it really wouldn’t matter that much to the director and the singers. Just long enough for me to sort of “drop out of the room” and get my bearings back. It’s like a prize fighter who’s getting the wind knocked out of him, so he steps back toward the corner of the ring for a few seconds to regain his energy. Then he comes out swinging.

Other people use the sustain pedal in the same way. They’re unconfident about their playing so they cover it by mushing all the notes together. I’m not advocating this as any kind of permanent technique, but just as an on-the-fly measure when all other hope is lost.

11. Medication. Xanax. Ativan. It works. Just don’t take too much or you’ll be like a drunken pianist.

12. Eat, drink, and sleep. As guest-poster Charlotte Tomlinson observed recently on The Cross-Eyed Pianist, your condition during rehearsals and performances is going to depend on the way you treat yourself in the “real world” (this term is really improper because the only real world is the world of musical theater; everything else is an illusion, whose ultimate goal and purpose is to support musical theater). We’ve said this before: the musical theater pianist is an athlete (although usually better-looking and more popular than the athletes).

13. Tell everyone, “I’m panicking.” You’ll be amazed how well this works. Everybody in theater panicks: the actors, the producers, the stage-hands, the make-up person, the director’s kid brother who’s excitedly collecting the tickets at the door. Some people hide it really well, but we’re all ducks, appearing placid but madly paddling our feet underwater. So really all you have to do is say out loud, “I’m panicking,” and you’ll stop panicking. Don’t ask me why this works exactly, but it does. I’ve tried it. Perhaps it’s just that after admitting our weaknesses, we don’t feel like we have anything to prove.

4 thoughts on “13 Ways to Prevent Piano Panic

  1. Kirstie

    Thanks so much for this! I have a big recital coming up and I’m playing Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata 8 in C Minor- just the first movement. But I’m 16 and I’m prone to get very nervous playing the piano in front of people. This helped me so much! I really think I might try whispering “You’re panicking” to myself if I get piano panic, now that I think about it. It does work, strangely enough. Anyway, I’m planning on being a vocal music major so I need to get used to pressure, whether it be piano or not! Thanks again!

    1. Erik Joseph Campano Post author

      You’re welcome, Kirstie — thanks for reading and giving your feedback! The Pathetique is so beautiful. Best of luck with your recital!


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