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Giving It All You’ve Got!

An image of Irene Feher wearing a formal navy dress and holding a microphone.

Since last week’s blog post, I have been preoccupied with supporting my students through their performance exams. To say I am proud feels like an understatement. If you haven’t performed for an audience, you might not know what performers go through as they practice for an upcoming show, exam, gig, concert, recording session, album launch, or audition. If you do perform, I hope my words help you recognize all the amazing work you do to show up and share your music.

Every performance program begins as an idea, a wish, a chance to share music we create or a sensitive interpretation of someone else’s works. As the artist begins sketching these ideas into a program, the excitement and anticipation starts to build.

Then the work begins…

A timeline is set: practice, acquire the music; practice; learn the music; practice; research the music and composer; practice; hire accompanying musicians; practice; book the venue; practice; plan rehearsals; practice; format the program; practice; plan the live stream; practice; and so on…

The artist creates and/or learns the music they have chosen. We spend hours honing and refining our technical skills, learning the music, working through our interpretations and the arrangements, researching the social, cultural and historical context of the music, and memorizing the music.

Memorizing a song, a piece or a whole concert is a process in itself, and that takes time. Some musicians learn to play on the edge performing pieces that are newly learned and memorized. They are performing on high adrenaline. I’ve had to learn some music very quickly and then perform it, and I can say that it is not my preferred way to work. I love the process of growing with a piece over time. When we perform a work that is internalized, the magic happens. This is because we are able to get on stage and turn off our thinking, and drop into a state of flow.

Let’s pause to consider memorization. There are several facets to memorization: physical, musical, cognitive, and emotional. Implicit memory, some call it muscle memory, is when a motor skill is performed automatically without thought. For example, one does not have to try to recall how to tie their shoes, prepare their coffee, or ride a bike. This kind of memory is formed through repetition. Artists strive to bring their technical mastery to that level for performance. Once that happens they are performing without being in their heads. When we stop thinking, we are listening intently, expressing, and communicating - we are in a state of flow - we are in music.

Musical memory is knowing the overall structure or form of a song or piece of music, and then all the details within the form, including the notes, rhythms, dynamics, entrances, etc. Even if a player is reading a score or lead sheet as they play, they must attain a level where they can do it without any hesitation while listening and interacting with the other musicians.

There are many cognitive elements. For singers, it’s memorizing the lyrics, poem or libretto and knowing what they are singing about, Musicians will spend hours researching performance practices, the social and cultural contexts of a particular work, the life of the composer, and lyricist.

Emotional memory can include any of the following: How does the piece make one feel? If a song is from a show, who is the character, and what is happening at every moment? If the musical piece is a programmatic work, what is each section about? Beyond the music is the experience of the artist, I’ve had to overcome my fears around certain vocal passages that were particularly challenging. I will categorize learning and then memorizing a passage incorrectly as emotional because it is frustrating undoing the mistake.

We then work on building up the physical and mental stamina to perform on stage, whether it is for one minute, five minutes, 60 minutes or 90 minutes. If you have a one-minute solo, you have to be ready and right on target when your time comes up.

We all deal with a level of performance anxiety. Even after months of work, we still go through those stages of self-doubt and worry. In the days leading up to a performance, I sometimes long to just be on the stage doing it - the wait can be quite nerve wracking. I start to worry, or I have stress dreams where I show up to sing, and the program they hand me is completely different from the one I just prepared, the director says, just sight read it, you’ll be fine. I’ve also had those dreams where I’m unable to find the venue, or the room where my performance is taking place. Then there is every performer’s annoyance: the slight symptoms of a cold that start to two days before the show.

We are anxious because we care. I care about the experience I am offering the listeners who have taken the time to come and hear me, I care about the musicians I am playing with, I care about the people who wrote the music I am presenting.

The days and hours leading up to a show can be very exciting and stressful at the same time. I developed a routine of self care that allows me to conserve my energy for the show. I cannot go on stage feeling depleted. I owe it to everyone around me to take care of myself and prepare accordingly.

It is with all this in mind that I want to wholeheartedly congratulate each and every student and pro who got up to sing and/or play this last week! YOU DID IT! You showed up, opened your heart and gave it all you got!

An image of David Darling playing the cello, next to him is a quote: Celebrate the courage
to put forth one's
sound, not necessarily
one's virtuosity.
Professionals and
beginners together
The only difference is
— David Darling, Music for People


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