Performance Tips for Classical Guitarists

The following are notes from a workshop I presented to The Boston Classical Guitar Society, which is based on my book, The Art of the Soloperfomer: A Field Guide To Stage & Podium.

I. Prepare your material and prepare yourself

  • The cure for performance anxiety is practice.
  • It takes more than we think to bring a guitar solo to concert readiness.
  • Segovia practiced two and half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon.
  • Parkening said, “Perfection should be your goal, and dedicated work is required to achieve perfection.” “Work is better than talent.”
  • Even the simplest guitar pieces, when played perfectly, are concert worthy material. As Segovia demonstrated in one of his last concerts in Boston.

How to practice. After scales, right and left hand drills, there is repertoire.

  • Choose a piece that you love and is well within your technical ability. Great players make it look easy. That is because it is easy for them. When it is easy for you, you look and sound like a great player. Be like Napoleon, who attributed his military victories to always having reserves ready to pick up the slack when the going got tough. If you want to play sixteenth notes at one hundred and twenty BPM in concert, then you must have the skill to play them at one hundred and fifty BPM in the practice room.
  • Practice the trouble spots rather than the whole piece. Use the add one technique: Play a note, add another, keep adding until you hit a rough patch. That’s where to stop and go over it until you have it. Then add the next note.
  • Get off the page. Memorize the pieces you will perform.
  • Use a metronome. Go slowly and gradually increase tempo over several days. Keep a written record of your tempo progress. Mozart said, “Slow practice makes for fast playing.”  Practice slower than you can actually play.
  • If it feels fast to you, then you are playing too fast. Every virtuoso speed demon says the same thing about speed, “It doesn’t feel fast to me when I am playing.” They also say, “The faster I want to play, the more relaxed I have to be.” If you feel tension in your forearm, hands, and fingers, slow down till it goes away.
  • Write the date next to each measure as you memorize and master it.
  • Live Fire Drills – Practice as you will perform. Your performance chair and footstool need to be the same as your practice chair & stool.

II. Just before your performance – Prepare your mind & body

  • Find a quiet place to breathe in and out slowly, three times. Meditate on your purpose and see yourself playing the piece. This one exercise will solve most performance anxiety problems, especially if your preparation in the weeks & months before was disciplined.

During your performance – Act as if…

  • Arrive at the stage in tune and ready to play. Watching a performer struggle with music stands, music, and tuning is never entertaining.
  • Avoid caveats about your concerns on whether you will play well. No audience likes this, even your friends and peers will be uncomfortable with this behavior.
  • Avoid mistake face, apologies, starting over. These are all performance killers. Nobody in the audience is thinking or listening that critically. They want you to succeed, and if you act as if you are succeeding, then you will. Everybody wins when you behave professionally on stage.

III. Stage Mechanics

  • How to Enter – Walk in, sit, arrange yourself, look up, smile, name your piece, play. Ideally, this should take less than a minute.
  • Beginning – This is how to immediately connect without speaking: Look at the people… right at them. Smile. If you seem relaxed and confident, the audience will be relaxed too. It’s how you want them to be… and it’s how they want to be.
  • Middle – Be immersed in the material. If your practice was sufficient, then the mechanics of where to place your hands will not be in the forefront of your thoughts. You can feel, rather than think. By letting the music lead you through the piece, you will experience the emotionality that drew you to it in the first place, and the audience will be drawn in with you. It is inevitable that minor mistakes will creep in. No one will notice this but you. If you make a mistake face, apologize, stop and start over, you diminish the experience for yourself and your audience. Never do this. Even if you totally lose it, stay in performance mode and continue. All performing is about and for the audience. Your mission is to bring the music to them and be transparent to the music. It is not about you, and the more you disappear, the more the music appears to the audience.
  • End – Acknowledge the audience and exit. As the last note dies away, the audience will applaud. Stand up, acknowledge the applause via a slight bow (or a stage bow, what ever you are comfortable with) say thank you, and exit. Do not talk, other than thank-you, although your bow is your visual thanks. They cannot hear you if you talk while they are applauding. If you wait till the applause stops to speak, then you have stayed too long. If you have something that must be said before you leave, then the time to say it is before your last piece.
  • Post-concert etiquette – People will tell you how well you played. Your response to these compliments is, “Thank you.” Avoid launching into a self-deprecating summary of why you were not happy with your performance. It is tedious. You don’t like it when others do it. No one likes it if you do it.

Further Reading

Reading is for inspiration to practice with dedication and discipline, it does nothing to improve your playing or your stage craft.

In addition to The Art of the Solo Performer, I recommend:

Steve Rapson

Steve Rapson

Steve is a solo guitarist and songwriter with ten CDs in release. He is the author of The Art of the SoloPerformer: A Field Guide to Stage and Podium.