We've all heard this common adage before about the power of confidence and its self-sustaining effect, both positively and negatively. In the world of performing arts, this pithy advice can seem particularly relevant when in the midst of a live performance on camera or onstage. But - how does it all work?
To condense this huge topic into the tiniest of nutshells, it ultimately comes down to two words - breath control. Envision yourself onstage, starting a presentation, beginning a recording session, and your nerves take over. What's usually the first biological response? Fight-or-flight adrenaline, which automatically causes us to take quicker, shallower breaths, brace our bodies, and minimize our movements to the bare essentials, while biology decides if we should fight for our lives or run away.
Translated further into art and music, what is the consequence of this ancient biological instinct? Our breath and sudden constriction of muscles causes our "musical breath" to shorten as well. For some (singers, brass and woodwind players, actors), this is literally their respiratory system which is impacted. For others (pianists, string players, percussionists, etc), the breath impacts the muscle freedom of the nearby neck, shoulders, spine and arms to produce long or deliberate motions, thereby impacting our tone production. Brutal, isn't it?
To combat this (highly natural) challenge, performing artists must be sure to practice balancing nature with habit-building so that our breath control is so intuitive that it doesn't even falter when the nerves hit, or at least is minimized. In music, in particular, nature's nerves are compounded by the need to remember massive to-do list of techniques, memorization, rhythms, and more on top of the basic obstacle of general performing before a crowd. In music lessons, students have argued that they would rather play with the smaller sound, they say, so that the audience doesn't hear their mistake. Makes sense - but when compared back to back (either a confident mistake, or a timid accuracy), the results were fascinating.
Several students of mine, in preparation for their upcoming recital, pointed out this preference to me to hide their mistake rather than play loudly. After demonstrating two options to them (one with a random note substituted in place of a correct one, but played casually, versus a pitch-perfect rendition but with occasional timidity), I asked each student which version they believed had the mistake. One hundred percent of the students confidently believed that the rendition with the timidness had the error, when in fact it was otherwise rhythmically, notationally, and artistically pristine. The rendition with the confident playing, even with the confidently wrong note, sounded flawless, when revealed to the student, each person's genuine facial reaction was a literal jaw drop.
So, what is one to do? Of course, the ideal answer is to always perfectly prepare every habit, with every possible scenario accounted for, and every nuance drilled to perfection. But when reality hits, remember to take a deep breath, conjure a mental state of confidence, and don't be afraid to "fake" it. Odds are, you'll find that you actually "make" it, better than you'd expect.