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Hi everyone,

Longtime lurker here. Now that I'm on summer break I have some more time to reflect, so I'm posting about something that has been plaguing me for quite a while now.

Some context: I'm a Masters student in piano performance -- went back to school after some time. I have experience teaching and accompanying, and and undergrad degree in piano performance. I'm a good sight reader, and have won scholarships and competitions. For this years juries, I played Beethoven op 90, Chopin Heroic Polonaise, and Bach's E major from book 1.

I've been having an issue in my performances ever since I started taking music more seriously (which was middle of undergrad):

Many (If not all) of the "Difficult' passages in whatever piece I play tend to get WORSE after I work carefully and intelligently on them.

Here is a typical example of the trajectory of me learning something:

After a few weeks (or a few months - if it's a longer piece) - I'll give a "First" performance. This is typically in a retirement center, my teacher's studio classes, or for a group of friends. It will generally go ok..maybe sound a bit "Green"..a bit rough around the edges. There will be some passages that are uneven or sound a bit shaky -- but generally everything is "there".

After a few more months -- the piece overall gets stronger: I assume greater control of the tempo, I start to become more secure with memory, my convictions about interpretations grow, etc. But the difficult passages only become worse. I start to rush through them uncontrollably (out of fear). After a few more months, I tend to barely be able to play them at all (in public that is -- I can do so on my own mostly fine). Something happens where I begin to play the passage in question and almost unconsciously just "Give up", and skip to the next section, bar or page. What's annoying is that people hear this and THINK it's a memory slip, but it actually has nothing to do with memory (it never happens in easy or slow music)-- The only phrase that seems to fit is "Sheer Panic".

But here's the weird thing.....

I practice excellently. I really do. Slowly. With the metronome. In different rhythms. With relaxed and controlled arm motions (I've never had physical or technical problems, and my teacher doesn't think so, either). I practice in all sorts of methods: Additive, backwards, transposing to new keys, blocking, Hand separately, slow-fast alterations - sometimes for as much as 45 minutes or an hour a day on a single bar or passage for days in a row - And it all works. But when I play in front of people (or sometimes in the context of just a complete run through), I'll have these mental "Freak-outs" about the place in question. I'm not giving any specific examples of pieces or places within pieces because - honestly - it ends up happening at least once in every piece I play that has relatively difficult passages.

My teacher is also at a bit of a loss -- he admits he has never seen this before in any student and just says I need to keep at it, and keep getting more performing experience (Which may be true, but I do perform quasi regularly). I like and trust my teacher --- and have had several great teachers, none of whom can help address this particular issue.

I want to also mention that when I was a teenager and in the beginning of undergrad I did NOT have this problem. I was overall less of a good pianist and musician -- but this didn't happen.

I'm seriously wondering if this could be indicative of some deer, underlying psychological problem (a type of pianistic "OCD" and am even considering consulting with a therapist or sports psychologist - although it's just hard to imagine they could really understand the specifics of this issue as they are not musicians.

Thanks for letting me vent!

Last edited by Rallent; 05/16/22 11:16 PM.
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Even though I'm a 'mental health' person, I'm going to say this isn't a mental health thing. smile

Why? Because this happens to me too sometimes, and I don't want to think I'm that kind of mental health person! grin

Actually that's not the reason.
The reason is that I always look first for something other than that. I look first for something mechanical or about the practicing.

So, for what it's worth, here's what it usually seems to be for me when I find that kind of thing happening:

In the process of practicing the piece in greater detail, I unintentionally wound up practicing some parts in ways that are physically different than how I play it when I'm actually playing the piece -- which creates a physical conflict when I'm playing the piece, because there's a battle going on between how I've been practicing it and how I'm playing it.
(a battle going on without my knowing it)

Details to follow..... (next post)

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Mark C -- fascinating post! I actually hand't thought of this before...

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I was actually thinking of things like this earlier today because I was asked if I could prepare a presentation on things like stage fright and memory issues, and what I'm talking about here is some of what started going through my mind as what could be underlying for those things. When I saw your post, it occurred to me that they apply even more to what you're describing.


As I've found in my own playing, there are all kinds of ways that we can be doing physical things when we practice that are importantly different than when we're actually playing. I've seen that when something happens to me like what you're describing, if I look closely at how I've been practicing whatever passage, almost always I easily find one or more ways in which I've been doing that, as I've gotten more deeply into working on the piece. It's a strange thing, isn't it -- "I was playing it sort of fine, and now I've worked on it more, and now I can't play it." Of course it could be something simpler, like that we've gotten sick of the piece grin -- but at least for me, it seems usually to be the other.

Here's some of the ways I've found that I may have been practicing things in a different physical way than how I actually 'play' it and which then create physical habits that work against the actual playing:

-- This is really stupid but I've found myself doing it a few times: A passage is toward one end of the keyboard or the other, and so when I'm practicing it over and over, I sit over there instead of where I'm really going to be sitting.

-- Looking at the hands in a different way than when I'll actually be playing the passage.
That's a biggie. I think it's probably an underrated common issue.
This can happen in various ways. One is that if we practice one hand at a time, usually we're looking right at that hand, which maybe we can't do in the actual playing -- and that can be problematic in a couple of different ways. First, we can become dependent on the looking, and then, in the actual playing, when we take our gaze off that hand, we can feel lost. Or -- and this is more subtle -- even if we're not dependent on the looking, that kind of looking can become part of the habitual physicality of playing the passage, and the different physical feeling when we're playing can feel alien (without our exactly knowing it).

Also: When we're practicing a passage slowly, it's possible to be looking at 'everything' in the hands in ways that aren't possible at actual speed. It's easy to become dependent on that, and then to be lost at actual speed because you can't be doing that.

How I deal with those things, when I identify them:
I just make sure to be looking at the hands in exactly the same way when I'm practicing as when I'll be playing. That's not necessarily easy to do. Sometimes it means doing things that seem silly, like, if you're practicing slowly, avoiding doing any detailed looking that you won't be able to do at full speed; or when you're playing just one hand, looking away from it as you'll be needing to do when playing both hands.

-- Another one: As I got further into the practicing, I changed a fingering in a way that seems to be better but actually isn't -- like, maybe the original fingering was more in sync with the other hand, and so the hand keeps 'wanting' to go back to the old fingering to keep it in sync with the other hand, and sometimes it does, but whether it does or not, it's fighting with itself and with the other hand.

The thing of having started doing something that puts the hands in conflict is a common thing for me for the kind of thing you're talking about. Sometimes it's an issue of fingering, sometimes a different thing, like doing some approach in one hand that is in rhythmic conflict with the other hand.
Before I start working intensively on a piece, the hands usually find some natural way of working together, however imperfect it might be. When I try to get it better and start doing all kinds of brilliant things to try to make it so grin it can create things that are unnatural, including by taking away something that enabled the hands to work together.

Here's a little thing that I think is common for that, and which I've gotten pretty good at avoiding because it's pretty easy to keep in mind, and a pretty solid principle, at least for me. When the hands are playing stuff sort of together, they work together most naturally if the same fingers are coming together on important notes -- i.e. thumbs together, or 2nd fingers together.
And the next best thing is for 2nd and 4th to come together, or 1st and 3rd (and I guess 5th).

2nd and 3rd is more awkward.
Likewise 3rd and 4th.
Those can even cause "freezing" for me, because the hands just 'don't want' to do that.

I'm sure some people will say "I have no issue about those things." I say, more power to them. ha
For me that's how it is. Not an absolute thing, and of course there are lots of times that we have to be playing in combinations like that.
But I've found it can be an issue.


I guess I could say more if I thought about it more, but that's more than long enough already, isn't it.....

I hope some of this may seem like it might be relevant for you. Anyway I enjoyed thinking about it and writing it!
I think anybody who finds it interesting to look at such things in a such a way will probably find things of this sort that apply to them, and it might well be totally different things than what I've found for me.

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Quote
-- Looking at the hands in a different way than when I'll actually be playing the passage.
That's a biggie. I think it's probably an underrated common issue.


Yes!!!!! Nobody talks about this but it is so true!!!

This is the kiss of death in Bach. I have never had a memory slip. I have confused myself quite suddenly in the middle of a fugue by opening my eyes after they've been closed for a bit and looking at my hands and thinking "Gee, how neat! How did these hands get here and move in different ways during counterpoint!?!?! Oh s$%@, I just lost my zen moment, where am I?"

The moment I start consciously watching my hands, I am finished.

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It's basically just mindset - and there's a need to alter it. For example - the top sports people have a particular mindset ----- they have underlying talent (as in physical talent, strategy talent, etc) - and confident in their own abilities. But on top of that - and sometimes with the help of sports psychiatrists, they work on their mindset. Under certain conditions, where the 'pressure' builds, or they really need to perform ------ they must find a way to stay in control of themselves - their mind, their body etc. For example, one of the recently retired tennis champs --- ashley barty --- she just has some own characteristic ability to not be bothered at all by critical situations - and pretty much just does what she needs to do, as if the 'nervousness' or stress/pressure parts of her system remain de-activated. It seems to just allow her to just get on with what she needs to do without the factors that can influence her performance negatively.

Not everybody has that ability. But sports psychiatrists can actually help improve the performance in that area.

But - even if you do encounter these issues now --- the situation usually does improve. It also helps when you know that you're doing your best in terms of preparation, and also helps when you do not care what people think when this happens. If you don't care as much, then the pressure/anxiety or whatever level usually drops, or stays normal, and gives you better chances for getting better and better.

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Also - confidence, and confidence in one's own abilities can help too. Such as - you go out and keep in your mind something like - 'I'm going to really show them what I can do'. Or - another approach is ----- to go out there thinking ---- 'I'm really going to play for them something to enjoy' --- and relax, calm down, and go. Playing the performance, even with stumbles is a very good achievement in itself.

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Mark, Thanks for your great and incredibly well thought-out response! If only all piano teachers could be this analytical smile

I'd have to say though - I don't think it's a looking issue with me; I've never had big issues with needing to look, and big jumps or "Wide" places don't usually bother me.

I'm more susceptible to these issues in places where the hand hardly needs to move at all -- in tangly, chromatic, double note type places where everything is packed tight - like Mozartian passagework or the double thirds in the Chopin 4th ballade. (The Handel "Courante" form the Harmonious Blacksmith Suite was an absolute nightmare for me). I have large hands, so I guess this makes sense that I struggle more with these type of places.

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I definitely think it's a psychological issue because the OP doesn't, as far as I can tell, have this problem when practicing the piece, didn't have the problem earlier in his career, and doesn't have the problem when performing the piece nearer the beginning of when he's learning it. If he can find a psychologist well versed in this problem and can afford the cost, I think at least a few sessions might be valuable. Maybe even hypnotherapy?

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Originally Posted by Rallent
it actually has nothing to do with memory (it never happens in easy or slow music)-- The only phrase that seems to fit is "Sheer Panic".

But when I play in front of people (or sometimes in the context of just a complete run through), I'll have these mental "Freak-outs" about the place in question. I'm not giving any specific examples of pieces or places within pieces because - honestly - it ends up happening at least once in every piece I play that has relatively difficult passages.
You definitely have 'performance anxiety' or stage fright. It can get worse rather than better with greater experience, which is something many people just don't understand (after all, the more times you do it, the less stressful, right? Wrong!!).

I have the same problem as well (despite having been performing for a decade, and I'm very old), and I'm only performing in public because I want to. If everything suddenly goes blank, I just improvise a bit, and/or skip to the next section. Usually, my audience - who aren't musical and most likely never heard the music before - don't even notice anything amiss. I don't let it get me down anymore - after all, life goes on (with or without me.......).

However, I know a number of professionals who take beta-blockers (with their doctor's approval) for their performance anxiety......


"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."
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I wouldn't take beta blockers, even if a doc approves it. Just go with not worry about what people think if it happens, and keep working at it. Otherwise - for some reason - if you actually do feel super stressed out or something, and can't help it, then just play for your friends or your family whenever you feel like it.

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Originally Posted by SouthPark
Just go with not worry about what people think if it happens, and keep working at it. Otherwise - for some reason - if you actually do feel super stressed out or something, and can't help it, then just play for your friends or your family whenever you feel like it.
That may not be an option since I think the OP has and/or wants a professional performing career. So he cannot limit his performances to family and friends.

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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
That may not be an option since I think the OP has and/or wants a professional performing career. So he cannot limit his performances to family and friends.

True. It may not be. But it also might be. It depends on what the OP's aim is.

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Originally Posted by Mark_C
-- This is really stupid but I've found myself doing it a few times: A passage is toward one end of the keyboard or the other, and so when I'm practicing it over and over, I sit over there instead of where I'm really going to be sitting.

-- Looking at the hands in a different way than when I'll actually be playing the passage.

This can happen in various ways. One is that if we practice one hand at a time, usually we're looking right at that hand, which maybe we can't do in the actual playing -- and that can be problematic in a couple of different ways. First, we can become dependent on the looking, and then, in the actual playing, when we take our gaze off that hand, we can feel lost. Or -- and this is more subtle -- even if we're not dependent on the looking, that kind of looking can become part of the habitual physicality of playing the passage, and the different physical feeling when we're playing can feel alien (without our exactly knowing it).

Also: When we're practicing a passage slowly, it's possible to be looking at 'everything' in the hands in ways that aren't possible at actual speed. It's easy to become dependent on that, and then to be lost at actual speed because you can't be doing that.
No matter how one practices a passage, I would assume most people also practice it at performance speed, find out if there's a problem, and work on whatever the issue is. The actual performance would not be the first time they play it just the way the will in a performance.

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Thank you for sharing, it makes me feel better about my own struggles with music.

It makes me feel better about my own struggles with music.

Try recording your own performances pretending that you are performing for a competition.

This can function as in intermediate step between practicing and actual performing


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It's colloquially called choking and is very common.


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Originally Posted by Mark_C
I was actually thinking of things like this earlier today...
I think anybody who finds it interesting to look at such things in a such a way will probably find things of this sort that apply to them, and it might well be totally different things than what I've found for me.


Very additive post Mark. (I hope you don't mind that I abbreviated it, (i.e. "...") for the sake for brevity. Anyway, thank you.


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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
I definitely think it's a psychological issue because the OP doesn't, as far as I can tell, have this problem when practicing the piece, didn't have the problem earlier in his career, and doesn't have the problem when performing the piece nearer the beginning of when he's learning it.

He didn't say that.
He said that about one particular specific thing I mentioned, not about the others and not about the thing in general.

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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
No matter how one practices a passage, I would assume most people also practice it at performance speed....

Sure -- but, a couple of things:

-- He didn't say it doesn't happen at all when practicing at performance speed. (He said "mostly fine.")

-- For many of us, different things kick in when playing in public. It becomes more "for real," and it wouldn't be unusual for the kind of physical 'conflict' I talked about to come into play more when playing in public, perhaps even only. It's hard to make oneself during practice to have the exact feelings and tendencies that will occur during performance.

FWIW, things like that have happened to me, including not becoming evident until playing in public.
You don't have to tell me that I'm not necessarily representative. grin

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Originally Posted by Mark_C
Originally Posted by pianoloverus
I definitely think it's a psychological issue because the OP doesn't, as far as I can tell, have this problem when practicing the piece, didn't have the problem earlier in his career, and doesn't have the problem when performing the piece nearer the beginning of when he's learning it.

He didn't say that.
He said that about one particular specific thing I mentioned, not about the others and not about the thing in general.
I think he definitely said the last two and since he didn't mention difficulties with a breakdown when practicing at home it's safe to assume that's the case also. Most of the posters on the thread think the problem is psychological.

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