Performance for Amateur Musicians

Hello blog readers,

Things have been going well here at A Street Music Education. We’ve started our fundraising campaign (see previous post), we’re very close to announcing the location and start date of group classes, and we’re teaching lessons every day of the week on woodwinds, brass, strings, piano, drums, and voice! We’ve also upgraded our lesson rooms to include high quality speakers, a second digital piano, and the ability to record lessons for students’ future use.

In today’s post, I want to focus on performance as it applies to amateur musicians and music students.

The word performance is loaded. One definition of performance is the act of presenting something musical or theatrical, while another from the New Oxford American Dictionary reads “a display of exaggerated behavior or a process involving a great deal of unnecessary time and effort” (think Jenna Maroney from 30 Rock). For music educators, a performance can range from a simple presentation to a validation of student learning to a form of assessment. For musicians it can be incredibly rewarding or create huge amounts of anxiety. A musical audience can experience a performance as revelatory, boring, or just about anything in between.

Perhaps the best view of the act of performing is as a creative experience that’s fun, rewarding, and validates our work. We encourage performing at A Street (we’re currently choosing a date for a May student and faculty concert), and we want to make the experience beneficial for everyone involved, starting with our students. However, musicians of all ages can have bad performing experiences, usually because of huge performing anxiety.

It wasn’t hard for me to find – thanks to google – “Performance Stress and the Very Young Musician,” a research study published by the Journal for Research in Music Education by Hélène Boucher and Charlene A. Ryan of McGill University and Berklee College of Music. This study found that young children report anxiety regarding performances and had elevated levels of Cortisol, a steroid hormone released in the presence of stress. Levels changed depending on the location of a performance (familiar vs. unfamiliar) and the number of performances. This being the case, I think it’s essential to make performances a positive experience for people of all ages, and especially kids. Small amounts of stress are totally necessary, but there’s a difference between enjoying the benefits of small amounts of stress and lighting up the sections of the brain focused on fear. 

We do this at A Street by making concerts communal experiences; making sure to get the audience involved, having students perform only when they’re comfortable, and interweaving faculty performances with student performances.  It doesn’t, however, take a scheduled performance to get a student to perform. Musicians can perform for friends, family, or even for themselves through recording their own playing.

So a performance should be a positive experience that creates a small amount of anxiety (butterflies in the stomach might be a better way of thinking about it). But why are performances necessary? As musicians, can’t we just jam alone or with a couple people? The answer is yes and no. If we’re committed to learning through music (which we are here), then students do a lot of intense work in order to learn to play a piece of music. Students have to understand the basics of their instruments, learn how the music sounds, and investigate how they can personalize the music. Performances validate all of the energy put into learning. I don’t mean they need to play at Carnegie Hall or the House of Blues. Performing at a party, for a group, for family, or for any kind of audience of people students respect will do.

It’s also important to play in groups, but I’ll get to that in a future post! I’ll update again soon with future teacher performance updates and information on classes. Our new violin teacher Rachel Massey will also be filling us in on her experience in advanced Suzuki teacher training. Until then, feel free to contact us at the store with questions and comments. Our number is 617-328-3600, you can comment on this post, and you can email us at astreetmusiclessons@gmail.com.

– A Street Music Education

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About Justin Stanley, Teaching-Artist
I'm a musician and educator based in Boston, MA.

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