A Healthy Outlook: Intermediate Students and Performance Expectations

by lsisterhen

In this crucial stage where adolescents are learning about their own needs and responsibilities, it is the music teacher’s job to work with them to create a healthy and realistic outlook on performance. What does it mean to have a healthy outlook? In my opinion, it means that we look at performance in the following three ways:

  1. objectively (not as a reflection of one’s ability)
  2. as one performance in a long line of many throughout one’s lifetime
  3. as a learning experience


Students must understand that the purpose of performing is not to be perfect, but to communicate ideas, strengthen our understanding of the music, and find spots that are weak, improving them for the next performance. Thus, you learn something every time you perform.Every mistake is an opportunity to improve. The important thing is that we learn from it and do not criticize or punish ourselves after the fact. Not immediately after each performance, but within the week, talk objectively with your student about strengths and weaknesses. Plan strategies to overcome the problem areas. Allowing students to be part of the process through self-evaluation will increase their confidence, strengthen their interpretation, and prevent them from taking criticism personally.


At this age, it is common to become more self-conscious, and even the most confident of performers may find himself facing performance anxiety. To help students overcome their fears, try the following tactics:


Let them know that a little bit of anxiety is NORMAL and can be POSITIVE. Replace the word “anxiety” with “anticipation” or “excitement.” Without it, a performance is boring and unfocused.


Gradually increase the challenge. Especially for less experienced performers, have them play in front of friends and family first, with a piece that has been under their fingers for a long time. Then move on to playing in front of a small group of peers, before transitioning to bigger audiences and venues with newer and more difficult repertoire. Psychologists use in vivo desensitization in working with phobias; this process grants patients gradual exposure to their fear object.


Give them as many performance opportunities as possible. The more often you perform, the better you get. Students in choirs, orchestras, and bands benefit from several performances without the pressures of acting as soloists. For pianists, on the other hand, performance opportunities are usually few and far between. Even if you only have one studio recital a year, find as many opportunities as you can for group performance classes, community recitals at churches or senior centers, and organized festivals hosted by your local music teacher’s organization. Your student will thank you for it later.

Some transfer students and adult students who have recently re-enrolled in music lessons come in with very little performance experience, and they will probably be terrified at your first large studio recital. The last thing you want is a bad performance experience that will decrease their confidence. Allow them to play with their score in front of them at first, especially if they have little experience with memorization. If you have a group of students at the same age and approximate level, perhaps put them together in a sightreading, ensemble, or performance practice class where they must learn short pieces quickly and perform in front of their peers regularly.


Give students the opportunity to make their own musical decisions. It is much easier to remember something that you like and are interested in than to memorize information with which you have no emotional connection. A baseball fan might be able to remember an amazing amount of statistical information on many different players, but be completely useless at remembering a recipe. This is just one of several reasons that you want your students to be involved in the musical planning and interpretation of each repertoire choice. Further benefits include greater confidence, listening skills, creativity, and the ability to work independently.


If a student learn to be meticulous, polished, and disciplined in her playing, but has no pride in her ability or joy at her lessons, then the likelihood that she will continue with her musical study is very small. Teachers should ask themselves: what is the price of demanding that a student subscribe to rigorous expectations, even if it means winning competitions or getting into the best schools? Yes, we need to have high expectations for students, but not at the cost of treating them as musicians first and people second.