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Cliburn Competition: How to Deal With Nerves

by Stephen Becker 2 Jun 2009 6:52 AM

Nervousness can take its toll on performers of all levels. So how do the high level competitors at this year’s Cliburn International Piano Competition deal with pre-show jitters?


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Nervousness can take its toll on performers of all levels. So how do the high-level competitors at this year’s Cliburn International Piano Competition deal with pre-concert jitters?

Each has ways of preparing to make that long walk from backstage to the spotlight.

Eating a banana is a common stomach settler. More than a few will say a prayer.

And if the heat is really on, some reach deep into their bag of tricks.

kim-kyuyeon-200Kyu Yeon Kim is a competitor from South Korea who made the semifinals.

KIM: Sometimes if I’m really nervous, I have some poem that I use to read before the performance. It’s a really old Korean poem, and when I read that, I feel more comfortable.”

If there were one tried-and-true method to calming one’s nerves, Louise Canafax would have discovered it by now.

She has been a part of all 13 Cliburn Competitions and is best known as the backstage mother.

Canafax is the last person the competitors interact with before stepping onstage.

And she says she’s seen everything from stoic focus to full-on panic attacks.

CANAFAX: “Some of them like to walk. Some of them want to sit. Some of them want to talk and talk and talk and talk. It’s just nerves.”

Some players say having the jitters can actually lead to a better performance.

Evgeni Bozhanov is a competitor from Bulgaria who is one of six Cliburn finalists.

bozhanov-evgeni-2002BOZHANOV: “I think adrenaline is very good. Adrenaline is very positive – it’s very good for the performance and the music”

Josè Feghali agrees.

And he should know.

He won the gold medal at the 1985 Cliburn Competition. Now, he’s the artist-in-residence at TCU.

FEGHALI: “I think that in general if one is not nervous at all, that’s not a good thing. Because you need that kind of edge, you need that kind of adrenaline pumping a little bit to get you into a real performance mode.”

While the world’s brightest young pianists duke it out at Bass Hall, Feghali has been teaching other budding musicians at this year’s Piano Texas academy in Fort Worth. The academy is a joint venture put on by the Cliburn Foundation, the TCU school of music and the Fort Worth Symphony Association.

jose-200During the academy, Feghali and other top-flight piano teachers hold master classes on frequently played pieces and pass along any number of technical tips.

But Feghali says he has one piece of advice that applies to everyone from Cliburn competitors to actors in a school play. And that is: focus on the positive act of connecting with an audience rather than worrying over potential mistakes.

FEGHALI: “We are privileged to be performing works that are absolutely incredible and written by geniuses. That kind of respect and love for the music should come first and foremost. And right before the performance, I think that is a kind of mental state and spiritual state that one should have.”

And if a knotted up stomach is making that level of focus difficult, there are always bananas.

  • roger manny

    Why is Mariangela Vacatello playing only 1 performance with the symphony and the balance of the finalists are playing 2 symphonic performances.

  • seo service guy

    Its a very interesting topic discussed. . i have bookmarked it.. it might be useful in case of emergency.. thanks

  • Kevin C.


    Vacatello will be performing Beethoven’s 4th on Friday at 9:45 (central) and Prokofiev’s 3rd on Saturday at 9:45 (central).

  • Elizabeth

    I loved what Feghali said about connecting with the audience–I used to perform in high school and college, and I was always so wrapped up in making mistakes instead of focusing on the fact that it was a joy and privilege to perform at all! Wonderful piece, thank you.

  • nmlhats

    José Feghali is always a pretty good interview and he’s articulate. Maybe I’m just being a picky listener, but the radio story would have sounded better if someone had taped José Feghali in person. It sounded like he was on the phone and yet I know he has been in town for the competition because I have seen him there.

    On the subject of nerves and playing, I must say I found Di Wu to be very, very nervous in her rehearsals with Conlon (I watched online). I think it made her rush through the Beethoven concerto a little bit. It’s awfully easy to rush through the Rach 3rd she’ll be playing, so I hope she is feeling more comfortable when she plays it and takes her time.

    I also had the feeling that nerves got the best of Vacatello in her final recital last night.

    Did anyone mention the dirty little performing arts secret of prescription drugs as nerve-calmers?

  • Stephen Becker

    @nmlhats — You have a good ear, for sure. I wanted to talk to Feghali in person, but the time that I was in Fort Worth he was busy teaching and we couldn’t manage to get together in person. So the phone ended up being the only way we could make it work. Those phone connections can be hit and miss — there are a lot of variables involved. But I felt like he was clear enough to use, so I went with it.

  • nmlhats

    Thanks for the reply, Stephen. What can I say, I just listen to the radio a lot! Too bad Jose couldn’t get himself to TCU’s radio studio or something so you could get him on a fancy phone line (although I don’t know if KTCU actually has one). I often hear interviews where the guest is at another station and those always sound like they are right there in the same room as the interviewer. Most of the time I wouldn’t know they aren’t together except for the fact that the host says that so-and-so joins/joined us from the studios of KXYZ in BlahBlah City. But like I said, picky-picky, and I don’t even know if KTCU has a fancy phone line!