8 Tips for a Better Performance (classical guitar or otherwise)

What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional?

What makes some performances so much better than others (outside the actual music)?

And more, what can we do to put listers at ease so they can enjoy themselves? How can we prepare so we display confidence and cool?

Two Roles: Musician and Performer

When we go to a show, we expect a certain level of professionalism.

This may be different in the local coffee shop than in a large theatre, but we come with expectation.

When we’re playing music, we’re musicians first. Our main focus should be on playing.

But what about between tunes? What about walking on and off stage (even if “stage” is the living room, and “audience” is made up of tolerent family members and pets)?

When we are the center of attention, we’re performers.

We practice our music, but what do we do to become better performers? Here are 8 tips that can help us put on a better show.

#1. Every sound is part of the performance – be intentional

Once on-stage, every little click, thud, squeak, pop, stomp, and plink is part of the show.

It doesn’t matter if we know what’s the music and what’s not. To listeners, every sound counts.

If there are random sounds happening between tunes, or before playing, the audience has to decide that these are not important and to tune them out.

When this happens, we’re training the audience to ignore what they hear.

Instead, if we’re intentional and keep the noise down, they’ll be more willing and able to focus on the actual music. They’ll be drawn in.

This is like the difference between a heartfelt conversation in a quiet garden vs a crowded cafe. The intimacy we create with silence makes the intended communication more poignant.

Which leads us to…

#2 Tune quickly and quietly, start beforehand

We need to tune, and tuning is non-music noise. So we want to keep this extra noise down.

We can practice tuning quickly and quietly. Each day in practice, we can become aware of how loud we’re tuning. We can relax our jaws (which helps hearing) and focus all our attention on listening.

We can also tune just before we go in front of people. This will make any adjustments go faster.

Note: It’s not uncommon to see professionals performers tuning loudly. That doesn’t make it a good idea. Chances are, they would give a better show if they tuned more quietly.

#3 Plan the logistics – No fumbling

We often need to deal with

The show starts as soon as an audience sees us. So any fooling with “things” is part of the show. For this reason, it’s best to know what we’re doing beforehand.

If we don’t prepare otherwise, we may make clumbsy mistakes. We may drop something, or make accidental loud noises. These can zap our confidence and turn our sensitive guitar show into a slapstick comedy.

Instead, we can plan exactly where we’ll walk to avoid tripping. We can plan the order in which we’ll empty our hands of whatever we’re carrying. (Do we put sheet music on the stand before or after we sit down? What do we do with the guitar when adjusting the height of the bench? When we open a guitar case, are we showing the audience our backside?)

A bit of logistical forethought can go a long way to appearing professional and in control. This helps audiences to trust us, so they can relax and listen.

#4 Be friendly – people want to like you

As nervous as we may be, the truth is that very few people go to see someone play and hope that they’ll flub it.

When we take the time and/or expense to see music, we want to like the performer. We want to love the music. We want to have a positive experience. That’s the point of entertainment.

One of the easiest things we can do as performers to help listeners enjoy themselves is to be friendly.

They know that we’re human. And they want to bond with us as performers. They want to feel as though they know us, at least a little. And they want their attendance to be validated (as opposed to watching a movie).

If people clap between movements of a suite (generally a faux pas in classical music), it’s okay. They didn’t know any better. We don’t need to give them the stinkeye.

It’s important to remember that the performance is for the audience, not the performer. As such, our friendliness cues them to relax and enjoy the show.

#5 Plan your talking – don’t babble

A common rookie mistake is to talk too much.  This can be either talking too much at one time (babbling), or talking between each and every song.  Both become tedious to listeners.

When introducing tunes, it helps to script our words beforehand, then forget it. This way we can be intentional about what goes in and what doesn’t.

We can first write and edit the introduction, then memorize it. Finally, we can put the script aside and speak naturally.

Once we’ve gone through the act of scripting it, we know exactly what we want to say. We don’t need to recite our script word for word.

Just the act of scripting will properly prepare us for the introduction.

This adds confidence. We know exactly what will happen on stage. We don’t have to wonder what we’ll talk about. We don’t have to think on our feet.

Note: Just to be clear, don’t robotically recite a script. Write and memorize a script, then forget it. You’ll change small aspects of the wording in the moment, and it will sound natural and improvised.

#6 Poker face – no messup expressions or hedging

Audiences are there for the right notes. They care more about the right notes than the wrong notes.

Many times, they’re so focused on the right notes that they don’t even realize that there were any wrong notes.

And there’s no need to tell them.

When we make pained expressions or say “sorry”, we bring attention to what is wrong. We communicate that we are not satisfied with the performance, and therefore they shouldn’t be either.

Telltale signs of mistakes or fumbles undermine performances.

Even if the train comes completely off the track, we can calmly jump to another place in the music and keep going.

Just as with kids and pets, audiences will follow our lead. If we communicate (visually) that all is well and under control, they’ll accept that. Sure, they may notice the mistakes, but they’ll forgive them. They may even appreciate the vulnerability and courage it takes to shrug it off.

This may take practice. The best practice is to keep the “poker-face” (not let on) in practice, lessons, and any other time we play.

Take the “should’ve and could’ve” expressions out of the visual vocabulary.

#7 Smile and look up between tunes when people clap

Smiling connects us with listeners and deepens the human communication between us. (see #4 above on being friendly)

And as an extra bonus, it signals the body to relax. Smiling helps us to release anxiety and play better.

When we acknowledge applause (again, no expressions of “should’ve, could’ve been better”), we recieve the gift the audience has offered.

This makes the performance a two-way street. It transforms the interaction from a lecture to a conversation. And from the audience perspective, this is often the point of attending a live performance.

Note: If you’re playing with other people, resist the urge to talk to each other between tunes (unless it’s needed and intentional).

#8 Control what you can control – release the rest

We have to “know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em”.

Before we perform, we have the opportunity to adjust things to our liking. We can tailor the space and situation so the listeners can have the best experience we can offer.

This includes whatever we personally need to do our best. We can choose the best chair, adjust the lighting, turn off the phone, avoid caffeine, etc.

But once we’ve done that preparatory work, we have to release the outcomes and accept whatever happens.

When we’re playing, every ounce of our attention should be on the task at hand (playing the music as beautifully as possible).

We have no control over other people or random events. Any attention we give them is attention taken away from what we’re there to do (make music).

The same is true with our bodies. We can prepare as well as we can, but come performance time, it is what it is. We do our best, and accept it.

  • Uncontrollable nerves? Oh well. Focus on something specific.
  • Make a mistake? No big deal. Keep going.
  • Sweating like a pig? Great. It makes for a good show. Focus.

There will always be something we could have done better. If we want, we can always find something to make the performance a failure (or at least a partial-failure). But why bother?

All we can do is prepare as best we can. Then come to table with generosity, love, and self-compassion.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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