Lessons in Learning: Play Like No One’s Listening

by Abby @ Quaver on January 22, 2013

in Music Matters

Welcome back Quaver guest blogger Jeannine Everett – violinist, chamber musician, and all around student of music!

Take it away Jeannine:


Earlier this fall, my quartet played at a benefit dinner.

We were making good on an auction commitment–the high bidder got a 45-minute performance. It was a private dinner, hosted by a lovely woman who was raising money for her church. We were there to provide background music during the cocktail hour.

The hurricane had wreaked havoc with our rehearsal schedule. We had played most of the material before and had run the set three weeks prior, but only had one rehearsal the week of the event. I was fighting some burnout and was in let’s-just-get-this-done-shall-we mode. We got there, set up, did a warm up and let ‘er rip.

People milled about, drinking and talking. It was hard for us to even hear each other. I’m used to playing in a very different environment. Chamber music isn’t a huge draw, so the audience is generally made up of people who know the repertoire. It’s why they are there. The guests at the party were there to celebrate and socialize. There was one gentleman on the sofa focused on listening, but everyone else was busy chatting and sipping wine.

I’ve never played better. I’ve never felt freer. The thought that went through my head was “Dance like no one is watching.” I’d seen the phrase on everything from pillows to posters, yet I’d forgotten what it really meant.

I was playing like no one was listening.

Usually I’m acutely aware of the energy of the audience and draw from it. I always say half of a great performance is a great audience. So what is it now, the other half of a great performance is no audience?

I think it comes back to this issue of judgment. Just as I’m learning to play without self-judgment, I need to play without assuming others are judging as well. I know there were plenty of mistakes. Because I assumed people couldn’t really hear them, they didn’t throw me off. When we finished, the party goers gave us hearty applause and gushed with compliments. They said our music made the evening unique and special, and I really think they meant it. So they must have been listening after all, and despite the mistakes, enjoyed it anyway.

Who knew?

Now if I could only cook like no one was eating.

Would you encourage your students to play or sing like no one’s listening?
How do you manage judgement in young performers?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Valerie Diaz Leroy January 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm

I love this article! Thank you. Before a performance my students always ask, “What if I mess up?” My response to them is always, “We are all human, we all mess up. Even the professionals.” There is a poster in my classroom that says, “It’s okay to make a MISTAKE when you’ve tried. It’s a MISTAKE not to try.”

I let them know that the most important part of their music making is the time they have put in to practicing (especially as a group). My goal is for them to enjoy music and feel comfortable in front of an audience. If they understand this their music making tends to feel natural, from the heart. They know people are watching, they just don’t mind. :)


2 Jeannine Bergers Everett January 22, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I’m glad you liked it Valerie. During concerts, my conductor always makes a point of smiling at us between movements of a piece to remind us that above all, this is fun. When it comes to performance time, the work is done, and it’s time to celebrate what we’ve created. I think I play a lot better when I’m smiling. My guess is that it’s better for the audience too. (Besides, when it comes to our kids, when they play it’s like hearing the CSO)


3 Ben Sexton January 29, 2013 at 6:58 pm

I always tell my kids that I have their backs and that while they are on stage, they are someone else, not themselves. Works like a charm!


4 Kim Mills April 24, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Having just finished “music contest” season, this article brings me back to the reason we make music! It is when we “sing like no one is listening” that it truly comes from the heart. Now, don’t get me wrong….I like a flawless performance as much or more than the next person. But a wise vocal teacher recently told me that after she and her students prepare diligently for contest or a recital, she reminds them that their song is meant to be a “gift” to the audience. Go in with one purpose in mind – to bless someone else with your gift!


5 Abby @ Quaver April 25, 2013 at 10:03 am

That’s such a great way to look at a performance – as a gift! Love it! Thanks Kim.


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