Performance Tips For Classical Guitarists

Steve Rapson’s Guitar Performance Workshop

Presented to The Boston Classical Guitar Society

How to Play Your Best Under Pressure

based on Steve’s book The Art of the Soloperfomer: A Field Guide To Stage & Podium

I. Prepare your material and prepare yourself

  •  The cure for performance anxiety is practice.
  • It takes more than we think to bring a guitar solo to concert readiness.
  • Segovia practiced two and half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon.
  • Parkening said, “Perfection should be your goal, and dedicated work is required to achieve perfection.” “Work is better than talent.”
  • Even the simplest guitar pieces, when played perfectly, are concert worthy material. As Segovia demonstrated in one of his last concerts in Boston.

How to practice. After scales, right and left and drills, there is repertoire:

  • Choose a piece that you love and is well within your technical ability. Great players make it look easy. That is because it is easy for them. When it is easy for you, you look and sound like a great player. Be like Napoleon, who attributed his military victories to always having reserves ready to pick up the slack when the going got tough. If you want to play sixteenth notes at one hundred and twenty BPM in concert, then you must have the skill to play them at one hundred and fifty BPM in the practice room.
  • Practice the trouble spots rather than the whole piece. Use the add one technique: Play a note, add another, keep adding until you hit a rough patch. That’s where to stop and go over it until you have it. Then add the next note.
  • Get off the page. Memorize the pieces you will perform.
  • Use a metronome. Go slowly and gradually increase tempo over several days. Keep a written record of your tempo progress. Mozart said, “ Slow practice makes for fast playing.”  Practice slower than you can actually play.
  • If it feels fast to you, then you are playing too fast. Every virtuoso speed demon says the same thing about speed, “It doesn’t feel fast to me when I am playing.” They also say, “The faster I want to play, the more relaxed I have to be.” If you feel tension in your forearm, hands and fingers, slow down till it goes away.
  • Write the date next to each measure as you memorize and master it.
  • Live Fire Drills – Practice as you will perform. Your performance chair and footstool need to be the same as your practice chair & stool.

II. Just before your performance – Prepare your mind & body

  • Find a quiet place to breathe in and out slowly, three times. Meditate on your purpose and see yourself playing the piece. This one exercise will solve most performance anxiety problems, especially if your preparation in the weeks & months before was disciplined.

During your performance – Act as if…

  • Arrive at the stage in tune and ready to play. Watching a performer struggle with music stands, music, and tuning is never entertaining.
  • Avoid caveats about your concerns on whether you will play well. No audience likes this, even your friends and peers will be uncomfortable with this behavior.
  • Avoid mistake face, apologies, starting over. These are all performance killers. Nobody in the audience is thinking or listening that critically. They want you to succeed, and if you act as if you are succeeding, then you will. Everybody wins when you behave professionally on stage.

III. Stage Mechanics

  • How to Enter – Walk In, Sit, Arrange yourself, Look up, Smile, Name your piece, Play. Ideally this should take less than a minute.
  • Beginning – This is how to immediately connect without speaking: Look at the people… right at them. Smile. If you seem relaxed and confident, the audience will be relaxed too. It’s how you want them to be… and it’s how they want to be.
  • Middle – Be immersed in the material. If your practice was sufficient, then the mechanics of where to place your hands will not be in the forefront of your thoughts. You can feel, rather than think. By letting the music lead you through the piece, you will experience the emotionality that drew you to it in the first place, and the audience will be drawn in with you. It is inevitable that minor mistakes will creep in. No one will notice this but you. If you make mistake face, apologize, stop and start over, you diminish the experience for yourself and your audience. Never do this. Even if you totally lose it, stay in performance mode and continue. All performing is about and for the audience. Your mission is to bring the music to them and be transparent to the music. It is not about you, and the more you disappear, the more the music appears to the audience.
  • End – Acknowledge the audience and exit. As the last note dies away, the audience will applaud. Stand up, acknowledge the applause via a slight bow (or a stage bow, what ever you are comfortable with) say thank you, and exit. Do not talk, other than thank-you, although your bow is your visual thanks. They cannot hear you if you talk while they are applauding. If you wait till the applause stops to speak, then you have stayed too long. If you have something that must be said before you leave, then the time to say it is before your last piece.
  • Post concert etiquette – People will tell you how well you played. Your response to these compliments is, “Thank you.” Avoid launching into a self-deprecating summary of why you were not happy with your performance. It is tedious. You don’t like it when others do it. No one likes it if you do it.

Further Reading

Reading is for inspiration to practice with dedication and discipline, it does nothing to improve your playing or your stage craft.

In addition to The Art of the SoloPerformer, I recommend:

Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz

Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo

A Soprano On Her Head by Eloise Ristad

Effortless Mastery by Kenny Barron

You: The Perfect Vehicle

The Next Level: You, A Perfect Vehicle for the song, the poem, the story.

 Self-consciousness, self-doubt, hesitation, and fear of rejection are common feelings for beginning performers. Many experienced professionals are members-in-good-standing of this highly inclusive club. Often, pros are not anxious but bored doing what they have done a thousand times before. Both situations look the same to an audience: a performer who is emotionally absent and going through the motions. This is called “phoning it in.”

If we wish to connect with the audience at a deeper level, we cannot let our anxiety or our boredom show. It’s best to get rid of them, but if you can’t, then learn to pretend. Fake it till you make it as they say in some circles.

First, you need great material. This is a non-negotiable requirement and the genesis of connection. When you write you are mining for gold. No performer succeeds without the bullion of great material, either theirs or someone else’s.

Then you commit everything you have to that great material. Your commitment gives it life: the song needs the singer, the words need the speaker.

Your goal is to be transparent to the material and connect with the people via that material in spite of your concerns that you might not, or that you are sick of being on the road. You can do this by playing a trick on that part of your mind that harbors all doubts. The trick is to come to believe that:

I am not the song (the words), and the song is not me. The song is bigger than I, but it must come through me to live. I will be still to not distract attention from the song as it emerges.

 The “I” that is being still is the part of your mind that wants to critique how you are doing as you do it. Or critique how the audience is receiving. It is the voice that says you just sang a bad note, or you are sweating too much, or you should not have worn these tight red pants, or you should have picked something else to perform. Your inner “I” wants you to pay attention to the group talking in the back of the room, to the noisy A/C that just came on, to how you can get your parking stub validated, to any random thought.

You, the vehicle, must focus and commit to the material.

If you come to believe that it is not you but the material that is being put out there, and you have faith in the material, then you will be at your best. It is the same power given to all who engage in selfless acts: heroic men in war or mothers protecting their children. To men and woman who feel they are serving something greater than themselves is given the power to overcome obstacles they thought they could not deal with in common hours.

You will have the power to ignore the internal voice that distracts you from your purpose: To be a perfect vehicle for the material.

Ideally, as you perform, you are surrounded by the material. The emotion and meaning of the words you speak or sing fill every part of your mind and body and come out of you like you mean it. All great performers do this. It is why we go to see them. It is what you can do, and must do if you want people to come see you.

How do you achieve this mind set? Practice thinking it and doing it. You could meditate on the “I am not the song…” mantra for a few minutes each day. You could try serving others in uncommon ways, thus avoiding constant thinking about yourself. Maxwell Maltz’s famous book Psychocybernetics puts forth the idea that whatever you think about regularly will manifest itself in your life. There is some modern empirical evidence to support this. And there are centuries of philosophy and religious tenets that have no doubt this is the case.

Just as your instrument and your voice need physical practice, your mind needs to practice what it will and will not do. You are not evicting your internal critic, just getting him to take a nap so you can do your show in peace. He may return after your encore, but too late to sabotage another show.

How to practice? Try focus: Pick your best song, speech or poem and polish your performance until you have never done it better. Make it your show opener. Then focus on your next best piece and make it your show closer. With a great beginning and a great ending the middle will take care of itself.

I practice the same material until it is automatic. I use performance checkpoints and prepare for them as they approach, visualizing where my fingers will be and how my throat and body will feel at those key points. My mind is occupied with the material and little else. My body takes pleasure in executing that which it has done many times before. Since my mind is minimally involved with the mechanics of execution, I am able to let my emotions be led along by the words and sounds. I practice having those feelings so that when it is time to deliver and be a perfect vehicle, I am at my best.

Whether it is great or not is for the audience to decide. But at least I have had a happier time performing than if I was listening to my internal critic yammering on.

That’s how I do it. And written out like that it does seem like a ponderous way to do a simple thing. It’s like describing how we breathe: so many words for a natural process. As we work on our act we sometimes forget how to breathe and in the forgetting need to re-learn at length until, at last, we say, “Oh, is that all?”

This is advanced work. I am not talking about beginner’s stage fright, or simple anxiety from lack of practice. If you have been on a plateau for a while even with good material, good audiences, and a polished presentation, then the next level for you is focus and emotional commitment.

In your quest to be a perfect vehicle for the material, remember that perfection is the enemy of the good. ____________________________________________________

Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer:  A Field Guide to Stage and Podium

Stage Craft for the Writer In You

In the world of live performance our opinions as artists do not matter. What our critics, supporters, and mentors think of us also is not important. Only the audience in front of us matters. Are we connecting with them or are we not? Do they want more of what we offer or not? Do they want to buy what we have to sell?



Rejection and Recognition

Writers and poets, sculptors and painters have dealt this for centuries. The impressionist painter Manet responded to a critic who said, “Surely he is painting for his own amusement,” by saying, “Of course my painting amuses me, why else would I do it?”

Moby dickWriter Herman Melville died unhailed, a pauper. He published Moby Dick himself, unable to interest any publishing house.  Melville’s fame was largely posthumous. We can only hope that our recognition is not similarly so.

Mary square

Mary Gauthier

Perhaps you know of singer songwriter Mary Gauthier. I saw Mary’s first open mike performance at Club Passim, it is how I met her. Her success is directly attributable to desire, courage, discipline, and talent. In that order. Although few people thought much of her in the beginning, I saw her artist’s soul. Because she allowed it to be seen. It is what makes her a compelling performer. Mary views herself as a writer. She is a performer because she is the vehicle for her material. Initially, it was hard for her to be so exposed and out of control. Later she learned to welcome that feeling as an indicator that she was on the right track.

Writing vs Performing

When we write, what we think is all that matters. When we sing, or speak, we give the song/poem/story away. A song needs a singer and it needs a listener. By singing your song for others you make them collaborators in the communication: It then becomes important what the audience thinks. We may not want this to be the case, but it is nonetheless.

My response to knowing that it is important what the audience thinks of me, is to be afraid that they will think ill. My sensitive soul avoids judgment and rejection, so I erect barriers that protect it. Fear, doubt, and insecurity are the norm for a performing artist.

Successful performers learn to remove barriers while performing. Often, barriers assume their normal place upon exiting the stage. Have you ever met a performer whose off stage persona is different than on stage? I am not recommending this. I recommend you be who you are, perhaps with the volume turned up a bit. But better that you learn to succeed on stage and get paid. Then you can afford professional help to deal with the other 23 hours.

As I say in the opening of my book, “If it was easy anyone could do it.”Soloperformer book square

I recommend you buy a copy of my book and read it. Try to apply the ideas and suggested actions to your own act. When I speak to performers I tell them that when I do everything in my book I succeed. My friend Sam Bayer told me, “Rapson, I agree with everything you say to do, I just don’t want to do all that work.”

I Practice What I Preach

Guitar Group 2

Steve Sans Guitar

I opened for Kevin So a few years ago at Club Passim. I wanted to do a good job so I worked harder than I usually do on my 30 minutes. I had another gig in New Hampshire later in the week. I thought I should not squander all my preparation for Kevin’s opener, so I resolved to do everything in my book that I advise others to do. This involved even more intensive preparation, pre-show work when I arrived at the gig, and all the mental and physical work I recommend. If you do read my book, at each juncture you may ask yourself, I wonder if Steve did that?  The answer is yes, I did 100% of what I suggest others do. Sam is right; it is a ton of work.

So how did it go? I killed. It was the end of January in New Hampshire. Outside it was below zero. Inside there were about a hundred people in the room (free concerts sponsored by the town library).  Taking my own advice worked.

I advise artists “find whatever you are most afraid of, and go there.” That it is where the good material is. Do it in your writing and in your performing.

So what am I most afraid of? I am afraid of being on stage without my guitar. I am a solo guitarist. My act is built on my guitar playing.

At the last minute I thought that since I am so afraid of standing in front of a crowd with no guitar to hide behind, that I should do that. So I started my act with a poem I had written, standing naked, sans guitar.

And, Lo! It worked. I had faith in my material and went where I was afraid to go. I set myself on fire as Don White suggests.

After the show I spent a half hour signing CD’s and chatting with the people. I sold to 30% of the room. The girl selling my CD’s in the back lectured me that I would have sold many more if I had not run out of the popular titles. This does not happen all the time. But it never happens unless I do the work required. And even then sometimes not. But it happens enough for me to do it whenever I perform. I swing for average and take the home runs as occasional blessings.

Prepare To Be Your Best

A performer once wrote me:

   I have a sensibility that forbids me from exploiting affectation to manipulate less sensitive listeners. I hope, paradoxically, that this is one of my strengths as an artist.

Many performers say similar things to me during coaching sessions.

However, being honest and open, being vulnerable and emotionally accessible is not an affectation. Further, our audience is sensitive, and smart. They know when they are getting the good stuff and when they are not. Affected is the last thing you want to be.

Here is the big secret: How do you feel when you are relaxed and comfortable with people you care about and who you know care about you? How do you behave in that environment? Summon that feeling for the stage and let your feelings guide your actions.

It is work to be yourself on stage. When you are comfortable being yourself, the next level is to be yourself at your best: you with the volume turned up. Good material, thoroughly prepared is a given. Once you have the material, you must hone your presentation of it. This includes your feelings and the behaviors, however subtle, they engender.

It is the misperception of the amateur that anything that is not spontaneous and unplanned is phony and exploitive.

This is not easy, and most of the people I have coached have been unable to do it. My coaching strategy is usually reductive, not additive, i.e. stop doing that, move less, say less, or in extreme cases, say nothing.

If I can do it, most can do it. The ability to do it is different from the discipline and the courage to do it.

The singer is the vehicle for the song. If you believe in your song, your story, your poem, then your mission is to be the kind of performer that brings it to a wider audience. When your actions are about the mission and not about you, then you can be free of any restraints you put on yourself.

What Success Looks Like

My friend Bill Fitzpatrick of, says to be successful, copy those who are successful. So here are some recommended performers to watch: HBO’s Def Poets; The Vagina Monologues; Rickie Lee Jones Live at the Wiltern Theatre; Stop Making Sense (a movie of the Talking Heads Live show); Say Amen, Somebody;sayamensomebody Richard Pryor Live In Concert (also Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip); Jerry Seinfeld’s movie: Comedian; Margaret Cho Live – Notorious Cho (not for delicate sensibilities); and anything with the Dali Lama speaking to an audience.  And I am sure you have several examples of your own that have inspired you.

Most of these are available at Amazon on DVD. Each performance exemplifies what I am talking about in bringing one’s whole self to the stage: great material, top notch performance, and an emotional accessibility that cannot be faked or affected.

All those things are there because the performers have learned that this is what it takes to succeed, even if they feel uncomfortable being so accessible (as in the case of RLJ, where her discomfort shows in the beginning). Eventually it feels good. I think you will be exhilarated, inspired, and humbled by these examples of performance art at the highest level.

I am a fan of humility, for it is the soil where we grow best.


Steve Rapson is a song writer, concert guitarist, and author of  The Art of The Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage and Podium.

Stage Fright — Q&A by Steve Rapson

Dear Steve,

My name is Kristen and I have severe stage fright. I can sing alone just fine, anything actually. But when I’m in front of people, I freeze and turn bright red. Also, no one has ever told me I have an “incredible voice” or anything like that. I do believe that I have a really good voice and I eventually want to go into the music biz. I can’t even sing in front of my best friend of 8 years. I’m afraid she’ll laugh at me or snigger and say that I suck or something. If you could give me some advice, or help me in some way that would be great.

Thanks again, Kristen.

Dear Kristen:

Stage fright is the same as stage excitement. It is that feeling of being “up” and ready to do your best. It is a good thing. Many performers become flushed when they perform at their peak. They may sweat profusely and turn beet red. This happens when blood vessels dilate. It is the brain preparing you to do your best. All this is caused by the release of adrenaline. It is the “fight or flight” response. You want this to happen and then take action. Debilitating stage fright occurs when you neither fight nor flee. You grind in place taking no action while the engine races in high gear. Cars don’t like this; your mind/body doesn’t either.

Experienced performers have learned that this elevated feeling is natural and something good to be used in their act. They have learned to control and use it. Beginners call it stage fright. It often gets out of control and prevents them from doing what they have prepared to do.

So what needs to change is not your physical responses when you are about to perform, but your thoughts about them. Just as your body can be trained to go through certain motions automatically through repetition of the same action–called practice–you can train your mind to think the right things when these changes happen.

The cure for stage fright is practice. Mozart said, “Slow practice makes for fast playing.” Slow practice is meditation for the body. To help your mind you might try meditation.

Here are some thoughts to meditate on. Meditation is to the mind what physical practice is to the body.

1. If you are afraid of what people might think of you, be assured they are not thinking of you. They are thinking of themselves.

2. If you are afraid you will make a mistake, be assured no one will notice you made a mistake unless you tell them or show them through body language that says you are not happy with your performance. They won’t notice because they are too busy thinking their own thoughts which are about themselves.

3. If you are afraid of the criticism of others, be assured that when you are criticized–rarely will this happen–the information you receive is about the speaker and not about you. As the saying goes, “What people say about others reveals more of themselves than about others.” This goes for critics as well.

4. If you receive praise from others, be assured that it is as meaningless as criticism. It is not good to let either enter that quiet place in your mind where you know the truth of all things.

5. All greatness is built upon humility. A humble soul is the foundation for great acts. So when you are filled with self doubt, when you think your best is not good enough, when you do everything right and it stills looks wrong, you are being given humility. True humility is hard to come by. The proper response for such a great gift is gratitude.

6. All performing is about and for the audience. Even an audience of one. Although our performance seems to say, “See me, hear me, touch me,” all great performers turn this around and send the message, “I see you, I hear you, I touch you.” This is the irony and the catch-22 of show business. The humble soul can do it. The fearful soul cannot. Fear is about you. Love and acceptance is about them. Fear wants to push away. Love and acceptance wants to take in. The love is for them; the acceptance is for yourself.

As you meditate on these things, breathe deeply and slowly. Do this for a half hour every day. Fifteen minutes in the morning and another fifteen at night.

If you are a singer, take lessons and do the exercises that will strengthen your singing muscles.

If you do all these things you will be surprised–and humbled we hope–at the results. But you may not notice your success because you will be thinking of others.

I recommend my book, The Art of the SoloPerformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium

Good luck, Kristen.


PS: To answer your question… You will never really know for sure if you are good enough. After many years of singing you could look back and say, “Well, I guess I was good enough.” But that’s another story.


Steve Rapson is an author, songwriter and solo guitarist with one book published and several CD’s released.  All available at


Guitar Performance Anxiety

Hi Steve,

I am an amateur classical guitarist that can’t perform in public. My hands and arms get so tense that I can’t even play easy tunes. I’ve suffered with this for 30 years, and have avoided public performance because of it. Hours of intense practice has not helped.
I played a recital yesterday with disastrous results. I have another recital in about a month. Any special help would be greatly appreciated.




Dear Dennis:

Thanks for ordering my book.  I, too, was a classical guitar player for many years. Because of the highly technical nature of this style of playing, it is prone to the vagaries of performance anxiety, more so than other styles and acts: comedy for example, or the hum & strum school of guitar.

A few of my guitar playing customers are doctors. Some have suggested a class of heart drugs called beta-blockers. These may be useful to those whose physiological response to performance anxiety is not manageable with practice and mental preparation.  Perhaps you have heard of this therapy which is quite popular among the orchestral players.

I recommend that you buy Kenny Barron’s book, Effortless Mastery.  His approach to developing a relaxed playing style may be just what you are looking for.  But reading about performance is not the same as performing.

My experience is that it takes about six to twelve months of regularly public performance to effect a permanent change in your response to a crowd facing you and awaiting your brilliant act. What this means is that you must–for that time period–endure at least twice a week stage disappointment and unfulfilled expectations for your performance.  Preparation is required, but also execution. Get out there often in spite of the problems.  The Army calls this live fire drills.

Also, try to choose your guitar pieces with an eye to playing what is easy for you.  They may not sound easy to your audience. This was the revelation that allowed me to be happy with my guitar playing: Do what is easy for you. Occasionally add a piece that is a bit more challenging. But just a little. Your goal is to succeed within your capacity rather than over-reaching and being unhappy about your playing. As much as we want to reach the next level, we cannot force it or will ourselves there.  We work ourselves there bit by bit.  Be like Bob in the movie What About Bob… take baby steps.

Good Luck,

Steve Rapson


Steve is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium. He has several solo guitar CD’s in release.