Really, this article could have been named “My Two Best Pieces of Advice for Solo & Ensemble.. or Auditions… or Exams… or Concerts."
The first one is easy: be prepared. Prepare. From the Latin praeparare: prae, before + parare, to make ready. Practice to make your piece(s) ready beforehand. The day of the performance is not “beforehand.” Praying your fingers will magically find their way through the music is not “ready.” This paragraph is going to be rather short because I don’t know how to say this any clearer than be prepared.
The second one takes more confidence and composure than most of us naturally have, so you’re going to have to work at it: play just like you practiced. This is so difficult. When you’re in the practice room, it’s just you and the instrument working out the music. When you’re in any kind of performance, now there’s another person in the room and your natural tendency is to wonder, “What’s that person thinking of me?” Even worse when a grade, an admittance, or even a job is one the line because now you are hyper-aware of every tiny thing you did that was less than perfect. Not even that you got something wrong, just that it wasn’t absolutely spot-on. (If you feel a little like I’m inside your head right now, it’s because almost all musicians deal with this to varying degrees, including me.)
So what do you do? Well, easier said than done, but here’s what I tell my students: You have prepared, and you are capable. We know you can play this, and the presence of someone else in the room doesn’t change the fact that you are able. The only thing you can do is the task in front of you, i.e. play your piece. You can’t change what the audience/judge/committee thinks of you, and you have no idea what they are thinking anyway. Just because they pick up a pencil and start making notes doesn’t mean it’s critical - they very well could be writing a compliment. You don’t know, and you won’t know until afterward, so the best you can do is the task right in front of you. Instead of feeling like you’re performing for an audience, try feeling like you’re practicing and the audience is just eavesdropping. Don’t change something at the last minute to try to impress - play like you’ve practiced. Don’t worry over the grade - play like you’ve practiced.
By the way, the best way to develop this second skill is to perform. I’m sorry, I know that terrifies some of you, but there is just no recreating the experience of playing for an audience, friendly or critical. You just can’t simulate the intensity of the real thing. But, it does get easier. Take it from the college student who ALWAYS got placed in the top ensemble but ALWAYS last in my section… until that one semester it finally started to click and I played like I practiced.
Go prepare, then play like you practiced.