How to say SOLOng to Performance Anxiety with Eimear McGeown

BBC Proms in the Park at Titanic Slipways
Presseye Northern Ireland – BBC Proms in the Park at Titanic Slipways Award

Eimear McGeown, world class flautist has taken the time out to give us her top tips on handling nerves and staying grounded throughout the life of a solo artist.

Take a listen to her, relax and enjoy the article.

While we chatted it was striking just how good natured, down to earth and happy to share Eimear is.

“I bought my first flute at 7 years old with my communion money. I had heard the instrument played by James Galway in a piece on the radio and I said that’s what I want to play”.

On the Irish flute Eimear holds 2 All Ireland titles and has performed for the likes of Bill Clinton as well recording with X Factor winner Matt Cardle. This makes it clear Eimear is no stranger to high pressure environments.

How does she deal with it? She does her hair and make-up.

Ok, well maybe it’s not that easy.

“I find that over-analysing things makes you more nervous. I try and distract myself by doing my hair and make-up just before I go on stage, which takes my mind off any worries about the performance”.

Eimear Image 1

(Picture by Stephen Potter)

Well what other rituals are there,

“I don’t believe in lucky charms or anything during preparation. When I was younger I was obsessed with having a banana before performing. The potassium is meant to be good for energy and keeping you calm. Anyway, it got to a stage where it was ridiculous and I was freaking out before a performance ten years ago in Washington because I couldn’t find one. I eventually got one and ate it before going on stage. After that day I promised myself not to become over reliant on things outside my control again before a performance”.

“Other techniques I use in the lead up to a big performance are telling any negative thoughts to go away and come back later. Sahaja yoga techniques have helped me deal with this. If I told myself to stop thinking about them all together, it wouldn’t be realistic. Also, I listen to music completely unrelated to the concert, for example Indie folk music before I go on stage, to get me really chilled out”.

Eimear Image 2

In reality Eimear’s preparation begins months before big performances.

“Nerves often come from a lack of preparation or self-belief”, this is her core belief on staying at the top of her game.

“I use visualisation while I’m practicing. I would picture myself in a concert situation with a crowd in front of me. I find this helps. As well as this I play to small intimate groups of friends at least 2-3 times before a performance. In many ways I’m more nervous playing to them than in front of a crowd”.

A big fear for any artist is freezing on stage.

“Luckily I have never frozen on stage. I had a teacher at college who worked with me in my late teens and encouraged me to improvise. This really helped. He encouraged ornamentation which is adding to the composition I’m playing. This has come in handy and I remember improvising one occasion and getting back around. The pianist at the time kept going too and the audience were none the wiser”.

Talking to Eimear it appears that one of her great qualities is going with the flow.

“The most important thing to me is to give the audience a personal and passionate performance. So giving it my all emotionally and personally as opposed to technical perfection is my priority. Technical perfection is an unrealistic goal. Performing live gives more to the situation, I love the rawness of it. If you want perfection, you can usually find that from listening to recordings”.

This ability of not seeking to over control the performance is vital in controlling nerves. This would help Eimear keep nimble and her body functioning in the optimal way e.g. steady hands and helping to avoid a dry mouth.

“I tell myself this performance is going to be what it’s going to be. Let go! I’m not concerned about the control of it. At the end of the day enjoying the performance is the most important part for me”.

This reflects a laid back attitude in the delivery of performance. Her meticulous preparation enables this approach.

“I try and learn things by ear as much as I can so I don’t count bars when playing. The majority of my pieces I know inside out. They are engrained in me through practice. As a result they’re automatic so I don’t need to think. Why I do this is because I feel that any below par performance is a result of under-performing in preparation or a lack of confidence”.

The confidence factor does not appear to be an issue.

“I knew from the start 100% I wanted to be a soloist. It was just a feeling that I’m built for it. That’s what I get my kicks from. I got more nervous from reading music and playing in the orchestra. Being a solo artist enabled me to choose the piece for myself and my confidence comes from this”.

This moved us on to life as a soloist and how to ensure you fit in and don’t alienate yourself from the orchestra.

“The most craic is with the orchestra. I remember during the South American tour setting up a whatsapp group to ensure we’d all knock around together and have fun. We ended up going to an insane house party where there were chickens running all about the place, these are the moments you remember. Many members of the orchestras are my friends and people I enjoy socialising with so I never want to feel that divide”.

Eimear with Orchestra

Talking to Eimear she sounds like a person that it would be nearly impossible not to get along with.

This desire to get on with people is engrained in Eimear.

“A few years ago I made a pact with my brother that if either of us becomes arrogant we will tell each other. I can’t stand that quality.”

A successful group of siblings who have all gone in different directions. Her brother is a Vice President of Citi Group and her sister is a passionate and successful Primary School Teacher. They all played music together whilst growing up.

“My parents wanted the best for us and brought us everywhere. When we won something, there was never a big fuss made, which was great because it kept us grounded. My parents didn’t react by saying my god you’re amazing! It was more oh that’s great and then we continued about our business”.

For Eimear it’s clearly about more than a prize.

“The thing I love most in life is performing. I did Irish dancing as well until I was 18, I loved all elements of performing. That’s why now I like putting myself in different social situations like the indie rock band I took part in. Being able to have a few drinks before performing was a nice novelty. Being part of this band helped me musically in terms of my ability to improvise and also socially by expanding my typical group”.

Eimear with Band high res original

One last phrase to sum Eimear up and why it would be hard for anyone to begrudge her wonderful talent,

“I really believe that we are not above or below anyone. No matter what, we are all equal.”

Eimear and Pal