Well, the good news is that thereís no end to the amount of ways you can improve your performance skills, no matter how technically skilled (or limited) you are. Your social skills donít necessarily have anything to do with it either, so donít feel just because youíre a self-styled Ďterrible people personí that youíll never be able to perform well. Many famous composers and performers are introverts or shy in front of an audience and they do just fine.
Evidently, one of the main factors of performance is WHAT you are performing. This applies both to which instrument (Piano? Voice? Guitar? Clarinet?) and what type of piece it is (intense, dreamy, sad, constant, evolving, violent, etc.) However, a lot of the philosophy of performance is the same, no matter what instrument or type of piece.
Iím not usually very thorough with anything, so I force myself to have a step-by-step strategy for performance to improve chances of success:1. Technique, Notes & Memorization.
No matter how much you twist and turn, technique is unfortunately the first, fundamental step towards a fantastic performance. Iím not really going to go into much detail about this because Iím sure you know the importance of knowing all the notes and having the ability to play the piece like the back of your hand. Practice, practice, practice. The more comfortable you are with a piece, the further you can go with it. You canít master musical integrity or personality without the basic things coming as natural as breathing. This means your general technique must also be very strong. Usually itís a good idea to be practicing something even harder than the piece you intend to perform, so the latter piece feels easier and more natural. Scales, arpeggios, sight reading, etc. are also excellent ways to build and maintain technique.
I also think itís CRUCIAL to have the piece memorized whenever possible. With band pieces and long piano pieces etc. that can be difficult, but if you think you have a shot in hell at memorizing, do so. The performance will come across a lot more natural and emotional (not to mention impressive) just because itís all in your head. It gives the illusion of spontaneity, which is always nice 2. Dynamics.
This is pretty straightforward: make sure youíre playing any dynamic marking on the page. If there arenít any dynamics written in, go through it yourself and add some (weíll talk about that a little more later). Dynamic markings add an infinite amount of texture to the piece and keep your audience interested/hooked and under your control XD.3. Phrasing/Accentuation.
Again, self-explanatory. If necessary, familiarize yourself with the accent markings so you donít have to spend an extra second processing which mark means what as you perform. For phrasing, think of the piece like a book with sentences, and visualize how the sentences fall. Usually there are 4-bar or 8-bar phrases, and even if there arenít any slurs, there should still be a general feeling of connectivity. Accentuation provides emphasis, like punctuation, and can also surprise your audience, which also creates appeal.4. Confidence.
Before I start adding any originality to the piece, I usually stop at this point Ė after learning the notes, dynamics, phrasing and accentuation Ė and make sure Iím performing confidently. That means testing the piece in the front of the mirror, recording yourself performing (video and audio) and of course, performing in front of trusted friends and family. People do this step at different times depending on their comfort levels, but I like to make sure Iíve got the piece off the paper correctly before adding any of myself to it.
Experience with performance will help ensure your confidence on the final performance day. I know more than anyone that being (or feeling) unprepared is the worst contributor to stage fright. By performing a couple of times before the big day, youíll set yourself at ease.
Since youíve mentioned that Ďpeople skillsí is a struggle for you, I thought Iíd just mention that performance doesnít necessarily have to be about interaction with the audience. Instead, you can internalize the performance if you have to Ė focus on challenging yourself and having fun with the piece, and just make sure that your performance is Ďopení enough for others to watch (so face the front if you can, make some eye contact, etc. without actually thinking too much about them).
These next few steps are more specific to my personal experience (mostly singing and piano) but Iím sure you could apply it to other instruments as well.
The key to a brilliant performance is interpretation. Audiences take technique and accuracy for granted. Theyíre watching you perform because they want to see what YOU can bring to this piece that someone else canít. They want to be reassured that you are a worthy musician, and no matter what they maybe seem like, they do want you to succeed. So youíll need to bring personality, a little creativity and some uniqueness to your performance:5. Piece Analysis & Composerís Intent.
Once you feel like youíve deciphered the meaning of the notes, dynamic markings, accents and phrasing, you start to be able to look at the piece as a whole. At first, just focus on composerís intent. What exactly is the composer trying to convey, here? Why is this piece written this way? Does the message evolve, or is it expressing a moment in time? Does the piece tell a story? Does it burst with emotion? Does it show off technique? What emotions do you feel when you play or listen to this piece?
You should also analyze the piece, both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, research the history of the piece and, if youíre lucky, you may find out exactly what the composer intended. Subjectively, look at the piece as a whole, and then by line, and try to indentify the true meaning or theme of it. Personally, especially with vocal songs, I like to go through my pieces line by line and write down an emotion or message beside each lyric or phrase. As the lines progress, the emotions tend to change or evolve. That way, when I sing or perform, each line subtly changes and interests the audience even more.6. References.
It may help to Youtube other performances of the same song, but keep in mind that not everyone out there gets it correct. It may at least boost your confidence, though, to see a few people do it COMPLETELY wrong
However, Youtube is a good place to see many, many different versions of the same thing. The more you watch, the more youíll start to see patterns, a common thread. Itís up to you to decide whether you want to keep that thread and build on it, or start from scratch and take it a new way. You can also take someoneís creative idea and adapt it (make sure you arenít violating copyrights, thoughÖ)7. Add your spark.
This, of course, is the hardest part, even after everything you go through to get here. How do you inject some personality into a piece while respecting the composerís intent? Well, that really depends on the person. The best way to discover what you want to do with a piece is to play it without considering any dynamics, markings, phrasing etc. Just do whatever you want to do with it, and play the way you feel it should sound without caring about the composerís markings. Often you can discover a whole new angle of looking at a song this way. Another technique is trying to perform the song in exactly the opposite emotion than the one you think you should be expressing. This has disastrous (often humorous) results most of the time, but it can also help add perspective.
Feel free to play with the piece however you like. This is your chance to tweak things the way you like them. Change a melody a little (if youíre allowed). Adjust some dynamics. Sometimes, in a competition, Iíll choose a particular part of the song and do something really different with it, to show off technique or just to have fun. Iíll repeat some sections if Iíve got the leeway, or Iíll just try to add a different feel with the textures of my voice. Get to know your instrument very well; youíd be surprised by how much you can do with it.
Point of view can also add originality, especially with lyrics for voice. Try to visualize exactly who you are singing to, and act it out. Drag some elements of acting into instrument performance as well: some people Ďsellí the piece through body language.
Thatís pretty much it. These steps should help you improve your performance skills for sure. Thereís just one last step:8. Scrap it all and do it instinctively.
I know, I know. You worked so hard to get this far, and now Iím telling you to forget everything you did Ė learn, analyze, dissect, plan, implement, etc. Forget all of it for a little while Ė maybe not on the day before your performance, but sometime near it Ė and just perform without considering anything at all. Perform instinctively. Do whatever feels natural, the way you did when you were discovering your spark. If youíve practiced hard and understood the piece fully, youíll be able to polish the performance by adding this little improvisation. Record it and look it over; if you donít like the natural way, you can revert to the planned one. I like to add something unplanned to every performance I do, though Ė exaggerate a dynamic a little more than necessary, hold a note a little too long, alter the melody a tiny bit, whatever. Just something unique, something that anyone who didnít watch my performance that day would miss out on XD.
So in summary:
1) Technique, Notes and Memorization
3) Accents and Phrasing
5) Piece Analysis and Composerís Intent
7) Add Your Spark
8 ) Do It Instinctively
Feel free to ask if you have any questions. I know itís a lot to take it at once XD but this strategy usually works pretty well