Guest post by Christina Cooper
From the moment that I started playing, my heightened adrenaline had perceived ‘allegro con fuoco’ to mean ‘presto,’ almost without my permission. Almost immediately, the running thread of demi-semiquavers which underpin the melody throughout the entire piece threatened to unravel like a stitch that had been picked open. The panic inside my head was immense. I was picturing the whole thing falling apart and me running offstage in floods of tears, feeling like a complete failure. All this was happening whilst my fingers continued to hammer out those demi-semis like a runaway train. My subconscious was holding me hostage, and I had no conscious control of what I was doing. I just had to surrender to my unconscious mind whilst in a constant state of total panic, fearing the worst at any point.
On of the reasons peformance anxiety hits so hard is because it threatens our identity. Are you more likely to say to somebody: ‘I play piano,’ or ‘I am a pianist?’ Certainly professionals will likely say the latter, and perhaps many amateurs too. Being a musician is something which becomes so bound up in your identity, especially if you choose to make a career out of it. We are all programmed to give ourselves an identity which often sums up our greatest purpose in life, whether as a lawyer, cleaner, tennis payer, housewife, banker, artist, musician, or other profession. So when we perform, we are not just playing our instrument, but being our instrument. When we perform we put our whole identity out there to be scrutinised. If we perform well, we might receive praise and money; if we do badly we may be criticised and may not be booked again. This can leave you feeling worthless, as though you have been rejected as a person, not just for your playing. Add to this, the social pressures of playing in orchestras and ensembles; whether you bought the teas for your section, whether you drank with your section, whether you asked too many questions in rehearsals, whether you showed too much personality, and the recipe for performance anxiety based on identity becomes magnified. Paradoxically, if you are an orchestral player, you have to lose your sense of identity in order to fit in, but in lots of ways it is your identity which you feel is being judged above everything else.
If you look hard, as I did, you might find some resources around which aim to help musicians to overcome their anxiety, and while these may work well for some, for others they merely take the edge off the nerves. For years none of these worked for me at all, until I stumbled across something called Cognitive Hypnotherapy. Within 6 months my performance anxiety was gone. I realised that this method is truly life-changing, and I decided to train in it. I now have my own therapy business in Performance Coaching for musicians, to help them to overcome their performance anxiety.
At the heart of Cognitive Hypnotherapy is the understanding that we are all different, and we each have our own model of the world which is completely unique to us. Another key element recognises that the functioning of our brain is far simpler than we think. What this means is that the reason for our performance anxiety could be linked back to one ‘small’ event which most likely happened early on in our childhood, such as having to stand up and sing in front of the class, and feeling humiliated when we couldn’t do it well. The key here is that as a child, it will have been a significant emotional event, as our thinking at this age is nominal: we only know whether something is good or bad. Our subconscious mind then documents this event, and looks for consequent events which may be similar, and tries to prevent us from making the same mistake again. So the more we perform, the more likely we are to have bad performances because the subconscious desperately tries to get us out of the situation by pumping adrenaline through our body. The more often we experience this the more our brain will then compute that ‘when I perform I will play badly’ and over time this leads to ‘I am a bad performer/pianist/violinist/musician, or ‘I cannot play without nerves,’ and consequently the anxiety often gets worse over time.
As a Cognitive Hypnotherapist I find that often at the core of a musician’s performance anxiety is a sense of low self-esteem. This is not surprising, due to the rigours of training from an early age, and always being told you can do better, being up against constant competition, being a perfectionist and always comparing yourself to others. Often it can develop from a demanding parent or teacher, making you believe that what you do is never good enough. Of course this then often becomes linked to your identity and not being good enough as a person.
In therapy, I connect with your model of the world and use this to speak directly to your subconscious in a special language it understands. This communication is incredibly powerful, and because the brain is plastic, it will respond by literally rewiring itself. In combination with specific techniques which incorporate neuroscience, CBT, traditional hypnotherapy, NLP, positive psychology and many other therapeutic/scientific fields, we work to reprogram your brain’s faulty wiring, create new positive pathways and reframe the negative to positive. The astounding thing about this is potentially how quickly this can happen. Sometimes in as little as 3 sessions, and certainly by 6, it is possible to make huge changes in relation to your performance anxiety, within the space of about 3-6 months. We aim to either overcome it completely, or reach a level which is manageable, and this entirely depends on the outcome you want. So to all my fellow musicians out there, I think I might know what you are going through, and if you need my help, please get in touch. You are far greater than your anxiety.
Christina Cooper is a cognitive hypnotherapist, and runs her own performance coaching practice based in Clerkenwell, Central London. Her therapy practice, Cognitive Harmony, specialises in helping musicians with performance anxiety. Alongside this she teaches piano and double bass privately in South-East London. She began her career as a professional orchestral double bass player, having studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and the Juilliard School in New York. During her freelance career she performed with many orchestras, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, English Chamber Orchestra, Opera North, English Touring Opera, English National Ballet and St.Petersburg Ballet. She recently hung up her bow to develop another burning passion in her life, the piano, and her second calling in life, to become a therapist. As a pianist, she has recently gained her LTCL in piano performance from Trinity College of Music, and performs regularly as a solo pianist in venues across London, including Southwark Cathedral, St.Paul’s Covent Garden, Citylit, and the 1901 Arts Club Waterloo.