Professional instructor and internationally celebrated pianist Matthew Xiong teaches musicians how to battle through performance anxiety
Guest article by Alexander Ross
Australian concert pianist and educator Matthew Xiong is bringing his talents to the United States, teaching musicians of all levels, as a specialist in the skill of helping pupils work through performance anxiety issues. Matthew began learning the piano at age five and went on to an internationally celebrated career. An instructor at multiple schools, including his school, Talent! Music Academy, and the well-known Merry Melody Music Academy in Boston that produces piano students who have won multiple awards at national piano competitions and performed at the renowned Carnegie Hall in Manhattan New York, Matthew began embracing the techniques and psychology behind defeating performance anxiety after battling through his own stage fright issues as a performer.
“My students’ fears are very real, and I completely empathize with their situation,” said Matthew. “Performance anxiety holds so many back from realizing their true potential. It’s a common problem, but very important that it be addressed methodically and carefully. Musicians can learn to work through these issues, but it takes slow, patient instruction from a seasoned performer who’s been through it.”
Matthew received his B.M in piano performance at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and holds a Master of Music degree from Boston University. He has worked with some of the most prominent piano pedagogues of this century, including John Perry, Margaret Hair, Robert McDonald, Gabriel Chodos, and Boaz Sharon. He has concertized at an international level as an artist, working at celebrated festivals such as the Kawai International Piano Masterclass Festival; the Sydney International Piano Masterclass Festival; the International Klaviersommer in Cochem, Germany; the Ian Hobson Steinway Society Festival in Puerto Rico; as well as the Beethoven Institute at Mannes, where he played works in dedication to the late composer, George Walker – the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for music composition.
Matthew was a prize-winner at several prestigious piano competitions, including the Sydney Classical Concerto Competition at the national Sydney Eisteddfod, where he won 2nd place, and he took runner-up in the Carnegie Concerto Competition at Boston University. Currently the Piano Director at Talent! Music Academy, Matthew now draws on his extensive experience in performance psychology to help scores of students overcome their fears, having first developed his teaching style while studying at the New England Conservatory. His innovative approach involves prolonged exposure to performance under pressure, by gentle, incremental intensity. By doing this, musicians slowly develop confidence on stage, without becoming overwhelmed by their fears.
“Many musicians come to me suffering from what looks like, a mild kind of PTSD. They are brilliant musicians that have been shell-shocked by the pressures of performing on stage,” said Matthew. Indeed, even the most renowned musicians have tasted the bitter fruit of anxiety that often goes hand in hand with performance. From mainstream artists such as Adele and Katy Perry to classical superstars such as soprano Renée Flemming and the legendary pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, they have all attested to feeling the claws of performance anxiety on their ankles, holding them back from their full potential. Many musicians claim that it only took one poor performance for their anxiety to spiral out of control as they become fully aware of just how vulnerable they are on stage.
Matthew holds classes with his piano studio where the students can choose just how much pressure they are willing to shoulder as to not become overwhelmed or tense. This may mean, they only play a few pages of music in front of 2 people; the student is in control of their environment. Matthew monitors the student carefully as they perform and stops them if he notices any indication of anxiety. It may be tension in the body, rushed and anxious playing, or hyperventilation, which he says is a physical embodiment of anxiety that generally doesn’t arise if the performer is calm and confident on stage. He points out what he notices to the student, and asks the student to draw their attention to the area which is showing the signs of anxiety (perhaps it’s tension in the arms, or shoulders shrugged up to their ears). The student will resume playing, and as their awareness of the part of themselves that generates the anxious response grows, the calmer they become on stage. After each performance, Matthew gives the student positive reinforcement so that they feel triumphant over their anxiety. He then keeps a log of the pressure level that each student willingly submitted to and encourages them to add a little bit more pressure in each subsequent session.
In conclusion, Matthew says, “We are often told that the act of performing is a muscle that needs to be trained to get better. Yet what happens if that metaphorical muscle is torn? – are athletes asked to push through a torn muscle? No. They go through rehabilitation to learn how to use that muscle again. Musician’s need to think the same way, performance anxiety is a trauma that is developed from psychic injury, and should be approached with the same care as a physical injury; gently and without overexertion.”
Matthew Xiong is an Australian classical pianist based in Boston, Massachusetts. Born into a family with no musical roots, Matthew fell in love with classical music when he had a close encounter with Brahms’s 1st Symphony at a young age. Soon after, Matthew began his studies in piano. He has studied under many of the leading musicians of this time, among them are Margaret Hair, John Perry, Ian Hobson, Robert Mcdonald, and Ignat Solzhenitsyn. An avid chamber musician, Matthew has also worked with members of the Borromeo and Brentano quartets. Matthew received his Bachelor of Music at the New England Conservatory under the tutelage of Gabriel Chodos and Bruce Brubaker, and his Masters of Music at Boston University under Boaz Sharon.