Guest article by Gregory Daubney, Msc, MBPsS and Dr Alison Daubney, PhD

One of the most enjoyable things about working as a psychologist is that we are never far away from the presence of our forefathers. The ghosts of Freud, Jung, Skinner and Pavlov (amongst others) hover around our every move whispering of the repressed and unconscious nature of human behaviour. That the past should be suggested as the greatest influencer of our future is as natural as night follows day. The mechanism of our individual history’s operation on the present is, quite rightly, shrouded in mystery and intrigue. However, this strait jacket of the past need not leave us feeling stuck in the present. The belief that a psychologist need not know the cause of an individual’s psychological problems is a strangely liberating (for both psychologist and client), if somewhat uncommon, approach to handling psychological skill development. So what alternatives to focussing on a problem can a music teacher who sees their students suffering from musical performance anxiety choose? Why not choose solutions? Solutions are everywhere. All around us, within us, permeating our environment and prevalent throughout our history. The problem is that we can become so fixated on the problem that we simply lose sight of our quest for a solution. As a professional collaboration between a performance psychologist and education expert, we have produced a free to download 52 page book rammed full of practical solutions and ideas to help teachers teach psychological skills to their students. The emphasis is on changing the focus from problems to solutions. So what does this mean in real life? Music teachers vary from person to person. And they should. They hold beliefs and prior experiences, which, in many ways, shape the person they are. They vary in their flexibility, creativity, capability and excitability, all of which blend together in a complex way to create the teacher they are. So when presented with a student who is very nervous about performing, they will approach this problem from very different angles. It should always be remembered that what one person may not view as a ‘performance’ is something that, in the mind of a student, may be an event provoking deep felt anxiety. Therefore, ignoring it and hoping it will go away, is seldom a good option. In our culture it is very easy to accept that until we know a cause we cannot provide a solution. Sometimes this is the right approach, but too frequently this line of thinking can inhibit effective action taking. By switching the focus to solutions, behaviour is encouraged not stifled and taking action itself is often very motivating.

Let’s take a look at how this might work in reality. A very useful question a music teacher could (and may already) ask a nervous student is: “As I watch you about to perform, what will you look like (that I can see) that will tell me you are ready, and looking forward to performing?” Here we can see that the music teacher has moved the focus of their student’s attention to a hypothetical future and away from the problem. The student is most likely to reply by giving a list of what they will look like (e.g. “I will be standing/sitting tall, my shoulders will be back, I will stride onto the stage, I will look up as I enter the performance arena”). This corresponds with one of our many short-term suggestions for handling performance anxiety – our suggestion of creating a body posture reminder sheet (strategy 6C, page 43 of our freely downloadable resource). This may help the student feel ready to perform in the future and is a solution that may help students in the moments immediately preceding a performance.

But the music teacher will not be finished there. Performance anxiety occurs over a much longer timeframe than just prior to performance. That is why, in addition to many practical strategies for use just prior to, during and after performing, our booklet also gives music teachers strategies for the week leading up to a performance, and in the longer term.

So, back to our teacher. The student may tell them one week prior to a performance that they are nervous and worried about performing next week. They may want to avoid the performance completely. There could be any number of reasons for this and it is likely that these will vary from student to student. So a further question the teacher may ask the student could be: “If you weren’t feeling nervous about this performance, what would you be doing in the week leading up to the performance?” Again, we can see a hypothetical future where the student has to think about a different future without the problem. The student may answer: “I would be happier, I would be looking forward to performing because I would be confident that I am going to play well.”

The teacher could then use one of our medium term strategies to help their student build confidence, such as our key strengths worksheet (strategy 2B, page 20) or our record and reflection of prior success and achievement (strategy 3B, page 21). These are immediately usable by the teacher and will help focus the student’s attention on things they do well thereby creating an atmosphere that promotes an excitement about performing.

But again, the teacher wouldn’t stop there! Finally, the teacher may turn their attention to their own teaching. They may ask themselves, “What would be different in my teaching practice if I tried to reduce the probability of performance anxiety having an impact?” They may answer: “I would set students challenging and differentiated goals that strongly emphasise the development my students make against themselves.” Using the flow charts within the booklet as a guide, the teacher could then select an appropriate long term strategy, such as strategy 6A (page 12) in our book with important recommendations for effectively setting goals with students. They can enhance this further by implementing our recommendations to address fear of failure using strategy 3A (page 9) or effective social comparison using strategy 4A (page10).

This type of solution-focussed reflection has the benefit of promoting action rather than merely thought about action. It is also highly motivating because it is achievable both by student and teacher. Finally, it removes the student and teacher from being stuck in a blame culture seeking reasons for experiences. It re-focuses attention on how progress can be made for both student and teacher.

There is often a requirement to work on handling musical performance anxiety in the future. We hope that through this article, it can be seen that progress is possible with a changed emphasis, leading to greater enjoyment of musical learning.

To find out more about how music teachers can help their students handle musical performance anxiety, download the free 52-page guide “Performance Anxiety: A practical guide for music teachers”. And why not book onto our next ISM full day workshop on 6 July 2017. It is only £45 for members and £55 for non-members, with a maximum of 14 people so we can work intensely for the whole day with plenty of opportunities to ask questions. Or for more information, contact us directly at greg@winningessence.com or contact the ISM directly on www.ism.org.

 

Gregory Daubney (MSc MBPsS) has worked extensively across performance psychology domains since 2008, establishing Winning Essence in 2013. He has developed a thorough understanding of the psychological impact of performance on individuals and teams, with a particular interest and specialism in sport and other performance settings. Greg has also been involved in evaluating the psychological impacts of music-based interventions for young people in mental health settings. Greg’s work is informed by wide-ranging evidence and his workshops over several years have enabled him to successfully translate complex theoretical ideas into applied, practical strategies that performers at all levels can develop to achieve optimal performance. Greg regularly writes about the ways individuals and groups can successfully embed psychological skills in order to maintain a healthy approach to skill acquisition, development and performance improvement.

Dr Alison Daubney (PhD) works across music education in formal and non-formal settings. She is a qualified teacher and mentor, and has extensive experience working across all age phases from pre-school to postgraduate. As a researcher, Ally has led projects considering the health and wellbeing of young musicians in and out of school, including those in a diverse range of challenging circumstances and in mental health settings. Since 2009 Ally has worked extensively with the University of Cambridge International Examinations on international curriculum and assessment development. She works part-time as a freelance researcher, curriculum developer and trainer, complementing her work in music education at the University of Sussex. Ally has worked with the ISM on many aspects of music education since 2008 and regularly runs professional development courses on behalf of the ISM Trust for music teachers and practitioners working in a variety of settings.

‘Composed’ received its London premiere on 2 May 2017. The director is looking for futher London and UK screening opportunities – if you are interesting in hosting a screening, please get in touch via the contact page of this site

Performance Anxiety – for many musicians and performers it’s the fear which cannot, must not, speak its name, and together with injury and illness, it’s a major taboo. We don’t discuss anxiety because we’re not supposed to feel it. As highly trained individuals, musicians are supposed to sweep onto any stage, large or small, and perform with confidence, poise, and musical imagination, never betraying the slightest hint of nerves. As with injury, anxiety is often kept hidden and not discussed because sufferers fear (that word again) that admitting to it is a sign of weakness, technical or artistic, which may lead to loss of work and status, and the disapproval of colleagues, teachers, more senior musicians, critics and even audiences.

One of the crucial steps in coping with Performance Anxiety (and sufferers should not necessarily seek a “cure”) is accepting that it is something that happens to most performers, that it is normal, and that the physical symptoms are common to us all, driven by the body’s “flight or fight” response. ‘Composed’, an insightful new film by percussionist and film-maker John Beder, goes a long way in supporting this view, while opening up the discussion about performance anxiety in a sympathetic way.

Originally intended as a study of musicians’ use of beta blockers to subdue the symptoms of anxiety and how such drugs are perceived within the classical music community, ‘Composed’ takes a broad view, exploring the passion and motivation which drives people to become professional musicians, the root causes and symptoms of performance anxiety, the difference between practising and performing, music education, deep learning and proper preparation for auditions and performance, the fight or flight response, perfectionism and how hard musicians are on themselves. With contributions from musicians (soloists and orchestral players) and experts in the field of peak performance and performance anxiety, including Dr Noa Kageyama (creator of The Bulleproof Musician), Mike Cunningham (mind training coach), Gerald Klickstein (author of The Musician’s Way) and Professor Aaron Williamon (Professor of Performance Science at the Royal College of Music), the film offers a sensitive and honest account of the exigencies of the profession.

symptoms
(source: ‘Composed’ website)

Rather than present dry advice and one-size-fits-all coping strategies, the first-hand accounts of musicians, teachers and practitioners offer insightful personal anecdotes and solutions. The film also touches on the competitive nature of the conservatoire system, the ruthlessness of the professional career and how musicians, who tend to forge friendships and communities with others in the profession, find themselves competing with friends and respected colleagues at auditions for orchestral positions or concert bookings which can set up feelings of “inner turmoil of wanting to encourage your friends while secretly hoping the panel will favor your performance”(John Beder, film-maker). Such feelings can lead to self-doubt and anxiety.

The responsibility of teachers, mentors and institutions in supporting musicians is also explored. Until fairly recently, support for students suffering from performance anxiety was virtually non-existent in the conservatoire and music college system, except from a few enlightened tutors. Today, students have more resources at their disposal, including mindfulness and mind training, biofeedback, Alexander Technique, yoga and relaxation techniques, counsellors and hardware such as the Royal College of Music’s innovative performance simulator which allows students to perform before a virtual audience or audition panel.

There is also practical information about the physiological effects of beta blockers and commentaries by users, including a painfully honest account by a British cellist who also resorted to alcohol while still at music college to help her deal with debilitating performance anxiety.

It took John Beder two years to produce ‘Composed’. Originally, 61 musicians gave interviews for the documentary, though not all of them made the final cut, and Beder’s approaches to musicians were generally met with gratitude – “I wish we talked about this more” was a common response, proof that this is a subject musicians want to discuss in a more open forum. To hear musicians talk openly about their personal struggles, emotional limitations and coping mechanisms reminds us that we are very much not alone with our anxieties. The film is an empathetic and humane examination of the musician’s life and work, providing a greater understanding of the pressures, and pleasures, of the musical life, and is a potent reminder that musicians should “know themselves”, to appreciate their strengths and abilities, rather than continually comparing themselves to others. As such it makes an important and timely contribution to the study and understanding of performance anxiety.

“The film explores what without exception all of us, performers, have experienced and known well – first, love for our craft and stage, and then performance anxiety at the other end of this beautiful and exciting spectrum. Congratulations to the director John Beder and his team for completing this project and for inviting all of us to a meaningful and necessary conversation.”

Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

John Beder is currently looking for UK venues for future screenings of ‘Composed’. If you would like to host a screening or suggest a venue please contact John via this site or via the Composed website

‘Composed’ trailer

Stress testing (sometimes called torture testing) is a form of deliberately intense or thorough testing used to determine the stability of a given system or entity. It involves testing beyond normal operational capacity, often to a breaking point, in order to observe the results (Source: Wikipedia)

Performing in front of others is stressful, whether it is to a group of friends at an informal gathering or to a full house at Carnegie Hall.

In order to prepare ourselves for such performances, particularly important performances such as an exam, audition or formal recital, it is crucial to “stress test” our repertoire by playing the entire programme in a variety of situations. This process is commonly used by professional musicians, who may choose to play a programme at regional venues before performing at an important venue such as London’s Wigmore Hall. Each time we perform, new things are revealed about our music which inform subsequent practise sessions and help us make our music more refined and, more importantly, secure, thus protecting us against errors, or at least allowing us to skim over slips and minor mistakes so that the “flow” of the performance is not disturbed.

This last week I and a friend have been “stress testing” our respective programmes for forthcoming concerts. I am fortunate in that I own a very beautiful antique grand piano, which piano-playing friends of mine love to come and play (and I love hearing the piano played well by others). Playing for a couple of friends, in a relaxed atmosphere with cups of tea and cake, allows one to play in a “safe zone”. In these situations, we know that our friends are not judging us, they listen attentively and offer encouragement and applause afterwards. Of course, it can be difficult playing to other pianists – but it can be a sympathetic experience too as we all understand how very hard it is to play the piano!

I played three pieces, by John Field, Schubert and Schumann, which form the solo element of a longer concert which I am giving with a singer. In practise, the pieces felt secure and well-known, but, interestingly, weak spots were revealed when I played to my friends which subsequently  enabled me to practise with care and focus.

In addition to helping us focus on practising, “stress testing” our repertoire allows us to gauge aspects of our performance, from our concert attire and stagecraft to the vibrancy and expression of our playing (and yes it is important to do a “dress rehearsal” to make sure clothing and shoes are appropriate and comfortable). It also enables us to better understand and handle anxiety and stage fright: and the more times you practise performing a programme before The Big Day, the better you become at recognising and accepting the symptoms of performance anxiety.

Of course this preparation for performance presupposes that one has done all the careful, detailed work learning the music, including being able able to work both too slowly (a musical challenge) and too fast (an efficiency challenge), one hand thinking the other and using the wrong hand (see Graham Fitch’s useful article on symmetrical inversion), working with and without the metronome, studying the music away from the piano and in one’s head, and creating a vivid, perfect interior model of the music, while all the time guarding against routine and a lack of mindfulness. It’s hard work: there’s no getting around the fact that playing the piano is very difficult, regardless of one’s ability – as Graham said to me the other day, “if it was easy, everyone would do it!”.

Returning to the subject of practising for a performance, I had an interesting experience with one of my more advanced students recently, a teenage girl who was preparing to take her Grade 6 piano exam. I have done a lot of work on confidence and stagecraft with her, and at the last lesson before her exam, she wanted to run through her pieces. After three false, frustrating starts to the C P E Bach ‘Solfeggio in c minor’, with me sitting quietly next to the piano, I suggested we try something different. I told her about the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt whose stage presence suggests someone who loves performing and who can’t wait to share her music with the audience. “Channel your inner Angela Hewitt!” I suggested to my student, and then asked her to leave my piano room, wait in the hall (as if backstage at the Wigmore) and then “come on” to the “stage”. Meanwhile, I moved away from the piano and sat “in the audience” on my sofa. The transformation in her performance was remarkable: she was confident and poised and she made a wonderfully vibrant sound. She was thrilled with her performance, and when she saw me after the exam, she explained that she had done the same visualisation/acting exercise in the moments before she went into the exam room. I am delighted to report that she passed her exam with a high Merit and received very complimentary comments from the examiner about the communication and expression in her playing.

angela-hewitt_c_jpg_681x349_crop_upscale_q95
Angela Hewitt (photo Medici TV)

As performers, we have to be actors, partly to enable us to cope with the feelings of anxiety, but also to allow us to step into the character of each piece we play. All these aspects need to be practised and tested before the The Big Day. Curiously, the more of this work we do in the weeks and days leading up to the important performance, the better able we are to “let go” in the actual performance, to play in the moment and to allow the creative and artistic side of our personality (often called “right brain thinking”) to take flight.

 

 

Stage fright remains a largely taboo and highly sensitive subject amongst musicians, yet the anxiety of performance is a common feeling experienced by many, including some of the world’s top-flight artists. Learning how to manage performance anxiety is a crucial part of the performing artist’s craft, and musicians of all levels and ages can learn from the professionals who have developed effective strategies to manage the stress associated with performing.

The Beyond Stage Fright online summit is a series of video interviews given by top international soloists and principal orchestral players, along with leading writers and teachers who all share their unique take on managing performance stress. Host Charlotte Tomlinson, pianist and author of Music from the Inside Out, uncovers the whole topic, giving you a rare chance to look into the inner world of the professional musician. The interviews are fascinating, insightful and inspiring!

To get access to the summit, you need to sign up to the website: www.beyondstagefright

The summit goes live on Friday May 29th and once you register, you will receive access to two video interviews a day for 11 days in your inbox.

Musicians, writers and teachers taking part: • Hilary Hahn (violinist) • John Lill (pianist) • Martin Roscoe (pianist) • Tracy Silverman (US electric violinist) • Claire Jones (harpist) • Amy Dickson (classical saxophonist) • Zuill Bailey (US cellist) • Paul Harris (educator/composer) • Janice Chapman (singing teacher) • David Krakauer (US clarinettist) • Swingle Singers • Maya Beiser (US cellist) • Martin Owen (principal horn BBCSO) • Louisa Tuck (principal cello RNS) • James Rhodes (pianist) • Louise Lansdown (Head of Strings, Birmingham Conservatoire) • Michael Whight (clarinettist) • Roderick Williams (opera/concert singer) • Elise Batnes (leader Oslo Philharmonic) • Eric Maisel (US writer on Performance Anxiety) • Diane Widdison (Musician’s Union)

Last week, I hosted a workshop on performance anxiety for the London Piano Meetup Group. We used a small room with a grand piano at The Music Studios on London’s Marylebone Lane, just around the corner from the Wigmore Hall, appropriately. The aim of the workshop was to offer strategies for coping with anxiety for a small group of mostly novice performers, of varying levels, from near-beginner to diploma. Seated in a rough semi-circle around the piano, one of the participants admitted that it was rather like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – hence the title of this post.

In fact the AA analogy is not inappropriate, for there is a great deal of taboo and shame surrounding performance anxiety, with many people feeling they should not admit to feeling nervous ahead of and/or during a performance. So, to kick off the workshop, I stressed the fact that performance anxiety is normal and that even top professional musicians suffer from the unpleasant effects of nerves and stage fright. We then talked about individual symptoms from headache and cold hands to nausea and shaking, palpitations and sweating. People described particular instances where they felt nerves had got the better of them and spoiled or harmed a performance or exam. The overriding theme of this discussion was “fear” – fear of making mistakes, of looking stupid in front of one’s peers or the audience, or the fear of receiving negative feedback from colleagues, peers and others.

The unpleasant physical symptoms of performance anxiety are due to the effect of the release of adrenaline, the “fight or flight hormone”. It’s the hormone that, when we lived in caves, made us decide whether to run away from the sabre-toothed tiger, or stay and fight it. Now, performing it nothing like fighting a sabre-toothed tiger, though for some it can feel as momentous, frightening and difficult. Adrenaline can be used in a positive way too and it can actually raise our performance, making us “play up” and play with more expression, emotional depth and communication.

For me, the most significant and useful process in conquering my performance anxiety (which had developed over many years of hardly playing the piano, and limited performance experience when at school) was reaching a state of acceptance: accepting that the state of mind and body is normal and that one is “allowed” to feel nervous. Giving ourselves this permission can help us let go of some of the negative psychological effects and messages we give ourselves when we are nervous.

A couple of members of the group then admitted that when they had said to themselves “oh I don’t care, I’ve probably failed this exam anyway!” their playing improved. This is another aspect of ‘acceptance’.

We then discussed pre-empting one’s performance with negative messages such as “I know I’m going to play badly”, “I played this better at home”, “I’ll probably make a mistake”. Instead, one should replace such harmful messages with positive affirmation such as “I know my pieces” (to quote Vladimir Horowitz), “I feel nervous but I am also excited about performing these pieces”, and “I can do it!”.

We also talked about performance rituals and drugs, including the use of products such as Rescue Remedy and beta blockers (which should be used under the guidance of a doctor), and “good luck charms”, including favourite shoes, clothing or jewellery, which can help create positive feelings. Finally, we all did some deep breathing exercises, which can be wonderfully useful in helping one feel calmer and centred, both before and during a performance.

Finally, each participant gave a short performance, with the rest of the group offering supportive comments and enthusiastic applause. We talked about how we felt after we had performed, and I hope everyone who took part in the exercise found the workshop useful and positive. You can download my notes from the meeting here.

Remember, don’t feel embarrassed about admitting that you suffer from performance anxiety: it is perfectly normal!

Pieces played at the workshop:

Beatrice – Little Prelude in C minor BWV 999/JS Bach

Phillipa – Minuet in A/Krieger

Tina – Etude op.10 no. 3 ‘Tristesse’/Chopin

Steven – The Power of Love

Rick – Sonata in G/Scarlatti

Alison – Ivan Sings/Khachaturian

Fran – A Sad Song/Kabalevsky

 

The Music Studios, Marylebone Lane

The Inner Game of Music – a blog post by pianist Alisdair Hogarth on performance anxiety