Understanding and coping with the stress of performance

We all have a tendency to post-mortem our performance after a concert, audition, or exam, focusing on the negatives and the errors rather than the good things, and in the heightened state of sensitivity that often accompanies such occasions, small errors can become huge. Of course it is important to review what happened and to reflect upon it, for this informs our future practising, but dwelling too long on mistakes is not healthy as it can  negatively colour our attitude to our music making.

Wouldn’t it wonderful if we could see into the future and predict what is going to happen in a performance? To be able to look ahead and figure out all the things that could go wrong, and try to work out what you can do to prevent those things from happening. We might call this a “pre-mortem”.

The “pre-mortem” technique of risk assessment was devised by research psychologist Gary Klein who found that “prospective hindsight” – imagining that the event has already happened – increases and improves our ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes. We can use this technique to help us prepare for stressful situations – such as performing – and a pre-mortem ahead of that potentially high-stress situation can ensure that rational thinking and reactions are available to you despite the inevitable physical and emotional side-effects of stress.

As musicians the single most important thing we can do to protect ourselves is good preparation. This is not simply practising at the piano but also recording and filming ourselves, playing to other people (teachers, friends, colleagues), playing other pianos, giving practise performances ahead of the big day, visualising the performance and imagining the sounds of the music in our head before we play, recalling previous successful performances, and engaging in positive, affirmative and mindful thinking. This is the musician’s “prospective hindsight” toolbox.

Managing our anxiety is another important aspect – and I refute anyone who says they do not feel nervous ahead of a performance, whether they are a world-class internationally-renowned musician or a young person taking Grade 5. Being nervous is normal; it is also a sign that you care about what you are doing. Understanding why we are nervous is also important: when asked, most people will respond that it is fear of making a mistake that fuels the anxiety.

Fundamentally, performance anxiety is fuelled by straightforward fear, and this is hard-wired into our physiology. There’s an evolutionary reason for this: when face-to-face with a predator, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode and releases stress hormones adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol, which cause certain bodily systems to shut down (for example, the digestive system, the libido, and the immune system) to focus on supplying the brain and muscles with much-needed blood, glucose (sugars) and salts to enable the body to react immediately: stand and fight that sabre-toothed tiger or flee from it as quickly as possible. The physical symptoms of performance anxiety – racing heart, sweating, nausea, trembling – are entirely due to the release of stress hormones, and one’s anxiety can actually increase by worrying about these symptoms.

In a performance situation, the body reacts in exactly the same way as in the sabre-toothed tiger scenario, and the physical side-effects of stress hormones flooding the body can be extremely unsettling when we are trying to be as calm as possible in order to play accurately and well. Many of the techniques suggested for alleviating performance anxiety are to do with “kidding” one’s mental state – positive affirmation (“I can do it!”), Neuro-Linguistic Programming, mindfulness – which can distract one’s mind away from negative thoughts and damaging self-criticism. There are also some very useful physical strategies, including deep-breathing (Pilates-style thoracic breathing) and power poses, which have been proven to reduce cortisol and increase testosterone. In addition to the unpleasant physical symptoms before the performance, many of us also suffer afterwards due the depletion of sugars and salts during physical effort, and the effect of the stress hormones leaving the body and the body settling back into its normal state. frustrated-piano-teacherThese symptoms, which may linger for a good 24 hours post-performance, can include tiredness, grumpiness or depression, and physical aches and pains. Personally, I have found these symptoms more unpleasant than those of pre-performance anxiety. That is until a pianist friend of mine, who is a medic at a leading London teaching hospital, suggested I try using an isotonic sports drink before and after a performance.

Sports people use isotonic drinks, which contain similar concentrations of salt and sugar as in the human body, to help fuel the body when exercising, and to replace electrolytes and carbohydrates which are depleted during exercise. These drinks (the leading brands are Powerade and Gatorade) have also been proven to help patients recover more quickly after undergoing complex colorectal surgery (surgery which puts the body under significant stress) resulting in reduced morbidity rates. I used Powerade before and after a recent concert and took note of the effects. Certainly, I didn’t feel as physically or mentally tired after the performance (c45 minutes of continuous playing of advanced repertoire), and by continuing to drink Powerade on the drive home after the concert seemed to reduce the post-concert slump and the aches and pains I usually experience the day after. An understanding of what my body was undergoing physically before, during and after the performance certainly helped too, and I think if more musicians appreciated the physiological effects of stress they may be better equipped to cope with the psychological side effects too: it largely is not “all in the mind”, rather it is “all in the body”.

Until fairly recently, performance anxiety was a taboo subject for most musicians. To discuss it openly may betray a weakness which might lead to loss of work and by default income. Today many of the leading conservatoires and music colleges have courses, workshops and practitioners in place to help students understand and cope with performance anxiety: the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, for example, offers a course in mindfulness for performers, while the Royal College of Music has a dedicated Centre for Performance Science. I believe that a better understanding of the physical effects of stress combined with a positive and sympathetic approach to the emotional and psychological effects will enable musicians to not only discuss performance anxiety more openly with teachers and colleagues, but also put in place effective personal strategies to enable them to play with confidence, fluency, expression and vibrant colour.

 

Further reading

How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed – TED talk by Dr Daniel Levitin

Your body language shapes who you are – TED talk by Amy Cuddy

Science finds new way to overcome your performance anxiety

 

(Header photo from livescience.com)

 

 

(picture source: de Melo Counselling)

Overthinking a piece of music can kill it – just as overpractising can. We’ve all done it – and we all continue to do it: thinking too much about the details – articulation, dynamics, voicing, pedaling. Often ‘overthink’ occurs when a piece is known well, but we don’t feel confident enough to let the music take flight or to simply allow the music to “be”. It can also create problems which aren’t really there.

Overthink is driven by the logical, self-critical left side of the brain: the hemisphere which is on the look out for errors, hyper-sensitive to any slips, however small, and always ready to send in the committee of corrections to tick us off for our mistakes. Our mind, specifically the left side of the brain, is the biggest obstacle to reaching peak performance – whether at the piano or on the tennis court. Overthinking will result in a boring, lifeless sound and, potentially, a performance riven with errors – because our left brain thinking has set us up for them in advance. The Inner Critic works for the left brain and can do a great deal of damage to our music and our self-esteem and emotional health as musicians. Unfortunately, western societal mores encourage far too much left brain thinking. From the moment a child goes to school (this is true in the UK, at least), they are encouraged to get things “right” (and be rewarded with stickers, or other signs of approval from the teacher). Mistakes are regarded as “bad” and to be discouraged. I come across this mindset time and time again with my students, who want their pieces to be note perfect. I encourage them to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for expression, musical colour and vibrancy in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part.

Over the summer I had encounters with two inspiring teachers who highlighted the need to allow right brain thinking to take charge, to allow one to see the bigger picture of the music, as a whole, and to free oneself from negative self-talk and criticism. In one group lesson I found myself, before I’d even played the piece, justifying why I was going to employ a certain range of dynamics, what my intentions were for the opening phrase and a whole host of other reasons why. Instead, the teacher said, “just allow the music to be. Play with conviction and self-belief and your ideas will come through”. The resulting round of applause from the other members of the masterclass proved her point. In standing back from the details, I had allowed the true character of the music, and my response to and belief in it, to speak, and the resulting sound was convincing, vibrant and, most importantly, natural.

When we have been working on a piece or pieces for a long period of time, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees, as we become obsessed with making sure all the details of the score are correctly observed. Of course we must do this detailed work and it is important that we do it in an intelligent and methodical way as this ensures a tiny margin of error in performance and enables us to play with a confidence founded on the knowledge that “I know my pieces” (Horowitz). But if you are always thinking deeply when you are playing, you may find yourself suffering from “paralysis by analysis” (a term often used by athletes who fail to meet their potential ahead of a big game or race because of overthinking). If we have overloaded ourselves with detailed information about our music, and have drained ourselves mentally and physically by doing so, we have no resources left for the performance. Music which, in performance, is still undergoing “overthink” can sound lifeless, lacking in excitement and too safe or polite.

The best performances often come “in the moment”, where right brain thinking is allowed to take over. It banishes the inner critic and the continuous commentary of the left brain (“you missed that chord”, “you smeared that scale”), and frees us to be spontaneous, imaginative and creative as we play. Unfortunately, this is not something which happens automatically and is in fact the result of many hours spent meticulously practising and refining the music. Armed with good and proper preparation, one can walk onto the stage and know that a spontaneous “in the moment” performance is possible. In this instance, the final moments before the first notes are sounded can become the most important of the entire performance.

Psychologists and performance coaches talk about “centering”, the act of entering a state where the mind is focused yet relaxed. Observe a top tennis pro such as Roger Federer preparing to serve and notice how he allows himself time to prepare, rather than rushing into his serve. In the moments before we perform, whether in public or at home for friends, family or just the pets, take time to centre yourself. I call this “thinking myself into the music” and this process begins before I arrive at the piano. I imagine myself walking across the stage, sitting down at the piano and preparing to play. At the piano, I hear the opening phrase in my head, imagine the kind of sound I want to create, visualise my fingers moving across the keys. I also try to put myself in a “safe zone”, in my imagination at least, by pretending I am playing at home, on my beautiful Bechstein grand, to my family, or to myself. Or I recall a good public performance and try to take myself back to there, to recreate the emotions, and the sounds.

I have of course experienced left brain interference during a performance, the inner voice interrupting the flow of the music with comments such as “you always play that chord incorrectly and you’re going to do it again now”. But with good preparation during practising I have learnt to banish this voice, usually by using deep breathing techniques. Employing habits learned from mindfulness, allowing myself to perform “in the moment” and banishing damaging post-concert analysis all help to create a performance which is, I hope, convincing, committed, expressive and exciting.

Further reading:

Can Musicians Overthink Their Practice and Performance?

The Bulletproof Musician – a wealth of articles on performance anxiety and how to perform at your best on stage

Charlotte Tomlinson – performance coaching for musicians and creator of Beyond Stage Fright, a series of interviews with well-known musicians on dealing with performance anxiety

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw – resources on dealing with obstacles and learning how to see the bigger picture in our music

I recently attended an interesting and inspiring workshop with acclaimed pianist and teacher Christine Croshaw.

Using the metaphor of The Hero’s Journeya pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development, Christine showed how this template can help us understand the challenges of the musician’s life.

In the workshop we first explored our initial “call”, the overwhelming desire to become a musician, and discussed how this dream and aspiration gives us energy and direction. Of course we may not achieve our dream in the form in which we originally imagined it, but pushing at boundaries forces us to develop and discover resources to help us, including guides and mentors, to overcome our demons and cross thresholds, and, on the way, learn to transform failure into a valuable resource.

Though we may face “demons” such as:-

  • injury
  • illness
  • dismotivation
  • negative feedback and criticism
  • lack of support from family and friends
  • mental & emotional issues
  • financial issues

– we should always be aware that there are people out there to help us. Sometimes these “mentors” are people already known to us – teachers, colleagues, friends, family – and sometimes they are “inner mentors” who resonate with us and who we have identified as offering us what we need for ourselves. These may include a fictional character or a great musician whom we admire. As we resonate with these mentors, we tune into their qualities and draw those qualities into ourselves so that we can utilise them.

We then engaged in an exercise (“Mentor and Resonance Pattern”) in pairs in which we named three mentors, arranged them metaphorically around us and identified the special qualities which we felt each mentor could offer us. We then offered these qualities from each mentor to our own selves. At first I found this exercise slightly daft, but the more I thought about and engaged in it, the more I found myself carefully considering what qualities I wanted to take from these mentors (one of whom is the pianist Maria Joao Pires, who I much admire not only for her exquisite playing but also her mentorship and support of young and emerging musicians).

Just as the Hero’s Journey is fraught with difficulties and dangers, so is the musician’s, and sometimes along the way we may get “stuck”. Often this is because our focus becomes too narrow and we forget to look at the bigger picture: perhaps we are obsessing about a small section of a piece of music we are working on rather than standing back to consider the piece as a whole, its landscape and choreography. As our music becomes more “embodied” within us, so we become more adaptable, able to react to anything that happens without losing a sense of the whole or the structure of the music, and more open to possibilities. A good example of this is the pianist who because he/she has done the right kind of preparation does not allow mistakes or a memory slip to throw him/her off course during a performance. In this state of “relaxed alertness”, we are more able to connect with self, music and audience.

A person’s errors are his doorways of discovery

James Joyce

Failure may come from external factors such as poor exam results or a bad concert or review. This can be tough, but any failure can be turned into a resource from which we can learn and move on. Trial and error, exploration and experimentation allows us to gain feedback and adjust our approach if necessary, before trying again and progressing.

The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new

Einstein

Much of Christine Croshaw’s approach is drawn from Neuro Linguistic Programming, a way of identifying how people are able to excel in various fields (business, sports, therapy, the arts and many others), and which, put simply, teaches one to “accentuate the positive” by understanding how we create and influence our own experience and behaviour. The techniques of NLP may seem obvious, but putting them into practice can be more tricky, especially if one is prone to negative thoughts, low self-esteem and lack of confidence. The practice of NLP sits well with mindfulness: taken together, the two practices can give us powerful tools to progress in our musical lives with flair and success.

Related articles

The Piano and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

Christine Croshaw’s website

My interest in this form of meditation was piqued when a friend talked of following a mindfulness course and employing mindfulness as a way of dealing with feelings of inadequacy as a musician and the exigencies of everyday life. I decided to explore further to see if employing some techniques drawn from mindfulness could help me, in my musical life and every day.

Basically, “mindfulness” is an awareness of yourself and your surroundings. When in a mindful state, mindless “daydreaming” is replaced by presence, and attention to the here and now. It can also refer to specific meditative processes, such as those popularized by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Stress Reduction Clinic. Mindfulness has been shown to help people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, including physical manifestations of stress disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, pain and ill health, and is approved by the UK Mental Health Foundation.

How I am using Mindfulness in my musical life:

Reaching a state of acceptance

I suffer from a certain lack of confidence as a musician (despite appearances to the contrary when I play and the many positive endorsements I receive from teachers, colleagues and friends). I realised that part of this stems from a habit of constantly comparing myself to others. I have resolved to stop comparing myself to others, to accept that certain repertoire just isn’t “right” for me (for whatever reason, technically or emotionally), that I don’t have to attempt pieces just because others are, and to focus on developing my own playing in repertoire that I enjoy and which interests me.

Banishing the inner critic

Alongside this sense of acceptance, I am learning to switch off the voice in my head which tells me I am “just not good enough”. I’ve realised that this voice is, in part, the manifestation of a variety of critical comments, from a music teacher at school to certain others who have hinted that I am committing some form of pianistic “hubris” by performing in public concerts or taking on works such as Beethoven’s Opus 110 or Schubert’s Sonata in A D959 (my current preoccupation). I now try to draw confidence from the positive and supportive comments from colleagues, diploma adjudicators, mentors and friends.

Mindful practising

Mindfulness enables us to practise thoughtfully, with concentration, commitment, improved focus and care. Too often I come across students (and others) who simply “type” their pieces, processing notes with little care or thought and revealing that their practising has been repetitive and mindless. Repetitive practise is important, for sure, but it should be both thoughtful and repetitive – and each repetition should be considered. Taking notice of what one is playing – each phrase, dynamic nuance, subtleties of touch, expression, articulation – will result in more efficient and rewarding practise, leading to vibrant and authoritative playing.

It also enables us to become more aware of our physical state when playing, to check that the wrists are supple and mobile, arms are soft, shoulders relaxed, and so forth, and to know to stop playing when the body becomes tight, sore or stressed.

On a broader level, mindfulness can make us more insightful as musicians, to connect better with our inner selves, be less self-critical, to see mistakes honestly and without fear and know how to understand and adjust them more easily, and to improve our playing and musicianship based on experience and intuition rather than self-criticsm: in essence, to better trust our musical self.

Dealing with anxiety

My main strategy for dealing with performance anxiety is knowing that the music has been practised deeply and is fully prepared, including at least three “practise” performances. In addition to this, I try to perform “in the moment”, to focus on the “now” of performing and to silence the destructive inner critic voice that wants remind one of all the slips and errors, and can stifle creativity and spontaneity in performance. After a performance, I try not to post-mortem it too closely, but to return to practising the day after with renewed interest and (hopefully) deeper insight, while looking forward to the next opportunity to perform the pieces.

Daily meditation sessions may not be for everyone (and this is not something I actively engage in) but increased awareness while engaged in music practise can help us reconnect with our instrument and our musical self, leading to improved concentration, physical awareness of the feel of the instrument under the fingers, tone control, quality of sound, expression, a vibrant dynamic palette, flow, musical insight and communication. While playing, banish the “mindless” thoughts that distract and fill the mind – “what shall I cook for dinner?”,  “did I remember to collect the dry-cleaning?” – and focus instead on observing and listening to yourself playing. Try to notice things that perhaps weren’t apparent before or which you previously took for granted, and bring meaning, value, love and life to every note and phrase you play.

(source http://www.gracebelgravia.com)