Tag Archives: musicians and beta blockers

Facing the Fear: ‘Composed’ – a film about Performance Anxiety

‘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

‘Composed’ – a film by John Beder. World premiere screening in New York

Documentary ‘Composed’ announces world premiere with special guests on October 19th 2016 in New York City

A feature film exploring performance anxiety, ‘Composed’ will premiere at the SVA Theater, New York, with special guests Dr. Noa Kageyama, Gerald Klickstein, and Jennifer Montone

‘Composed’ is a documentary film which features musicians and mental health experts from the US and UK, including members of major US orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and many more. The film utilizes these musicians and experts to discuss the issue of performance anxiety; what it is, why it happens, and what we can do to address it. Musicians in the film share candid stories and perspective on what causes these fears and doubts, as well as what’s worked for them to address such issues.

“Like no film before it, Composed illuminates the attractions and challenges of music making. Its portrayal of musicians overcoming performance anxiety opens doors for all performers to surmount obstacles and rise to their potential.”

Gerald Kilckstein, author of The Musician’s Way

Following the screening, Beder will be joined by three of the film’s cast for an audience Q&A. Dr. Noa Kageyama is a performance psychologist, a violinist, and a staff member at The Juilliard School. Gerald Klickstein is the author of The Musician’s Way and founder of the Music Entrepreneurship and Career Center at Peabody Conservatory. Jennifer Montone is the principal horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra and faculty member of the Curtis Institute and The Juilliard School.

Tickets are available now for the premiere and can be purchased through the Composed website or through SVA Theater’s events page.

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John Beder is a percussionist, classical musician, and filmmaker based out of his hometown of Boston, MA. ‘Composed’ is a documentary about understanding and addressing performance anxiety through the lens of classical musicians. Learn more at www.composeddocumentary.com.

Contact

John Beder, Bed Productions LLC
617 383 4407; info@bedrocklab.com facebook.com/composedkickstarter; twitter @composedfilm

(Source: Composed press release)

Performance Anxiety Anonymous

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