Glenn Gould claimed to “detest” audiences, regarding them as “mob rule” and “a force for evil” (he retired from performing in public at 31), but most performers take a far more positive and generous attitude towards audiences.

Audiences – real living, breathing audiences – have been much missed over the past year with concert halls, opera houses and theatres closed for months in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Seeing performances from empty venues like London’s Wigmore Hall are a poignant reminder of how important audiences are; they’re an integral part of the concert experience and without an audience a performance isn’t really a “concert” in the truest sense of the word.

Glenn Gould had a good reason for his dislike of audiences: he suffered from stage fright and saw the public concert as a “gladiatorial” experience, the audience a hostile force, hungry for evidence of weakness or errors on the part of the performer. The fear of making mistakes in front of other people – a natural human instinct – is very common amongst performers, professional and amateur, and is one of the main drivers of performance anxiety.

We don’t want to mess up in front of other people, of course we don’t. We want our performances to be as close to perfect as possible, with just the right amount of technical assuredness combined with artistry to draw the audience into the music’s soundworld, transport them, excite and enthrall them. But perfection is a human construct, an idealas opposed to a quantifiable reality, and as such it is an impossibility. We are all human – even the most incredible musicians who enjoy almost god-like reverence – and we are all fallible. Accepting this is one of many ways we can better understand and manage performance anxiety.

Audiences don’t come to concerts hoping to see the performer fail. They are not there to spot errors or imperfections in performance; they have paid for tickets because they want to hear the musicians perform. They are there because they want to be there, to hear the music, and because they enjoy the concert experience and admire the performers. 

Performing is about connection not perfection. As musicians, we want to connect with our audience to communicate and share our music with them. It’s a sympathetic, almost supportive relationship, as the audience create atmosphere and a sense of occasion in the concert hall – and also affect the acoustic of the venue. That special relationship between musicians and audience has been much missed over the past year, and almost every musician I know cannot wait to be back in the concert hall performing to a real live audience once again.

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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.


155451881_456029508784091_9056883481354279496_nMatthew 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.

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Guest post by Dr. Elizabeth Brooker

Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) is a widespread problem. It affects musicians of any age, instrument, level of expertise, professional and amateur musicians alike. It can be a crippling experience for anyone who suffers, turning a performance into a nightmare. Promising and talented musicians have given up the idea of professional careers because of MPA. In fact research has shown that over 60% of performing musicians are afflicted with this.

This phenomenon not only affects musicians but also individuals in other fields of performance. It’s a feeling of being ‘in the spotlight’ or ‘on show’ in what is deemed to be a threatening situation. Of course up to a point anxiety can be a good thing, it can focus the mind and enhance the performance; however when cognitive anxiety becomes uncontrollable (catastrophising, imagining the worst possible scenario) it can have devastating effects.

It is said that a small amount of anxiety focuses the mind, but a large amount paralyses it. The mind affects the body, and a whole raft of unwanted physiological and somatic symptoms can occur when performance anxiety sets in, such as palpitations, heart racing, sweating, shaking/trembling, loss of focus and a feeling of being out of control. I know from first-hand experience what performance anxiety is like as in the past I could feel physically sick before a piano performance; and over the years of teaching both piano and singing have noticed how some of my students have also suffered from anxiety in performance.

A large amount of research over the last 40 years has focused on MPA, yet the problem still exists. Therefore you may wonder why MPA is still so prevalent! I believe that the reason for this is that the majority of investigative research has looked at the effectiveness of interventions that focus on the conscious mind. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the main therapy in vogue at the present time. I would argue that the nature of this therapy, which focuses only on the conscious mind, does not get to the root cause of the problem only dealing with the presenting or surface issues.

I qualified as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist (CH) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) practitioner several years before my PhD research and adopted these therapies in my private practice. I noticed how beneficial these were for the rapid and long-lasting treatment of anxiety. Both therapies have the potential to reduce anxiety quickly and effectively and this is sustainable over time. The protocols and procedures are designed to desensitise and reprocess dysfunctional cognitions, emotions, and memories linked to past and present negative experiences: the underlying unconscious processes that an individual may not actually be aware of that can be maintaining the problem.

CH changes the memory and meaning of distressing events by reducing the perception of threat, and also the somatic symptoms of anxiety associated with the event (threat). Hypnosis dates back over 200 years as an area of scientific research and clinical practice and is used to bring about positive change in a wide variety of psychological conditions. EMDR used initially in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder has expanded widely over the last ten years now treating a wide range of pathological conditions, including anxiety disorders and associative problems. It has also been used for enhancement of performance in the arts.

Having noted these positive effects in private practice I wanted to test the therapies from a scientific standpoint. My thesis therefore focused on cognitive anxiety (specifically relating to pianists) and the role of the unconscious mind in maintaining and exacerbating the problem of MPA. It is the first clinical outcome study to compare two psychotherapies, CH and EMDR, for the reduction of MPA. Investigating the efficacy of these therapies therefore became the primary focus of my research.

The procedure and method of my research into MPA is given in brief below.

Pilot Study

The therapies were tested initially in a pilot study of six Grade 8 pianists from the University of Leeds and Leeds College of Music. All were suffering from MPA to a lesser or greater extent. Baseline measures of state and trait anxiety were first taken. State anxiety is the anxiety that someone can experience when performing (it has been described by one of my students as ‘feeling like a rabbit when caught in headlights’) and trait anxiety is an individual’s generic level of anxiety. The cognitive, physiological and behavioural aspects of anxiety were also tested before and after application of the therapies. Students played the same Bach Prelude and Fugue in two small concert performances. After the first performance participants were randomly assigned to either a therapy or control group. In the period between the concerts the therapy groups received 2 one-hour sessions of either CH or EMDR.

The results of the pilot study showed a significant decrease in state anxiety at the second performance post-therapy in both the CH and EMDR groups but not in the control group.

Main Study

Having tested the effects of the therapies in a pilot study I then continued the research with a much larger sample of 46 advanced pianists. (Students were from the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield and Leeds College of Music). The main study basically followed the same procedures as the pilot study but with participants choosing their own repertoire. In this study self-report questionnaires were also completed by the students prior to each performance. These gave personal insights into thoughts and feelings experienced in both performances and showed that cognitive perception of performance relates directly to the physiological symptoms experienced, and to the performance outcome.

The results of the main study demonstrated that after only two therapy sessions there was a substantial decrease in state anxiety in both therapy groups, but not in the control group. This resulted in fewer physiological symptoms and greater enhancement of performance in the therapy groups. Also the general level of anxiety (the trait level) decreased substantially below baseline levels in the EMDR group.

This research highlighted a number of important issues. The findings suggest that CH and EMDR have an important contribution to make to our understanding and treatment of MPA and the role of the unconscious mind. It demonstrated the effectiveness of the therapies in both significantly reducing MPA and enhancing performance outcome after only two therapy sessions. There is also evidence that EMDR decreases an individual’s trait level of anxiety, which can be interpreted as a change in personality. Given the importance of these results it is suggested that clinical studies now be conducted comparing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with CH and EMDR. The effectiveness of each therapy can be assessed as well as the number of sessions required to bring about a beneficial result. Research has shown that CBT often requires 10 or more sessions, with sometimes little positive change as the outcome. Furthermore a comparison of the cost-effectiveness of CH and EMDR with CBT should be undertaken given the beneficial effects of CH and EMDR after only two sessions.

For those interested in looking at my research in greater depth I give a list of my publications below:

Brooker, E. (2015). Music performance anxiety: An investigation into the efficacy of cognitive hypnotherapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing when applied to Grade 8 pianists. Doctoral dissertation eThesis, University of Leeds. Retrieved from http://ethesis,whiterose.ac.uk/12130.

Brooker, E. (2018). Music performance anxiety: A clinical outcome study into the effects of cognitive hypnotherapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing in advanced pianists. Psychology of Music, 46(1, 107-124).

Brooker, E. (2019). Transforming Performance Anxiety Treatment Using Cognitive Hypnotherapy and EMDR. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-138-61493-2 (hbk) ISBN: 978-0-367-60676-3 (pbk, 2020).

Brooker, E. (2019). Cognitive hypnotherapy and EMDR. The longitudinal effects on trait anxiety and music performance in advanced pianists. Advances in Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2019; 5(4); acam.000616.

Brooker, E. (2020). Cognitive Hypnotherapy. In C. Mordeniz (Ed.), Hypnotherapy and Hypnosis (pp.103-117). IntechOpen: London, UK. http://.doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.83045.

The euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the act of performing, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it.

And then, suddenly, it is all over…..You wake the morning after with a sense of deflation, the euphoria of the previous night now replaced by ennui.

This is in fact quite normal and the explanation for these feelings is simple: you’re coming down from an adrenaline ‘high’.

Anxiety is a natural part of the performance experience and should be accepted as such. While many of us may dwell on the psychological and emotional symptoms of anxiety (the fear of making mistakes, memory slips, negative self-talk etc), most of the symptoms we feel ahead of a performance are in fact physiological, the result of the release of adrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter which is produced when we find ourselves in stressful or exciting situations. Known as the “fight or flight hormone”, it works by stimulating the heart rate, contracting blood vessels, and dilating air passages, all of which work to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs. This gives the body an increased and almost instantaneous physical boost. In a performance situation, the side-effects of adrenaline pumping through the body include racing heart or palpitations, sweating, breathlessness, nausea, and trembling or shaky hands, arms or legs. It also brings a heightened sense of awareness and increased respiration which can make one feel light-headed or dizzy. Understanding the physical symptoms of performance anxiety can go a long way to managing the unpleasant feelings, together with deep practising and good preparation, which can remove some of the psychological stress. We do not need to “fight the fear” but simply accept that these sensations and feelings are normal and common to us all – even musicians at the top of the profession.

The symptoms of the release of adrenaline do not leave the body the instant the stressful situation ends, and when one is not actually in a genuinely dangerous situation, the effects of adrenaline can leave one feeling jittery, restless,  irritable and sleepless. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, you may continue to feel excited, “on a high”. Many people find it beneficial to “work off” the adrenaline rush after a particularly stressful situation (the clichéd example perhaps being the rock star trashing a hotel room after a gig!). It can take several hours for the body to settle down and the day after the concert, one can feel very flat as adrenaline leaves the system and one’s hormonal levels return to normal.

In reality, there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness. There may be another concert to prepare for, new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revived and finessed. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. The performance is what endorses all the lonely hours of careful practice and preparation.

“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

Stage fright? Blame Liszt – article by pianist Stephen Hough

Guest post by Madeline Salocks

Decades later, I recall my first piano performance in front of a large audience as if it occurred only a few years ago. I was in college, and, with another student who I’ll call Michael, had worked up the Beethoven G minor sonata for piano and cello. Wondering if we could take it beyond the practice room, we’d auditioned to perform in a well-attended campus concert series, and had been thrilled to be selected. With the good news, we’d stepped up our rehearsing, and had availed ourselves of expert coaching from our respective noted teachers.

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By the time the concert was fast approaching, we were ready. But, once the countdown had progressed from weeks to days to just hours, you’d have thought I was about to make a Carnegie Hall debut I was so keyed up.  The entire night before the concert, I tossed and turned in varying states of dread, the quiet darkness enabling my swirling thoughts. How did I ever get myself into this? What if I play fistfuls of wrong notes all over the place? What if I freeze and have to leave the stage, disappointing not only myself, but worse yet, Michael, who is depending on me to play my part? And on and on it went. After hours of this, I began to see the dawn easing in gently through the gauzy white curtains of my bedroom window. I hadn’t slept one minute, but I still had plenty of energy–nervous energy. A little later, the bright spring day brought marginal relief, but I still wished it were some other day. Do I have to do this? Yes, you do! I passed through a few more fretful hours, and then the moment arrived. Alex, in a yellow button-down shirt and gray dress pants, and I, in a long blue and yellow flowered skirt and blue top, stood waiting in the wings, looking through the stage entrance across a wide-open expanse of wooden flooring at the Steinway grand piano, and the chair and music stand in front of it. Michael smiled, perhaps through jitters of his own. But I, feeling as if I were perched on the edge of a cliff, wasn’t smiling, and practically had to be pushed out on stage.

As we started the piece and my fingers shakily navigated the notes I’d spent so many hours drilling, every sound and sensation was magnified, and at the same time the very familiar score in front of me suddenly looked less familiar. Doubts pushed their way in front of the music. What am I doing here? I feel like a fraud! I clung on in autopilot, but would the autopilot be reliable all the way through? Moving past the introductory Adagio Sostenuto ed Espressivo and into the Allegro Molto Piu Tosto Presto, the opportunities for mishap seemed to increase tenfold. So many notes, so fast–I feel like a runaway train! But I hung on. Then, a few pages in, settling down a bit, I began to play some of the phrases less automatically and with more in-the-moment intention, although I still tightened up here and there. Maybe I can get through this. My fingers continued rippling across the keys, through the driving cascades of the Allegro Molto and then through the sparkling passagework of the effervescent Rondo Allegro.

In the end, my sleepless night and apprehensions notwithstanding, the performance was pretty good—about a B in comparison to our best, considering various aspects—accuracy, expression, ensemble. After the clapping died down and we returned back stage, we were both smiling this time, pleased with the outcome and feeling a sense of accomplishment. But my nerves had done their best to derail me, and it was only because I’d been so thoroughly well-rehearsed that I’d been able to still turn in a decent showing. There’s a reason for the adage that there’s no substitute for practice.

Fortunately, since then, I’ve never been affected by performance nerves to the point of missing an entire night of sleep. And on occasion I’ve felt genuinely comfortable performing. But usually I find myself somewhere along the performance nerves scale (excluding zero).

It’s as if your mind’s evil twin swoops in and says, “Ha! Let’s see how you do now!” as it tries to sabotage your hard work by revving you up, planting what-if thoughts, pulling away your focus–or the opposite, heightening your awareness of too many details, and, at the same time, making your hands shaky, sweaty, sticky, ice cold, stiff, or some combination of those sensations. Bringing distraction on the mental side and technical constraints on the physical side, and impeding flow on both sides. Furthermore, the precision required in classical music, with little leeway and no opportunity to pause or “play it by ear”, makes things worse.

What causes stage fright? For some, it could be perfectionism. For others, it could be fear of being judged. For me, it’s that I want the end result—all coming down to this one moment, with no warm-ups or re-starts possible—to be worthy of the time I’ve invested, and at least in the “ballpark” of whatever I’ve managed to achieve. And the fight or flight part of my brain doesn’t seem to like the uncertainty that anything can happen during that one chance. More so, I want the end result to be worthy of the audience’s time, even though, when in the audience myself, I’ve seen other musicians become noticeably out of sync, play those fistfuls of wrong notes, or even stop and regroup, and yet I’ve never thought the concert wasn’t worth my time. In fact, I’ve respected their soldiering on despite a glitch, enjoyed the performance, and left with an overall positive impression. So why wouldn’t I allow myself the same latitude? It’s a good question without an easy answer.

If I’m playing with others, which is usually the case, the biggest stage fright trigger is my fear of letting the other musicians down. They’ve invested a lot of time too, and surely want an outcome that’s at least reasonably representative of the work they’ve put in just as much as I do. I don’t want to throw a wrench into their performance.

So why perform? Because I believe in the tradition of live music. Since I’ve spent a lot of time learning to play an instrument, it makes sense that I put it to use and make a contribution with it.

In my college years studying piano, I found surprisingly little written on the topic of stage fright. And people didn’t freely discuss it–almost as if the subject was taboo. An admission of performance nerves seemed like an admission of inadequacy or unworthiness. Assuming (erroneously) that everyone else was, if not unflappable, then at least far more easy-going than I about performing, I felt isolated. If I asked a teacher or a coach, I might get a blank look, as if stage fright were a foreign concept, then, “Oh don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” This was useless. Other responses were, “Pretend the people in the audience are in their underwear,” or, “It’s just a matter of concentrating.” These too were useless, and as for the latter, this tip was also ironic, since one of the very things stage fright can cause is a problem with concentration. The teachers were well meaning, but unprepared to guide in this aspect. And perhaps those particular teachers had been, luckily for them, relatively free of nerves in their own performances.

But now, stage fright is freely discussed, and recognized as very common, from beginning students to the most seasoned world-class musicians, including the likes of Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz, Emanuel Ax (New Yorker). Many books have been written, the Internet is full of blogs and articles (a particularly good example being The Bulletproof Musician website), and some music schools and departments have classes to help.

I’m still an occasional performer, and always open to ideas for reducing performance nerves, so I’ve read plenty of material and tried various suggestions over the years. Following is a roundup of my personal anecdotal experience with many of them, and a brief assessment of their effectiveness in decreasing my level of nervousness, to the extent that I’ve been able to recognize.

These anti-stage fright suggestions have produced no positive effect on performance nerves in my personal experience, although some are good practices for other reasons:

  • Eat a banana shortly before the performance. Bananas are rich in B vitamins and magnesium, which are associated with calming the nervous system and promoting a positive mood. However, I suspect the potential dose of tranquility in a banana is far too miniscule to have any chance against the powerful presence of the stage fright beast.
  • Limit caffeine the day of the performance. Saying no to coffee or tea for several hours before the performance won’t lessen jitters, but it’s obviously sensible to avoid exacerbating them.
  • Eat a light healthy meal no closer than 2 hours before the performance. This is sensible because a large meal ahead of the concert, no matter how healthy, would likely produce a negative impact on cognitive function due to blood being diverted from the brain to the stomach for digestion.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day of the performance. This too is sensible since dehydration can also have a negative impact on cognitive function.
  • Connect with the audience just before the performance. Chatting with people before the concert or making eye contact with someone in the audience just before playing is nice to do, but here too I’ve found no connection between it and lessened performance nerves.

The next suggestions have produced no obvious positive effect on performance nerves in my personal experience, but I believe they might be helpful, even if only subtly or imperceptibly:

  • Take a walk or otherwise exercise moderately on the day of the performance. Since there seems to be no debate on the benefit of exercise for stress reduction overall, I assume this can have a slight positive effect on performance nerves, especially if it’s a regular habit and not just done on the day of the performance.
  • Practice meditation. Once, as part of my preparation for a concert, I took a 6-week meditation class and then continued practicing meditation every day for the remaining two months prior to a performance of particularly difficult music. Perhaps my meditation sessions weren’t long enough or the three and a half month duration wasn’t sufficient, because, as it turned out, the level of jitters at the concert was about the same as usual. Still, as with exercise, given the volumes written on meditation and stress reduction, I believe it should be considered as potentially beneficial for performance nerves, even if its effectiveness may vary with the individual.
  • Make a fist with your left hand and hold for a few seconds just before performing. The act of making a fist with the left hand is thought to activate the brain’s right hemisphere and thereby counter overthinking, one of the features of performance nerves. Studies have been done on athletes with success, and I’ve occasionally noticed professional tennis players do it. I haven’t detected any difference when I’ve tried it myself, and I also wonder if the desired state is sustained though a piece of music. But it’s certainly easy enough to do.

These suggestions have produced a very modest yet noticeable positive effect on performance nerves for me:

  • Turn negative self-talk positive. I’ve heard it said that self-talk can change belief, and I’ve also heard it said that self-talk is ineffective without underlying belief, which sounds paradoxical. I look at it as reinforcing an idea in which one can at least entertain some belief. If I catch adverse self-talk when it comes up (typically on the day of the performance, or even the day before) and turn it into something positive but at the same time realistic (and believable), it helps to avoid the extra shot of jitters that come from self-doubt and adverse predictions. For example, “This is just a thought. It may be worrisome and unpleasant, but it’s not a predictor. I’ve practiced well, so chances are good the concert will go well.” A common recommendation is to reframe “I’m nervous” to “I’m excited”, which might work for some people.
  • Breathe deeply with a controlled technique. I like to incorporate this well-known anti-stress measure in general anyway, using the Weil 4-7-8 breathing technique (Weil). When a performance is about to go on, the deep breathing certainly doesn’t usher in total relaxation, but it helps.
  • Centre. This technique is based on deep breathing but adds additional steps of finding a physical center, visualizing the release of negative thoughts from the center (described, for example, as an imagined ball being thrown, or a balloon rising up, or even a laser beam of energy directed to a far point), and then affirming positive intention or affirmation. Admittedly, the effectiveness of the ball/balloon/laser beam part has eluded me. But, I find the rest useful as basically a combination of deep breathing and positive self-talk.

The next suggestions are concerned with boosting confidence from having already “been there”, thereby automatically reducing the nerves to some extent for the next performance, and, in my experience, are clearly helpful:

  • Record. Turning on a recorder can bring out performance nerves just as if an audience dropped down into the room, especially if it’s a recorder in a professional studio, but even a phone recorder will do. It feels like a performance, and is a performance, except that the audience is a microphone. Also, recording the piece under less-than-optimal conditions, some of which could be the case at the concert, is useful because it makes me realize I don’t have to have my usual comfortable environment in order to play. Possibilities include: a too hot or too cold ambient temperature, poor lighting, noise, and especially, lack of warm-up since, more often than not, there’s little or no chance for warming up at a concert.
  • Arrange trial performances. There’s nothing like actually performing the program to build confidence. A home concert works well, and, for me, even a one-person audience counts. A potential added benefit of the trial performance is that it can reveal areas that need more attention.
  • At this point, I should mention visualization, which some would put in the same category as the two above, suggesting that visualizing playing a successful performance (complete with audience clapping) results in the same kind of memory as playing an actual successful performance, thus boosting confidence and reducing nerves from having “been there”. I’m aware that studies have shown visualization does lay down neural pathways similar to real action. So, in theory, visualization of a successful performance should plant a desirable imprint in the brain. But, I cannot personally attest to its effectiveness from my own experience, although it’s possible I haven’t tried it enough, or my visualizations haven’t been vivid enough. (However, as an aside, I can say with confidence that visualizing playing a piece in detail is helpful for knowing it better, particularly a memorized piece, performance nerves or no performance nerves.)

The next anti-stage fright suggestion, in a different category, is also clearly helpful in my experience:

  • Beta-blockers. These require a doctor’s prescription and may not be medically appropriate for some people. And some might not like the idea. But, for me, Propranolol is definitely helpful for lessening shaking hands, somewhat helpful for reducing sweaty palms, and occasionally (but not reliably) marginally helpful for mentally staying in the moment–although the benefit is almost entirely on the physical side.

In addition, I offer two more ideas that go back to the practicing–but with an eye to performance nerves. These suggestions don’t decrease performance nerves per se, but having done them in practice can be of some help when performance nerves crop up.

  • Improve preparations. I’m not talking about thorough preparation of the piece in the general sense, although clearly that’s important. Here, I’m talking about hand preparations at a detailed level. One of the aggravating symptoms of performance nerves during the concert is the feeling of being stiff and stuck, in contrast to a relaxed practice session where it can often feel like there’s all kinds of time to move from note to note with ease and flow. Because of this feeling that there’s plenty of time to move about, I might have drilled in a habit of, for example, moving from a certain chord to the next chord at the last moment, which works fine as long as I’m relaxed. But, in performance, if my hands and fingers feel semi-paralyzed, as if they’re up against a mini headwind, moving from that first chord to the next can be more of a frantic scramble. Anticipating that possibility, I can add a bit of “insurance” with a slightly adjusted gesture where I move to the second chord sooner. There are many variations on this concept, including more efficient hand positions and fingering adjustments. I’ve found it helpful to go through the piece well before the performance and look for places where I can improve motion between notes and positioning, all toward the goal of better preparations. Plus, and this can be harder to detect, I sometimes find spots where I’m mentally lagging or sticking to a spot in my head rather than moving forward. Ideally I’d be efficient with good anticipation everywhere in the piece from the start, both physically and mentally–but I always find room for improvement when I devote time to examining a piece with that purpose in mind.
  • Consciously notice details. Another aggravating stage fright symptom during the concert is suddenly noticing details that have been relegated to the background and trusted since earlier stages of working on the piece. Once I look at a phrase or a bar, or even a portion of a bar, in a different way than before, I’m thrown off, and, as the music goes on, I must quickly regroup. One way to help reduce the surprise of details coming out of the woodwork and grabbing my attention is to include some practice starting at odd places. Another is to continue to include, all the way up to the concert, slow deliberate practice with close attention on the “trees”, as long as there is still plenty of at-tempo practice with attention on the “forest”.

And one final suggestion.

Accept the nerves.

As in much of life, accepting “what is” is important, and sometimes that means being willing to feel uncomfortable. Accepting and acknowledging nerves doesn’t make them go away, but removes the compounded fear of the fear—the extra dose of nerves arising from resisting them.

Since my assessment of the performance nerves suggestions isn’t a methodical study with conditions set up perfectly, it’s of course imprecise. Each performance situation is different in terms of the music, the venue, other people involved, and general wellbeing at the time, as well as other life factors that can play in. Plus, if I’ve incorporated more than one suggestion, it’s hard to be sure which ones have helped and how much. It comes down to perception. Still, overall, in my personal experience with this ongoing process, although I’ve found nothing remotely close to a panacea, or with what I’d call a huge impact, I’ve come to believe there are additional measures that can help my chances, at least to some degree, against the stage fright beast who is likely to show up.

Resources:

Weil. Three Breathing Exercises and Techniques. Retrieved from https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/

New Yorker. I Can’t Go On! Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/03/i-cant-go-on


Madeline Salocks is a San Francisco Bay Area-based software and web developer who also enjoys playing chamber music and teaching piano.

 

 

 

Guest post by Christina Cooper

You’ve tried every tool and technique from every book you’ve ever read, taken advice from teachers, colleagues, friends, and even tried to find your own ways of dealing with nerves. Still, you find yourself frustrated every time it comes to performance. Isn’t it soul-destroying when you spend so much time and effort practising and securing a piece at home, only to find that as soon as the pressure is there, the nerves creep in and the mistakes crop up?

Over the years, on countless occasions my piano pupils have shown visible frustration when they find that they can’t play to me what they’d played fluently at home. ‘I had it perfect at home!’ they exclaim – just in case I try to scold them for thinking they haven’t done any practice. I feel their pain; I used to say the same to my teachers, too.

I have experienced performance anxiety from many different angles. In doing so, I have identified common patterns in how pianists and other musicians approach their problem which could be preventing them from making the changes they want to make. These limiting patterns of thinking and behaviour could be what are stopping you too, from playing more often with the confidence, flow and ease – qualities which are intrinsic to everyone.

So, if you have thrown everything at your performance anxiety but are still feeling perplexed, frustrated or demoralised, then here are 5 likely reasons why you haven’t yet got the upper hand on your performance nerves:

1. You Believe That Nerves Are Something You Just Need To ‘Get Over’

This is one of the biggest myths in the whole of the performance world. Yes, nerves (or adrenaline as it is objectively known) are normal and highly conducive to performance. But only the right level of nerves. If your nerves are making you shake like a leaf, feel very sick or take over your ability to play well, then it is not enough to say ‘deal with it.’ That level of nerves is not normal and there are likely to be good reasons why you experience them in such an overwhelming way. They may stem from past experiences which shaped your behavioural and thought patterns.

Often it is the case that performance anxiety has a specific root in a childhood event which caused significant emotional distress, such as being forced on stage when you didn’t feel confident. It can even be that something seemingly unrelated to performance triggered a limiting belief about yourself which is still with you today.

These negative patterns become entrenched in your subconscious mind. If you consciously try to tell yourself that you are silly to feel nervous or beat yourself up about it, then it will not help. The physical nerves you feel are an automatic response to a particular stimulus. You make meaning out of how you are feeling when you get nervous, and it then seems as if you are afraid of the experience of performing, when in actual case, you are simply experiencing the outdated trigger from childhood.

None of this happens consciously, so trying to rationalise any of it with your conscious mind will only cause the anxiety to strengthen. Instead, subconscious work can be done with a trained professional in a modality such as hypnotherapy, to find the root cause and rewire those negative patterns of thought and behaviour.

2. You Try To Fight Your Anxiety Or Push It Away

Anxiety will always have a subconscious trigger. If you try to fight it or push it away, the feeling will get stronger. This is because the primary role of your subconscious is to protect you. If it believes you are in a threatening situation – i.e. performing, then it will do everything it can to protect you from it. This is called the stress response, and is the fight, flight or freeze reaction you might experience when you get really nervous on stage.

You might ask, ‘why do I feel afraid even though I know it’s not a rational fear?’ Well that fear of making mistakes or being judged is actually a very primal fear. It is an evolutionary response from the times of tribespeople where social rejection means you may be cast out of the tribe, and potentially die because of it.

The nerves you feel on stage (the stress response) is wired to make you take action, so if you try to talk yourself out of it or push it away it will come back even stronger. It is trying to get you out of danger! A better response would be to welcome it and instead focus on the useful properties of that adrenaline. This is easier said than done, I know – which leads me nicely onto the next issue…

3. You Believe That Feeling Nervous Means That You Are Nervous

‘Hold on a second!’ I hear you exclaim. Before you think I’m crazy, please hear me out with this one. What we feel in any given moment is influenced by many different factors. Yet what we feel, is a result of the meaning we give that feeling.

Everything we experience in the world is always our brain’s best guess. Notice the butterflies you might feel in your stomach when you’re nervous. Do you get the same feeling of butterflies in your stomach when you are excited, too? Perhaps you call it something else, but it’s the same feeling. Scientifically speaking, the physiology of nerves and excitement is exactly the same. How do you know when you are nervous, and when you are excited then? Well that’s entirely down to context.

The feeling you experience in your stomach may be excitement in one context and nerves in the other, but it is the result of the same chemical – adrenaline. You only know how to experience that adrenaline based on the context of your experience. So if you are at the airport waiting to go on holiday, you may feel excited. If you are waiting to go on stage to perform piano, you may automatically recognise that adrenaline as nerves.

How is it then that you think you are nervous? Maybe you’re telling yourself that you haven’t prepared enough, that you’re going to make mistakes, that you’re not a very accomplished pianist – all of these are just best guesses. The fact that you make meaning out of your experience like this only serves to strengthen those thoughts which make the feeling stronger, and so you become caught in the negative loop.

Instead, try simply observing your feeling of ‘nerves.’ Take a step back, tell yourself that it doesn’t mean anything about how prepared you are, your ability as a pianist, or even the fact that you are even nervous. There is a wonderful theory which the neuroscientist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor calls the ’90 second rule.’ It states that emotions in their chemical form take just 90 seconds to course through the body and dissipate. Using this time to feel the fear at full strength gives your body the chance to process it without holding onto it. After that, if the feeling is still there it is because you are holding onto it psychologically.

So take some deep breaths to allow this process to happen naturally. If you do this without giving meaning to the fear then it becomes less important to your conscious mind, and it should start to subside. It feels scary, but it will dissipate.

4. You believe that you’re too shy, anxious, or lacking in confidence, and therefore not a natural performer

In discussions I’ve had with countless performing artists and those who work with artists, the general consensus is that some people are more susceptible to nerves and anxiety than others. People tend to relate shyness or nervous disposition to performance anxiety. However, one problem in making this assumption is that there aren’t causal links in the way we might imagine. There are many shy performers who completely open up on stage, and other seemingly confident performers who are consumed by nerves. So how is that the case?

For one thing, anxiety, or any other psychological issue is entirely context-dependent. There are many amateur pianists for example, who are great at public speaking but crumble on the concert platform. Both are performances, but the context is different.

The second thing to note is that shyness, low confidence and anxiety are not personality traits, nor are they fixed flaws. They are patterns of behaviour which may have become habitual, but which are reprogrammable. Yes, some people might have a genetic predisposition for anxiety, but environment largely dictates whether those genes become activated.

Personality is entirely fluid, and ever-changing. You are definitely not the same person today that you were when you were little. Question the belief that you are naturally shy, anxious or lacking in confidence, and you may start to notice that it’s a subconscious belief with firm roots in childhood.

5. You try to ‘manage’ your problem, using tools, techniques and coping strategies

Most people talk about ‘coping with’ and ‘managing’ performance anxiety without realising that it requires a different approach. The whole context of the situation needs to be taken into account. Nerves (or adrenaline) are a natural part of performance and it is our subconscious response to those nerves and our habitual patterns of thought and behaviour which need addressing.

Using tools and techniques to manage anxiety is a bit like building on weak foundations. You can build all you want but the cracks will just reappear. Instead, work needs to happen at a deeper foundational level to create a solid structure which can more easily weather the storms.

A key part of that foundational work is in addressing the root cause of your anxiety. Work should be done with a professional trained in hypnotherapy or other modality. Once the root has been addressed, work can be done to change your perception of adrenaline and fear, and on redefining your beliefs about who you are. With a solid grounding, those tools and techniques you were using before become much more effective, because you have reprogrammed your subconscious response to fear and anxiety.

The message I want you to take away from this article is that performance anxiety is not something you should just put up with. There is a reason you are experiencing it, and there is a way to free yourself from its shackles.

I have created a bespoke hypnosis download which is designed to kickstart the foundational work and help to rewire some of your negative pathways. So if you want to get out of your head and into flow, click here to start your journey.

 

Christina Cooper is running a Transformational Retreat for Pianists at Finchcocks in Kent from April 25-29, with pianist Niklos Stavlas and chef/coach Emma Broome. Further information and booking here

I invite you to step out of your busy and stressful life, and join an intimate group of pianists in the Kent countryside. Learn how to tune out of the noise of your inner critic, to play piano with greater freedom and ease. Reconnect with your passion, with fellow pianists and with yourself. Experience more confidence in yourself and your abilities as a pianist. Experience inner peace and the freedom to just be you.

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Christina Cooper is a performance coach, cognitive hypnotherapist, pianist and speaker, specialising in helping performing artists with performance anxiety. She runs retreats, coaches groups and individuals, and give talks and workshops around the globe in performance anxiety and all aspects of the psychology of performance. She is currently in the process of writing her first book: ‘It’s Not About The Stage fright – how to flip the coin from fear to flow,’ – aimed at helping performing artists in all disciplines. 

She holds a diploma in Cognitive Hypnotherapy and Master Practitioner of NLP from the Quest Institute. As a pianist (LTCL) she performs regularly in venues across London, as well as teaching piano to adults and children of all levels. She studied double bass at the Royal Academy of Music and The Juilliard School (BMus LRAM), and has performed in many different orchestras and ensembles such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera North, English Chamber Orchestra, English National Ballet and English Touring Opera.

www.christina-cooper.com

https://www.facebook.com/ChristinaCooperCoaching/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/PianoFlowZone/

@CHarmonycoach

www.linkedin.com/in/christina-cooper-680ab1136