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

 

 

Guest post by Howard Smith

Like many adult learners, Howard Smith found it surprising that he would suffer that most debilitating of all pianistic ailments: extreme performance anxiety. He explained to me that this came as a big surprise, having been a confident keynote speaker at many large events during his long career in the IT industry. Now semi-retired, Howard is working hard to lead a new creative life, focussed on the piano.

Members of the London Piano Meet Group (LPMG) guided the initial development of Howard’s collation of collective wisdom.


Confronting my fears and learning ways to reduce and manage them is empowering. I can become a more confident performer.

There are two kinds of performance anxiety:

  • Irrational anxiety: fear for no good reason!  If I am well-prepared, it should be possible to overcome irrational anxieties.
  • Rational anxiety: insufficient practice and preparation. Maybe I was just lucky playing at home in the practice room? Under the spotlight, things fell apart.

The combination of sufficient practice and building resilience under emotional stress can help to reduce performance anxieties.

Technical preparation is the bottom line. Stiffness, awkward movements and poor technique become completely dysfunctional during a live performance; my mind and muscles won’t be able to cope.

I must develop a narrative of success and avoid a narrative of failure. A series of poor performances can result in a vicious cycle of negativity. Avoid at all costs.

Consider using techniques from NLP and CBT to turn negative messages and the ‘toxic inner critic’ into positive affirmation and confidence-boosting messages.

1) Adopt the Right Mindset

Accept yourself for what you are. How well you perform is not a determiner of your self-worth.

Nobody is perfect. A few mistakes are OK. Most audiences won’t notice, and many are non-judgemental.

Accept that a degree of nervousness (butterflies) is healthy. It is natural and affects most everyone. If you are not nervous or are overconfident, something is wrong. Adrenaline can be useful but needs a channel.

To build a narrative of success, seek out a graduated series of low-threat performance opportunities. Start with a video camera or tape recorder. Treat this session as if it were a real performance. Stand up and address your imaginary audience. Keep going, even if you make mistakes. Try to maintain the tempo. Then move to the next level: a trusted friend or musical associate. Then a few more friends. Etc.

Each time you perform, think about what you found hard. Consider what new coping strategies may be required.

2) Choice of Music

A successful performance of any piece of music boosts your confidence and increases emotional resilience in readiness for your next performance.

Choose music safely within or below your grade: ‘easy for you’ pieces with which you are entirely comfortable. Hard to say, difficult to do.

Play at a tempo at which you can be confident.

Performing less well-known repertoire can be helpful. Familiar or iconic music can attract higher expectations from audiences, heightening your natural fear of being ‘under the spotlight’.

3) Prepare for the Performance

Be well prepared. Practice. Practice. Practice. Eliminate anything and everything that can go wrong. Practice until you cannot go wrong.

Tip: A few days before your performance, identify the one bar (one) that you find the most challenging. Experience shows that this simple, practical solution seems to ‘clinch’ the sense of confidence after all else is said and done.

Perform whenever and wherever you can. For example, find a piano in a public space. Play when your friends come round, whether they want to hear or not. Tell your ad-hoc audiences to accept your performance for it is: the practise of practice! Doing so will help you feel what it is like to be nervous. These ‘safe’ performances reveal whether you have sufficiently practised.

Also, practise in front of your teacher. Take their advice but ask them not to obsess about tiny details. It’s too late for that. Ask them for their input on the entire sweep of the performance.

Work on controlled breathing, and meditation. Relax. Find the mind tools to redirect thoughts when they turn negative.

Be healthy. Exercise. Eat properly.

4) The Day Before

Limit stimulants. Get adequate sleep.

Practise yes, but avoid over-practise. Focus on the big picture.

Take a walk, jump up and down, shake out muscles, or do whatever feels right to ease any anxious feelings. Repeat nearer the time.

5) At the Performance

If possible, warm up beforehand by playing a few scales.  At least try to feel the piano keyboard in advance. Play a few notes and chords. Don’t forget the pedals.

Remind yourself that you are well-prepared. Don’t over-think what could go wrong.

Foster a ‘safe space’ for yourself in which to perform. Get into ‘the zone’. Centre yourself.

Adopt an aura of confidence. Visualise your success. Face down your anxiety.

Think of the audience as your friends. Connect with them – smile, make eye contact.

Shift the focus from your vulnerabilities, towards the music itself. Close your eyes. Imagine your audience enjoying the music.

Aim not only to perform correctly but also to communicate the emotion of the music (sadness, joy, profound feelings).

As you start to play; play with confidence. The success of the first few bars is essential to your continued confidence throughout the performance.

Breathe. Don’t hold your breath. Relax your facial muscles.

Play with passion! Play joyfully. Play as if you are giving a GIFT to your audience, instead of focussing on what may go wrong or being over-critical of yourself. Perfection if not the same as beauty. Moreover, leave your ego at home!

As you play, listen but do not analyse. Focussing too closely on finger and hand movement is not going to help at this stage. Communicate the expression or ‘story’ of the music rather than its technical aspects.

Allow the music to flow through you, imagine yourself as a conduit for it, rather than deliverer or controller.

Be in the present. Play in the moment. Don’t anticipate difficult future bars or upcoming tricky passages.  Avoid thoughts such as ‘I must not get that tricky chord wrong’ or ‘I must not trip up at bar 25’. Avoid all such negative thoughts.

Tip: Imagine the music is a music roll ticker-tape, inexorably moving forward. Let the music carry you along. Declutter your thoughts from the mechanical details of performance.

Bring your mind and hands together as one, not as separate machinery. Concentrate as you play. Do not allow stray thoughts to enter your head. Chase them out.

If you make a mistake, pick up, recover and carry on – with the least amount of fuss. Keep going. Maintain tempo. Whatever happens, try not to re-start.

Have fun!

5) After the Performance

Don’t dwell on what happened during your performance, other than to learn from obvious mistakes.

Plan for your next performance, right away.

Postscript: Additional Thoughts

Minimise distractions. Find a fixed point in the distance. Focus on whatever makes you feel comfortable. This point could be your music stand, the keyboard, or somewhere beyond the piano itself. Wherever or whatever it is, ensure that your focal point is below eye level.

Be deliberate. When you step up to the piano, how exactly do you intend to sound? What, precisely, do you intend to communicate to your audience?

Build the appropriate mental image of the way you would ideally like to perform. Tell yourself that you are going to perform brilliantly, with passion and clear dynamics. Think about positive words such as light fingers, smooth playing, even shifts, fluid movements, strong chords, quiet, calm, ease. Breathe from the diaphragm.

Avoid shallow, rapid, chest breathing. Performance anxiety creates muscle tension. As you breathe, focus on each group of muscles, releasing tension as you exhale.


 

Howard Smith
instagram.com/howardneilsmith

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Most of us tend to focus on the things that didn’t go so well in a performance – the misplaced notes, the smudged runs, the memory slips. Analysing why these things happened and exploring solutions to problems or finding ways to “future proof” our music for the next performance are important aspects of the “practice of practising”.

When a performance goes well, we might simply shrug and say “that went well” and briefly bask in the inner glow of success, the satisfaction of a job well done before moving on to the next task and preparing for another performance.

Reflection and critical self-feedback are important aspects of the process of learning and practising, and being able to pinpoint why a performance went well is as useful in the process as identifying and rectifying problem areas.

In early December 2017, I took part in a really delightful concert at the home of Neil Franks, chairman of the Petworth Festival. I had been invited to join him and two other pianists to play music for 2 pianos/8 hands, 6 hands and some solo works. Potentially, this was a nerve-wracking situation for me: I had given only a couple of public performances during the year and felt slightly out of practise as a performer. Added to that, I had to learn the ensemble pieces in a matter of a week, I would be working with people whom I had not met before, on pianos I had never played before. Ok, this was not the Wigmore Hall, but my naturally perfectionist nature wanted to ensure I was well-prepared for the concert so that I did not let down the others and played to the very best of my ability.

As it turned out, the concert proved to be the best thing I have done, musically, since I returned to playing the piano seriously about 10 years ago, and the entire evening was hugely enjoyable and rewarding for all sorts of reasons (read more about the event here). I was on such a high after the concert, I couldn’t sleep that night and spent the entire train journey back to London from Sussex the next day alternately grinning and admiring the lovely flowers I was given at the end of the evening. The following Monday, I had coffee with a pianist friend, and she asked me about the concert – had I been nervous and if so, how did I handle my nerves? What did I play? And – and this is important – exactly why I felt my performance had gone so well. “I really couldn’t say,” I replied. “It was just that it was all perfect!”.

I’ve subsequently allowed myself some time for proper reflection on the performance and drew some useful conclusions:

Choice of repertoire – I selected solo miniatures (works by Peteris Vasks, Chick Corea, Benjamin Britten and William Grant Still) which I knew well (apart from the Corea, of which more in a subsequent post), and had performed several times before. I spent quite a lot of time at home deciding in which order to play the pieces to create the right sense of flow, connection and atmosphere in my solo performance, for the audience and myself. Above all, these are all pieces which I absolutely adore and always enjoy playing.

The other pianists – highly capable, enthusiastic, intelligent, kind and supportive during our rehearsals, and positive in their feedback. The sense of a shared experience and mutual cooperation was so important in creating a really fine concert.

Ambiance – playing a beautifully set up Steinway B in Neil’s lovely country home, with views across the downs and friendly labradors wandering in to see what we were doing, undoubtedly helped take the edge off any performance anxiety

The audience – warm, friendly, enthusiastic, and very generous in their comments, both during the interval and after the concert.

Of course it is not always possible to have such a perfect combination of circumstances to enable a performance to go well, but we can try to go some way to recreating them each time we perform. This is something the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski says he does to allay his own performance anxiety: try to recall the positive feelings of a previous performance that went well and use this to build confidence and positivity about the next performance. To this I would also add playing repertoire in one which feels totally comfortable (not only have you prepared it carefully but you also like it). Above all, try to enjoy the experience – because sharing music with others is a truly wonderful thing to do.

An interview with Ruth Phillips, cellist, teacher and creator of Breathing Body, Breathing Bow workshops for cellists and other musicians

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Who or what inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career in music?

My mother is a music teacher and my father a painter. I started the cello at the age of 4 and had to get up every morning to practice before school. To be honest I remember it being excruciating. I was so uncomfortable in my body for so much of my childhood and early teens that I was unable to feel much connection to the instrument. To this day, I do not know how much the hours of practice on the instrument during those and even some of the subsequent years served me. However, singing and being immersed in music as a language from so early, having it be a source of community and communication, at first in the family and, later, on music courses, in chamber music and orchestras, was something from which I could not, initially, turn away and which, ultimately, I chose as a way of life. Career is a funny word…At the time I would have been ‘choosing a career’ I simply followed my heart and did that which I loved. Both my parents did that. My husband and I do it. I suppose, fortunately, I have never known anything else.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

I was a friend (and fan) of Steven Isserlis from a very early age – way before he was famous – and I attended the Cello Centre run by his teacher Jane Cowan both in London and at Edrom. If anyone breathes through their instrument in my opinion, it is Steven. That pretty much set the bar for me, though playing so effortlessly and with such apparent joy was an alien concept for a long time to come. Other inspiration was largely drawn from the extraordinary experiences I had year after year at the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove, with Sandor Vegh, Andras Schiff, Daniel Phillips and Johannes Goritzki, and later my wonderful teacher in the US, Timothy Eddy. What touches me is that every one of these people goes back in some way to one person whom I sadly never met or heard play, but the great grand teacher of so many of us – Pablo Casals. I was incredibly lucky to play in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for eight years under conductors such as Claudio Abbado and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and there are other things too, … standing on a street corner in Bamako (where my son was born) singing and dancing, African drumming, looking at the waves, writing a poem, watching my husband paint….it’s all connected.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

For musicians, a sense of belonging is important and yet as a freelance musician, that sense can be elusive. One is so easily replaceable, indeed so often replaced, and usually without explanation or a chance to evolve. It is hard not to take this personally (and of course sometimes it is personal) and thus become less and less confident even as one gains experience and ease on the instrument. The challenge seems to be to develop an inner confidence and be true to one’s voice. Now, approaching my mid-fifties, I, along with many of my colleagues I believe, am facing the challenge of moving gracefully into the latter part of my life as a musician. For me, this is about continuing to play whilst allowing the world of concert touring to flourish largely without me, turning my energy instead towards holding and passing on something of that which I have been so lucky to have been given. Happily this period coincides with having a young child late in life so it’s quite a relief on all fronts!

How did you develop your Breathing Bow technique?

I mentioned Steven Isserlis and most of my life has been spent trying to understand how his exquisitely breathing bow worked (because I don’t think he really understands it himself, it’s so natural!). His teacher Jane always spoke about winged bowing which was an important key, but learning how turn the lock and open the door took the next two decades and I am of course still learning.

When my beautiful Banks cello on which I had played all my life was smashed into a hundred pieces on tour with COE in 1989, I was forced to face the fact that it is not the cello but my body (and heart and spirit if you like) that is the instrument through which to express the music. The trouble was, I wasn’t in any way connected to my body. That was a point of breakdown, my starting point, and the point at which I went to study in America.

Since that fateful day, there have been several moments and elements that have come together to influence my approach. The first was my teacher Tim Eddy saying to me in my first lesson ‘Ruthie, something has to move inside you for you to be moved to play‘. It took me the next four years to understand and experience the truth of this, but that phrase changed my direction completely. Initially I became interested in Alexander technique and had a teacher come out to Stony Brook to work with all the string players. Then, on my return to the UK, having developed a frozen shoulder and been told I would never play again (doctors should get some counselling on how to deal with such situations!), I started practicing yoga and was lucky to find a teacher, Peter Blackaby, who revealed to me how movement happens in release, and how that release is connected to the breath. This, itself a mindful practice, led to practicing meditation.

Though I work happily alone, I am lucky to have two dear friends, also cellists, with whom I collaborate, one an Alexander teacher (Dale Culliford) and another a yoga teacher (Jane Fenton). I love working alongside them and increasing my own awareness at the same time, keeping my approach alive and changing rather than fossilizing into a technique. I hope to enjoy other collaborations in the future. For example, I’d love to work with a Feldenkrais teacher.

How has this technique helped you as a musician, performer and a teacher?

At university in America where I performed solo for the first time (having sneakily avoided it until then!) I suffered terribly from stage fright. Before my degree recital I actually thought I was going to die. I have since found out of course that I am not alone with having had these feelings. It’s helpful as a teacher to know that place first hand and, also, to know that it is not something one needs to suffer at all, let alone in silence. Having come through that myself I know that stage presence is something one can practice, just as one practices vibrato. I am now happier on stage than anywhere else. (Well, apart from watching my six year old son make fresh tagliatelle for 25 people!.)

How does your Breathing Bow technique support and help string players?

I suppose wind players have the greatest advantage in uniting their musical phrasing and their technique through the breath, because they can’t play otherwise. As string players, however, the breath is rarely mentioned other than something we have to catch occasionally between phrases. But, there is hope! We have this incredible curved extra limb called a bow which, when connected through the arm to the expanding and contracting rib-cage, can express all the qualities that the breath has – tension, release, expansion, contraction, expression, inspiration, control, letting go, strong, weak – and of course on which the music is based. Rather than the effort involved in sustaining an even bow pressure or speed or contact point resulting from a thought about the music and having to control every millisecond, the breath becomes a sort of limousine in which we can ride, uniting the body, the instrument and the music. Playing becomes such a pleasure!

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Do you think Breathing Bow has relevance to other instrumentalists and how might it help them?

I call it the Breathing Bow, but of course it’s not just about the bow. There are so many aspects to this approach that can help performers on all instruments, though I have of course developed it on the cello so I can apply things more easily to that instrument. For example, on the cello, when one releases from an impulse and the elbow drops (as in the release after bouncing a ball) the bow naturally rides up towards the fingerboard which creates exactly the release in the sound that the music demands. However, for a violinist, this is the opposite. Releasing the elbow brings the bow nearer the bridge. I have worked with quite a few violinists and violists and they are helping me with this. But yes, I believe anyone can benefit. I get everyone I work with to watch Andras Schiff play the piano, for example (as well as watching Roger Federer play tennis), and I do think he could do a mean line in the Breathing Keyboard…

How does Breathing Bow help in performance and can it counter the effects of performance anxiety?

I love to think about developing stage presence as opposed to countering the effects of performance anxiety or dealing with stage fright. The language we use is already so negative and I think one of our largest obstacles is that negative thinking and the fact that the subject has been taboo (it’s changing now, happily). Another is that I believe we are taught and therefore we practice being constantly in control – of every split second of every note, or every bit of every phrase. What we do not practice and therefore that with which we are uncomfortable is the aspect of the movement and the music that we do not control. We call this being ‘out of control’ and it terrifies us. No wonder we fall apart on stage when we lose some of our ability to be in constant control. However, we do not need to be in control all the time! In fact, I would say we need to be in control more like 30% of the time. I try and show people how to practice that aspect of letting go, allowing what we have set in motion to live its own life without our constant interference, knowing when to rest and simply listen. This takes a different kind of practice which is very enjoyable, like practicing being on holiday! Developing a quiet non-judgemental mind and knowing how to come into the present moment is naturally a huge part of this, and I would say one of the best things to do before going on stage, rather than running up and down the instrument, is to meditate.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

When I was playing under Harnoncourt in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, I will never forget the experience of the 4th cello, the second oboe, the soloist, the person in the back row of the audience, the conductor, even the space itself, being an equal part of this magical moment-to-moment unfolding. I am still not sure how Harnoncourt created this other than by being a true ‘conductor’, but I know that a search for this humility, this sense of simplicity and common humanity is the most important thing for me. We get so knotted up in ‘my performance’ ‘my technique’ ‘my interpretation’, and that ‘my’ implies a ‘your’ which creates duality. Sometimes the ‘you’ is a voice with whom we are at war within ourselves. If we can find a way to open ourselves and allow the music to flow through us as it is in the present moment then we can be at peace in a non-dualistic world which, especially in this current climate, feels like an urgent need. We are so privileged as musicians to be able to share this. I would encourage all musicians do find whatever way they can to make music not with fear but with joy.

 

Ruth Phillips is running a Breathing Body, Breathing Bow workshop in Cornwall from 21-24 November 2017 with Jane Fenton, and one in London on 21 January 2018 with Dale Culliford. For more information and booking, please contact Ruth Phillips at ruth@wintermane.com

Details can also be found on the London Cello Society website

http://www.londoncellos.org/cello-events/

Ruth runs Breathing Bow retreats from her home in Provence

http://thebreathingbow.com