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

 

Last weekend I performed at St John’s Smith Square, one of London’s premier music venues. This was part of their Music Marathon, 12 hours of continuous music making to coincide with the Open House London weekend. There was a great range of music and performers, a good-sized audience and a friendly atmosphere. I chose to perform, perhaps rather over-ambitiously, Schubert’s Sonata in A, D959, preceded by Britten’s Night Piece – a demanding programme of music lasting 45 minutes. I performed the Schubert Sonata 7 times last year (including the FTCL Diploma recital) but as any performer will tell you, each live performance reveals new or unexpected things about the music and you as a performer. I believe it is important to perform the music we study and play – not least because this wonderful music was written to be shared. Performing can take many forms – from informal playing at home with friends to a concert at a world-renowned concert hall – and each performance presents its own dificulties, stresses, pleasures and revelations.

I came late to performing, having had a long break from the piano after university, and completed two performance diplomas in my late 40s. In order to do this, and because I had not had a formal musical training in conservatoire, I had to “learn” how to be a performer (mostly by teaching myself and talking to and observing professional musicians at work). The most significant thing I have learned is that one must be extremely well-prepared – and prepared for anything and everything that can happen, both within the music itself and all the things one cannot control. Even the best laid plans in practise can come awry in performance, for a variety of reasons. For this reason most professional performers (and serious amateurs too) will do a number of practise performances in less important venues before the most important concert in their diary (at the Wigmore Hall for example, reputedly one of the hardest places to perform in because of its famously knowledgeable and discerning audience). Each performance is part of the learning process and whatever happens in a performance should be seen as a point of reference for future practising and preparation (and a timely reminder that we can never truly say that a piece of music is “finished”).  For example, during my SJSS performance certain passages which had seemed pretty secure in practise came unstuck (noticeably to me, but probably not to the audience as I managed to improvise). It can be quite a jolt to discover that one’s careful practising may not have been quite as scrupulous as one thought. For this reason, I try not to spend too much time negatively reflecting on a performance which may not have gone as well as I’d hoped, preferring to note the areas which require improvement and incorporate these into my practising regime. Thus, through these marginal gains one can take the music to another or different level each time it is performed.

Performing is physically and mentally demanding. and an unusual level of mental concentration is required combined with physical stamina for the duration of the performance (and playing for 45 minutes continuously is hard work!). Interruptions to one’s focus, such as noises in the hall, an error or memory lapse, or negative self-talk, can throw a performance off track and one sometimes has to muster huge forces to bring one back to the task in hand. This is why we must practise so meticulously, to make the music as secure as possible, so that we don’t break down or stop in performance (something I have only witnessed once in a professional performance, though I have encountered numerous but tiny errors or memory slips).

In addition, the stress and anxiety of performing does not pass the moment one leaves the stage. It can take some hours for the body’s stress hormones to return to their normal levels, which can leave one feeling jittery, restless, irritable and sleepless – despite one feeling physically and mentally drained. I have found isotonic drinks such as Gatorade help alleviate the physical and emotional effects of performing (these products have been proven to offer enhanced recovery to patients undergoing complex surgery).

Finally, one should try not to negatively post-mortem a performance too much. It has happened, in the moment, and now it is over and one should look forward to the next opportunity to present one’s music in concert. Compliments and generous feedback from audience members, colleagues and friends can make a huge difference to one’s attitude to a performance and help maintain a positive mindset.

So what did I learn from performing at St John’s Smith Square? First, that meticulous preparation is crucial and constantly reminding oneself of this truth is so important. Secondly, that one should never become complacent in the face of this great music; remain humble and do not allow one’s ego to get in the way of the music. Thirdly, accept compliments and comments with courtesy and humility – these are almost always genuine and given generously. Lastly, I have huge respect for professional musicians who perform regularly – because it ain’t easy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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