‘Composed’ received its London premiere on 2 May 2017. The director is looking for futher London and UK screening opportunities – if you are interesting in hosting a screening, please get in touch via the contact page of this site

Performance Anxiety – for many musicians and performers it’s the fear which cannot, must not, speak its name, and together with injury and illness, it’s a major taboo. We don’t discuss anxiety because we’re not supposed to feel it. As highly trained individuals, musicians are supposed to sweep onto any stage, large or small, and perform with confidence, poise, and musical imagination, never betraying the slightest hint of nerves. As with injury, anxiety is often kept hidden and not discussed because sufferers fear (that word again) that admitting to it is a sign of weakness, technical or artistic, which may lead to loss of work and status, and the disapproval of colleagues, teachers, more senior musicians, critics and even audiences.

One of the crucial steps in coping with Performance Anxiety (and sufferers should not necessarily seek a “cure”) is accepting that it is something that happens to most performers, that it is normal, and that the physical symptoms are common to us all, driven by the body’s “flight or fight” response. ‘Composed’, an insightful new film by percussionist and film-maker John Beder, goes a long way in supporting this view, while opening up the discussion about performance anxiety in a sympathetic way.

Originally intended as a study of musicians’ use of beta blockers to subdue the symptoms of anxiety and how such drugs are perceived within the classical music community, ‘Composed’ takes a broad view, exploring the passion and motivation which drives people to become professional musicians, the root causes and symptoms of performance anxiety, the difference between practising and performing, music education, deep learning and proper preparation for auditions and performance, the fight or flight response, perfectionism and how hard musicians are on themselves. With contributions from musicians (soloists and orchestral players) and experts in the field of peak performance and performance anxiety, including Dr Noa Kageyama (creator of The Bulleproof Musician), Mike Cunningham (mind training coach), Gerald Klickstein (author of The Musician’s Way) and Professor Aaron Williamon (Professor of Performance Science at the Royal College of Music), the film offers a sensitive and honest account of the exigencies of the profession.

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(source: ‘Composed’ website)

Rather than present dry advice and one-size-fits-all coping strategies, the first-hand accounts of musicians, teachers and practitioners offer insightful personal anecdotes and solutions. The film also touches on the competitive nature of the conservatoire system, the ruthlessness of the professional career and how musicians, who tend to forge friendships and communities with others in the profession, find themselves competing with friends and respected colleagues at auditions for orchestral positions or concert bookings which can set up feelings of “inner turmoil of wanting to encourage your friends while secretly hoping the panel will favor your performance”(John Beder, film-maker). Such feelings can lead to self-doubt and anxiety.

The responsibility of teachers, mentors and institutions in supporting musicians is also explored. Until fairly recently, support for students suffering from performance anxiety was virtually non-existent in the conservatoire and music college system, except from a few enlightened tutors. Today, students have more resources at their disposal, including mindfulness and mind training, biofeedback, Alexander Technique, yoga and relaxation techniques, counsellors and hardware such as the Royal College of Music’s innovative performance simulator which allows students to perform before a virtual audience or audition panel.

There is also practical information about the physiological effects of beta blockers and commentaries by users, including a painfully honest account by a British cellist who also resorted to alcohol while still at music college to help her deal with debilitating performance anxiety.

It took John Beder two years to produce ‘Composed’. Originally, 61 musicians gave interviews for the documentary, though not all of them made the final cut, and Beder’s approaches to musicians were generally met with gratitude – “I wish we talked about this more” was a common response, proof that this is a subject musicians want to discuss in a more open forum. To hear musicians talk openly about their personal struggles, emotional limitations and coping mechanisms reminds us that we are very much not alone with our anxieties. The film is an empathetic and humane examination of the musician’s life and work, providing a greater understanding of the pressures, and pleasures, of the musical life, and is a potent reminder that musicians should “know themselves”, to appreciate their strengths and abilities, rather than continually comparing themselves to others. As such it makes an important and timely contribution to the study and understanding of performance anxiety.

“The film explores what without exception all of us, performers, have experienced and known well – first, love for our craft and stage, and then performance anxiety at the other end of this beautiful and exciting spectrum. Congratulations to the director John Beder and his team for completing this project and for inviting all of us to a meaningful and necessary conversation.”

Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

John Beder is currently looking for UK venues for future screenings of ‘Composed’. If you would like to host a screening or suggest a venue please contact John via this site or via the Composed website

‘Composed’ trailer

cf3a43f548ef0b0425f8af95032b8849Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain. “Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections which take place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states. The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative: it is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.

As musicians most of us are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice within that can sabotage a practise session or performance and damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk. The ability to self-evaluate one’s playing and performance and give oneself critical feedback is of course very important: it enables us to practise effectively and mindfully, it encourages humility in our work and tempers the ego. Equally, we should be able to accept criticism and feedback from teachers, mentors, colleagues and peers, provided it is given in the right way. But if our own self-criticism, and/or the comments of others, is repeated too often we can fall into a spiral of negativity.

From the teacher who continually undermines the student with negative feedback to the inner critic which constantly comments adversely on one’s playing, chipping away at one’s self-confidence, these repetitive detrimental experiences encourage negative neural traits which in turn build a negative mental state – and with repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time. So if you continually dwell on self-criticism, anxieties about your abilities, your lack of confidence or a teacher’s negative comments, your mind will more easily find that part of your brain and will quickly help you to think those same negative thoughts again and again.

An example – the piano student who constantly self-criticises her own playing. The student in question is in her mid-teens, a bright, enthusiastic, engaged and confident young person who is not only a sensitive pianist but also a talented violinist and who is developing into an intelligent and expressive musician. Each lesson usually begins with the student playing one of the pieces or studies she is working on for her Grade 8 exam. She plays well, taking note of expression and tempo markings, dynamics, articulation, but almost every slip is met with profuse apologies or restarts, and as the music progresses, the errors increase. Her performance usually ends with her saying “I’m so sorry! That was awful! I played terribly today” – or words to that effect. Despite her teacher’s (me) reassurance that she played well, that there is noticeable improvement, etc., she continues to berate herself for her lack of ability. She recently performed in a school concert, playing with great poise and apparent confidence. Yet no sooner had she replaced her violin in its case, than the negative self-crticism and worrying about the quality of her performance began. Later, at the drinks reception following the concert, many members of staff and friends told her how beautifully she’d played, how much they had enjoyed her performance, but she continued to accentuate the negatives.

Sadly, this circle of negativity is not helping this student. She veers between believing she is a good musician (which she is) and that she is a terrible musician (which she isn’t). Because of the reiteration of negative messages, via her own inner critic and (I suspect) a parent with very high, or unrealistic, expectations, the circle continues, preventing her from becoming the poised and confident musician I believe she can be.

It upsets me to see my wonderful student struggling with so much negativity, much of which is self-generated (I’m no psychologist but I can guess at some of the roots of her issues because I recognise them from my own lack of confidence as a teenage pianist which I carried with me into adulthood). It’s quite clear, to me at least, that her negativity is self-perpetuating and in order for her to move forward the cycle needs to be broken. I am working with her to help her understand how to turn her negative thoughts into positive ones, using some of the techniques below.

Break the negative cycle and turn “I can’t” into “I can”

  • Banishing the inner critic is a key act in encouraging a more positive mindset. Acknowledge that your inner critic exists and then literally “show it the door” by imagining you are ushering the horrid creature out of your mind.
  • Attach a positive thought to a negative one: “I played that passage incorrectly, but I understand why I made a mistake so I know how I can put it right“.
  • Exchange perfectionism for excellence. Perfection is unrealistic and unattainable, excellence is achievable. Strive for excellence in your own work by setting yourself realistic goals and standards (these can be set in consultation with a teacher or mentor).
  • Draw confidence from the positive endorsements and feedback from trusted teachers, colleagues, peers, friends and family. If it helps, write these comments down in a notebook and refer to them when you feel anxious or nervous.
  • If your teacher is continually critical despite your best efforts to play well, it is perhaps time to seek a new teacher. Few students will progress well if they feel constantly put down by a teacher or coach.
  • Approach practising, lessons and performances with an “I can!” attitude rather than “this is going to go wrong”. Try not to set up a negative feedback loop before you play, but instead draw confidence from previous good experiences (a lesson where you know you played well and your teacher offered praise and positive feedback, or a performance where you received compliments from the audience or another musician whose opinion you respect).
  • Draw confidence in an exam or performance situation from knowing you have done the right kind of work in your practising and that you are well-prepared
  • Try the Buddhist practice of “wise effort”. This is a habit of letting go of that which is not helpful, or is negative, and cultivating that which is positive and helpful. (It is related to mindfulness and NLP).
  • Spend time with friends and colleagues whose company is positive and inspiring.
  • Above all, allow the mind to focus on and remember the good stuff. Just as thoughtful repetitive practising leads to noticeable improvement at the piano, so repetitive positive thinking brings a more positive, cheerful mindset, which will in turn have a positive effect on your playing and your general attitude to your music making.

 

Further reading/resources

How Complaining Rewires your Brain for Negativity

The Perfect Wrong Note

Music from the Inside Out

How Positive Thinking Rewires Your Brain

 

 

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

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

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

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

Gerald Kilckstein, author of The Musician’s Way

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

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

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

Contact

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

(Source: Composed press release)

Understanding and coping with the stress of performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further reading

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

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

Science finds new way to overcome your performance anxiety

 

(Header photo from livescience.com)

 

 

Originally Composed was an exposé about the use of beta-blockers by classical musicians. A heart medication drug that helps stop your body’s fight or flight response when faced with stage fright. For years musicians, surgeons, actors, dancers, and lawyers have used beta-blockers as an unspoken solution to the problems of stage fright. Some would call them performance enhancing and others performance enabling. We’re going to ask those questions of course, but it’s more about all of the ways musicians have overcome performance anxiety. You might feel it too when you’re giving a presentation or when you’re put on the spot in a meeting, but understanding whats happening internally and having a strategy to overcome that fear is what musicians have been practicing for years. Painting a broader picture of what the real problems might be we’ll hear about how some amazing and dedicated musicians have found answers in a world where a few minutes on stage can close or open the gates of success.

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From the press release

John Beder, director and producer of Composed, has spent the past 9 months traveling the US and UK interviewing classical musicians and health care professionals, building a comprehensive story about the ways musicians have overcome performance anxiety.Initially, Beder was interested in the debate surrounding a prescription drug called propranolol, a heart and blood pressure medication that some musicians use to calm the physical symptoms of stage fright. After many months of interviews and conversations, Beder has learned of a plethora of additional remedies which musicians have explored and embraced in their quest for the highest quality performances.

In exploring these anxieties and remedies, Composed explores themes that are relevant to everyone, not just musicians: on how people deal with fear and pressure; how to understand and address moments of fear and doubt; how to move past these obstacles and achieve high-­‐pressure, high-­‐performance goals.

In the research phase of Composed’s pre-­production, Beder focused on a key question about what methods of addressing performance anxiety are most popular amongst classical musicians. A 1987 study with the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) has stood for the past 28 years as the closest indicator of what’s happening within American orchestras; it is long overdue for an update. The original survey was also the first publication made about the percentage of musicians who used propranolol, or beta-­blockers, and is often quoted when mentioning the drug.

With the support of ICSOM Beder sought out health professionals from the US, UK, and Australia, and has worked with them to develop a new survey to learn what has changed among musicians over almost 30 years, where performance fears come from, and what can be done to address them.

As a guest presenter of the 53rd annual ICSOM conference in Philadelphia, Beder encouraged the delegates of all 52 orchestras represented to participate in this new survey. ICSOM is the only organization of its kind in the US, representing 52 orchestras and over 4,000 classical musicians.

About the film-maker

John Beder is a percussionist, classical musician, and filmmaker based out of his hometown of Boston, MA. Composed is a forthcoming documentary about overcoming performance anxiety, and the lengths to which professional classical musicians are willing to go to deal with the stress of performance. Beder is anticipating a Spring/Summer 2016 release of the final feature. Learn more at www.composeddocumentary.com.

Contact:

John Beder, Bed Productions LLC
617 383 4407; johnbeder@me.com

facebook.com/composedkickstarter

twitter @JanBoder

This a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, sometimes more frequently than we should. Am I good enough to pass this exam? Good enough to compete in that festival? Play in that concert? To be a piano teacher?

Society sets targets for us which are ingrained from the moment we enter primary school. Will I make the grade? What if I get the answer wrong? From an early age we are programmed to measure ourselves and our progress against the expectations of others and unseen external forces.

As pianists we tend to spend a lot of time alone, with just the instrument and (mostly) dead composers for companions. Practising and studying alone, it is easy to start questioning our abilities: a bad practise session can leave one wondering “can I actually play the piano?” In addition to our own self-doubt, the opinions of others, in particular teachers and mentors, can have a marked effect on our self-esteem which may colour the way we approach our music making. In extreme cases, when one is subjected to very negative feedback about one’s abilities, this can lead to stress which manifests itself in both emotional and physical symptoms such as depression, tendonitis and focal dystonia. Even in less extreme instances, negative comments about our playing can affect our day-day-to relationship with the piano and lead us to question our abilities.

Learning confidence and to be trusting of one’s musical self is an important aspect of one’s development as a musician. I see this in my students, most of whom are now teenagers who are beginning to make important decisions about future study and even post-school careers. Very used to being spoonfed and “nudged” into the “right” direction by teachers and parents, they are less certain when asked to make decisions about their music. They want reassurance that they are playing in the “right” way, that they are “good enough” to pass their next grade exam. They want to know how their peers are progressing, who has passed this or that exam and with what mark. A Merit? A Distinction? They talk about others being “better” than them, when I hasten to point out that a student who is working towards Grade 7 or 8 is not “better”, simply more “advanced”. Their anxieties cause them to lose sight of what I consider to be the most important aspect of music making: communication.

I share many of my students’ anxieties; and many of my own issues stem from unhelpful comments by teachers at school and beyond, and feeling disadvantaged by the fact that I did not study music at university or conservatoire. Add to that, a long absence from the piano post-university when I was occupied with other things: career and family.

When I returned to the piano in my late 30s, I did so with a vengeance, soaking up repertoire, concerts, recordings, films and books on the subject. I even befriended a few professional pianists. And this is where the trouble started. I began to compare myself to these people, to measure my own reasonably competent efforts at the piano against these people who had the training, the mindset, and that special je ne sais quoi which set them apart from the rest of us. I wanted to attempt the same repertoire, walk across the concert platform with the same special brand of sangfroid – and play beautifully. Just like they did. I assumed these people were unassailable, that they never suffered from self-doubt, nor ever asked “am I good enough”?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from these people and the music they make. Indeed, inspiration is a wondrous resource, which drives us to explore, create and achieve. But by constantly measuring myself against the achievements of others, I found I was continually frustrated by my own progress, or lack thereof, and regularly wondered if I was indeed “good enough”.

Recently, however, I’ve reached a state of acceptance. I’ve found other ways of connecting with professional musicians, mostly obviously through this blog, and I’ve stopped wishing I could do what they do. Because I am doing what they do, in my own way – through the concert series and group for adult amateur pianists which I co-organise with a colleague. I’ve performed in concerts, organised and promoted concerts. I make and share music in a way which suits me and my capabilities, and I get a tremendous amount of pleasure from doing so.

How to feel you are good enough……

  • Don’t constantly compare yourself to others
  • Don’t deify the composers, professional musicians or the music
  • Don’t set yourself unrealistic targets – this can lead to over-practising, stress, tension and physical injury
  • Choose repertoire which you enjoy playing, not because someone said “you should learn this!”
  • Don’t blindly follow the advice of teachers, colleagues or friends. Be questioning and inquisitive. One person’s method may not suit you.
  • Enjoy and appreciate the positive endorsements of teachers, colleagues and friends
  • Cut yourself some slack: you don’t have to practise every day, you don’t have to use Hanon exercises just because Joe Bloggs next door does.
  • People are not necessarily “better”,  just “more advanced”
  • Remember that even top flight professional artists suffer from anxiety and stress. They are just better at dealing with it!
  • Enjoy your music. Play, listen, go to concerts, share music with friends.

Further reading and resources

On Jealousy and True Belonging

Beyond Stage Fright – top professional musicians and teachers talk about how they cope with performance anxiety and stress

Music From the Inside Out (Charlotte Tomlinson) Not just for professional  musicians, this book is applicable to anyone who suffers from the issues explored in this article. Charlotte’s clearsighted and down-to-earth approach equips you with the tools to unlock what is holding you back.