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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Guest post by Ruth Phillips

Many people ask me on Breathing Bow retreats if stage presence is something we can practice, if it is possible to find a way to be exactly where we are – in a concert hall with an audience right here and right now, about to share what we love?

I believe that the answer is yes.

Musicians’ preparation a concert day can range from taking beta blockers to eating bananas. However, as soon as we are on stage we feel fear. Fear of losing control or mental focus, and above all fear of judgement. Our muscles contract, our heart rate speeds up, we go blank, our bow shakes, we sweat….the list of symptoms for ‘stage fright’ is endless and for many of us, coping with them simply isn’t enough. Why would we want to play music if concerts were merely to be coped with not rejoiced in?

We fight or try to ‘get over’ the fear. We tell ourselves how foolish we are to feel it (‘There’s nothing to be frightened of!’), or we boost ourselves up with ‘positive’ thoughts – which are in fact just judgements (‘You’re wonderful!’ ‘No-one’s here to judge you’). Or we pretend (‘Imagine the public naked!/ that you are on a beautiful beach/that you are Steven Isserlis!’ ) We practice as much control as possible and cram our minds with thoughts.

But what if we were to stop fighting and actually listen to the fear?

Marshall Rosenberg, in his work on ‘Non-Violent Communication’, says that all humans share the same fundamental needs, and that every emotion is the expression of either a met (‘positive’ emotions) or an unmet (‘negative’ emotions) need. Through the ‘negative’ emotion of fear we could bring our attention to the unmet needs that we have as performers, a list of which would go something like this:

Stability

Ease

Efficacy

Space

Freedom

Peace.

Security

Connection

Spontaneity

Presence

Expression

Contribution

Most of us, surely, would love to feel all these things when we are on stage! So, how can we practice them, so that we are fulfilled not just in the practice room but also on stage?

Personally, it is through yoga and meditation that I have been liberated from the prison of fear and found joy and presence on stage, but there are many other doorways. Alexander Technique, T’ai Chi and Feldenkrais, for example. Whatever discipline we choose, it seems to me that practicing the following things are key:

1. Tensegrity (gravity and core muscles)

2. Non-doing.

3. Getting ourselves out of the way

4. Presence

5. Breath.

Tensegrity

Obviously, we need tension to move, even to sit, but we also need release. Life and music are a constant play between tension and release. The pull of a wave, a dominant chord resolving to the tonic, an in and an out-breath, an up and a down bow all express this perfect relationship, the word for which is Tensegrity.

Tens(ion) plus (int)egrity.

“Tensegrity is a structural principal of geometry where shapes benefit from strength and flexibility due to the push and pull of their parts.” – Will Nagel

By using our entire body as a biomechanical system – abandoning ourselves to gravity and having movement flow from our core through to our limbs – we can learn to play with stability, efficacy and ease.

“When the abandonment to gravity comes into action, resistance ceases, fear vanishes, order is regained, nature starts again to function in its natural rhythm and the body is able to blossom fully, allowing the river of life to flow freely through all parts.”

Awakening the spine…Vanda Scaravelli

A note on working with Gravity

It takes strength to hold a bow-arm from the string, and with added adrenalin this becomes even more challenging. Gripping harder we migrate to the tip of the bow to avoid confronting the weight. Practicing in a way that works with, rather than against gravity, however, we reorganize rather than withhold the weight. In forte, for example, the arm is aligned so that there are as few kinks as possible and the weight flows freely into the string. In pianissimo the elbow is low and the weight, unable to travel up the hill of the forearm just as water does not travel up a U-bend, rests at the elbow.

A note on working with the centre of gravity and our core muscles

Every form of skilled or powerful movement on terra firma illustrates that athletic movement works best when power flows freely through the core. – Terry Laughlin, Total Immersion Swimming

The terms can be vague and we often use them incorrectly. Some speak of muscles, some of bones and others of energy centres, but I think most traditions agree that the area around our centre of gravity is key to all movement. When we walk, for example, we move our centre of gravity forward, throwing ourselves off balance, and the released leg swings forward. The swing of the arm in bowing or shifting is no different, with movement happening through release and not tension.

Another example of movement coming from our centre is the twist of the torso. The cello teacher, Steve Doane, talks about finding the horizontal axis of movement by sweeping one’s gaze from left to right as one crosses from the A to the C string or shifts up the fingerboard. This works because we do not shift our gaze just with our eyes or even just our head. There is corresponding shift – an imperceptible twist from left to right – at our centre. Doane says:

“This swing supports the shifting motion by communicating energy from the feet through the hips to the back and arms. It is an essential part of your dynamic cellistic balance.” -‘The Owl’ exercise – Cello Ergonomics

Initiating movement from our core does not mean hurling ourselves about. In fact, by making sure the big cogs power the little cogs, movement becomes more efficient. Just try the string crossing exercise with the opposite core movement – turning from right to left as you cross from A-C strings on the cello – and you will see how restricted your natural power and flow is.

Non-doing

“To relax is not to collapse….It is not a state of passivity but, on the contrary, of alert watchfulness. It is perhaps the most ‘active’ of our attitudes, going ‘with’ and not ‘against’ our body and feelings.”- (Vanda Scaravelli – Awakening the Spine.)

The tennis player observes the ball as it leaves his racket and completes the trajectory he has sent it on. He is no longer ‘in control’ of the ball but rather relaxed, alert and watchful. Primed for the return. Once we have learned to initiate movement from our core, we must also practice this attitude on non-doing, in which we find space, peace and freedom.

A note on practicing non-doing

Working with the breath is a wonderful way to practice release and non-doing. Rather than controlling every millimeter of the stroke, the out-breath is used to lead the release of the bow, and the in-breath to lead the preparation. At the end of the out-breath there is a still point, just as there is in the arc of the bow, the arc of a phrase.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement.

And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. – TS Eliot

Getting ourselves out of the way

“When we relax about imperfection, we no longer lose our life moments in the pursuit of being different and in the fear of what is wrong.” – Tara Brach, meditation teacher

We fear that unless we inject every phrase with our ‘personality’, our ‘interpretation’ will be boring. However, when a musical line falls like an autumn leaf, or rises like an eagle soaring on a thermal, is this our personality? Or our interpretation? When we are able to get ourselves out of the way, there is no ‘I’ to judge or be judged. Because there is no judgement there is no duality, no perfection, no imperfection, no right, no wrong, no them (the audience) and us (the performer). Instead, there is security and connection.

Presence

“In order to really be, you have to be free from the thinking…”

“Non-thinking is an art and, like any art, it requires patience and practice.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh (Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise)

Thought is necessary. We need to think during our practice – about the composer’s life, the harmony, the metre, the structure – but thought in the form of planning, judging, remembering and commenting takes us out of the present moment, which inhibits our ability to listen. Observation, however, which we develop through meditation practice, focuses our attention on the present and brings spontaneity.

The Breath

“The bow must be a living thing at all times, and all living things need to breathe” – Steven Isserlis, cellist.

For me, the breath is the thing that binds all of this together. No-wonder it is at the root of so many spiritual practices! It is inspiration and expression, tension and release, taking in and letting go, expansion and contraction. It is not ‘ours’ though it passes through us, and it connects us with ourselves, our bodies and the audience. With all living things. The ocean breathes, trees breathe….It is everything we are and everything music is. When we are aligned and in harmony, we feel as if we are being breathed, just as we can, in performance, feel like the music is playing us. Only then we can find true expression and make a contribution.

 


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

Next retreat in Provence: 16 – 20 October 2018

What is Stage Presence and how do we practice it?

Autumn retreat in Provence with Ruth Phillips and Jane Fenton – October 16-20th   Exploring tension, release and space through yoga, breath and mindfulness. Held in a magnificent Provencal farmhouse, and catered by whole-food chef, Tara Lee Byrne. Open to all musicians – amateurs, students and professionals

Further information and booking thebreathingbow.com

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

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

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

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

symptoms
(source: ‘Composed’ website)

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

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

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

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

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

Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

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

‘Composed’ trailer

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)