Performance anxiety – a stressful subject

Years ago I went to a new dentist. I went with some trepidation as I had not been for regular check-ups for some years, mainly due to quite severe anxiety. When asked why I had stayed away from my dental appointments, I admitted that I was very fearful of the dentist. The dentist (a man) replied by laughing loudly and sarcastically telling me I was being very silly indeed. This made my anxiety even worse.

Some years later I had to have root canal work followed by the fitting of a dental crown. By this time I had moved to another part of London and found a dentist who was very understanding about my dental anxiety (not quite a phobia, but not far off). She allowed me to talk about my fear without interrupting me or telling me I was “being silly” or “childish” and explained that fear can sometimes come through a feeling of not being in control of a situation. “You can walk away from here any time you like, if you don’t feel comfortable’ she told me, going on to reiterate that I could choose to be in control of the situation and that she would do her utmost to make my experience as pain-free as possible. Her gentleness and empathy enabled me to largely overcome my anxiety and I went through the rather laborious root canal work without so much as a twinge of pain and fairly manageable anxiety.

In the course of 11 years of teaching, I have encountered quite a lot of anxiety in both my own students and the adult amateur pianists with whom I work and socialise at workshops and piano meetup events. How we as teachers approach anxiety in our students is a crucial part of our role and one which needs to be carried out with sensitivity and understanding.

When I was having piano lessons as a child and teenager anxiety never came up, and was never discussed. It was assumed that I would sail through my grade exams (which I largely did) and I don’t actually remember being nervous on exam day (my mother would compensate for this by being extremely anxious on my behalf!). My piano teacher never gave me any guidance on managing anxiety ahead of exams or festival performances. This is indicative of a general attitude towards performance anxiety which has prevailed until fairly recently – that one did not talk about it and certainly did not admit to suffering from it. Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times now and the positive efforts of certain teachers, musicians and music colleges mean that anxiety can be discussed in a more open and sympathetic way, while sufferers can now access support and therapy to help them understand and manage their symptoms.

And “management” of symptoms rather than “cure” is an important distinction, in my opinion. The unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety (for example, racing heart, sweating, trembling, nausea) are part of the body’s natural “fight or flight” response, including the release of powerful stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, and are common to us all, to a greater or lesser extent. An understanding that these symptoms are normal can go some way to alleviating them. When helping a student with anxiety issues, I remind them that we all feel like this, even the most seasoned professional artists.

Psychologically, anxiety can stem from many sources. In piano students, specifically adults, it may be associated with unpleasant experiences during childhood piano lessons – the overly authoritarian or unduly negative teacher, the overbearing pushy parent with unrealistic expectations, the embarrassment of a botched music exam, for example. In addition, as we get older, we seem to become more anxious about the responses of others and exposing ourselves publicly in a performance situation. We worry that people will laugh or sneer if we make mistakes and that as a consequence we will feel stupid or incompetent. Adult pianists often suffer from negative self-talk as well – that destructive “inner critic” whose critical running commentary on one’s playing can derail a performance and leave one feeling demoralised.

There are a number of simple strategies which teachers can employ to help students manage their anxiety, and rather than asking students why they feel nervous, focus on finding positive ways to manage their anxiety:

  • Take any anxiety seriously, and be respectful and sympathetic. Cheery statements like “you really don’t need to feel nervous because you know how to play the piano!” are not helpful.
  • Remind students that feeling anxious is normal, and common to us all, and that even top professionals feel nervous. Give them permission to feel anxious.
  • Remind students that the teacher is not there to “judge”, but to offer support and guidance on how to improve
  • Ensure the student is fully prepared ahead of an exam, festival, concert or audition. This should include not only detailed, methodical practising of pieces and supporting tests (technical work, aural, sight-reading, etc if relevant), but also practice performances – to teacher, to other students, to friends and family, and perhaps culminating in a mini concert
  • For adult students, an informal performance event, perhaps at the teacher’s home, or at a meetup or piano club, can offer the opportunity to play for others in a relaxed, non-threatening environment and a chance to discuss their anxiety with others (realising that other people feel the same can be a great comfort) and share ideas on managing nerves.
  • Reassure students that examiners are looking for expressive, musically-aware performances, rather than bland note-perfect playing. A few slips or misplayed notes in an otherwise musical performance will not lead to exam failure.
  • Techniques drawn from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy can help turn negative self-talk into positive messages of personal affirmation: “I am not scared, I am excited!“, “I can do this because I am well-prepared“, “I am doing this because I love the piano“.
  • Power poses have been proven to reduced levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and can make one feel “bigger” and stronger emotionally too.
  • Mindfulness and trying to remain “in the moment” of the performance, rather than pre-empting or imagining what might happen. It can also help block out distracting noises from audience etc.

 

These are fairly simple strategies which are easy to implement. Those who perform more frequently gradually develop their own personal toolkit for managing their anxiety (for example, I have reached a state of acceptance about the nerves, ensure I am well-prepared and use CBT techniques for self-affirmation). But for those people with more severe or deep-seated anxiety, more specialist support may be required. A colleague of mine practices Cognitive Hypnotherapy – more about her services here

I Can’t Go On – factsheet on managing performance anxiety from BAPAM

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Be prepared! Ensuring students are exam-ready for success

When I was a child and teenager taking my piano exams, my teachers never talked to me about aspects like performance anxiety or stagecraft/presentation. I went to the exam centre on the allotted day/time, took the exam and went home to await the results. I don’t recall ever being that nervous, perhaps because no teacher ever discussed the anxiety of performance with me…..

In supporting my students as they approach their grade exams, I have a number of tried and tested strategies to ensure they go into the exam room feeling confident, poised and, above all, well-prepared.

The late great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a performance. This is an important mantra: knowing one is well-prepared for an exam or other performance is a crucial aspect of exam preparation and can go a long way in alleviating anxiety, allowing one to play with confidence and musical vibrancy.

For students (with the support of their teacher) this means ensuring pieces are well-learnt and finessed. I encourage my students to think about the individual characters of their exam pieces (and we always try to select a “mini programme” of contrasting styles and moods to allow the student to demonstrate a broad range of technical and musical skills) and how they would like to highlight these characteristics in performance. At least a month ahead of the exam date, I expect students’ pieces to be “concert ready” and we do practise performances in lessons to focus on stagecraft and presentation. Occasionally, a piano teaching friend will come and listen to my students (and vice versa): this is a useful activity as it sets the bar slightly higher for the student by having another person/listener in the room.

In practising technical work (scales/arpeggios and exercises) I encourage accuracy, fluency and musicality. Easy marks can be picked up if technical work is well-learnt and played with good quality of sound and rhythmic cadence (I’m sure examiners would rather hear “musical” scales than monotonous, robotic scales).

I ensure that the other aspects of the exam – aural, sight-reading, musical knowledge – are all well-known and practised well in advance of the exam date.

All these things build confidence, but despite the best efforts of a sympathetic and well-organised teacher, many students feel consumed with anxiety when approaching their music exams. Perfectionist attitudes, issues with confidence and self-esteem, the feeling of being “on show”, exposed on stage or in the exam room, parental pressure, and an understandable wish to do one’s best all contribute to feelings of anxiety. In addition, a previous unhappy exam or performance experience can trigger feelings of inadequacy or nervousness.

When I taught younger children, I tried to make the exam experience feel like an adventure, something exciting and different, and a chance to “show off what you can do”. For all students, I urge them to treat the exam as a “performance” or “mini concert”, and to try and step back from the feeling they are being “judged” and to enjoy the experience, as far as possible.

Specifically in relation to performance anxiety, I reassure students that feeling nervous is “normal” and that top international musicians feel nervous too. We discuss the “whys” and “hows” of anxiety so that they understand it is a natural physiological response (“fight or flight response”) as well as an emotional one. I encourage students to come up with ways to help them personally manage their anxiety – these may include recalling a previous successful/enjoyable performance, using visualisation techniques, NLP, deep breathing and positive affirmation (“I can do it!”). Above all, I remind them that examiners are not looking for bland note-perfect performances but for music which is vibrant and expressive, with good attention to details of dynamics, articulation etc. And I reassure them that I will not be “cross” or disappointed if they don’t achieve a certain mark, that I want them to do their best and enjoy the experience.

For older/more advanced students, exam preparation also involves some discussion about the process of practising and what has been achieved to arrive at the point where the music is ready to be put before an examiner or audience. This understanding of the process and journey of learning is particularly important and helps students see exams in the wider context of ongoing musical development, maturity and progression.

To all students, young and old, beginners to advanced, Good Luck with your exams this summer!

The Performing Teacher

I meet many piano teachers, at courses, workshops and masterclasses. It is always good to meet other piano teachers, to exchange ideas, and to enjoy a collective grumble about the exigencies of the job. Many of the teachers whom I meet are also performing musicians, professional or otherwise, and many regard performing as a necessary, indeed crucial, part of the job as a teacher.

I also meet many teachers who do not perform, for one reason or another. Some cite lack of time, others anxiety or lack of confidence. I actually met one teacher who claimed she was “too afraid” to perform for her students in case she made a mistake.

As teachers, performing is, in my opinion, a necessary part of the job. An exam is a performance, and we need to be able to guide and advise our students on how to present themselves in a “performance situation” (exam, festival, competition, audition), and to prepare them physically and emotionally for the experience. A whole new and different range of skills are required as a performer, and it is important to stress to students the difference between practising and performing. We also need to be able to offer support for issues such as nerves and performance anxiety, and to offer coping strategies to counteract the negative thoughts and feelings that can arise from anxiety. How can you train others to perform if you have never done it yourself?

I used to be shy about performing, because I lacked performance opportunities when I was at school, and then had a long period away from the piano in my 20s and 30s. But I quickly realised when I started teaching that I would need to “get over myself”, and my shyness, and learn how to be a performer if I was to be useful to my students as their teacher. The hard fact about performance anxiety is the only cure is to do it. Just do it! I will never forget the sense of elation and self-fulfillment at having successfully and convincingly delivered a Chopin Étude at a concert hosted by my teacher, the first time I had performed in public in over 25 years. Sure, it was nerve-wracking, but I knew I was well-prepared – and this to me is the most crucial aspect of performing and teaching others about performing: preparation.

A successful performance demonstrates that you have practised correctly, deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages us to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being thrown off course by them, and eradicates “stop-start” playing which prevents proper flow. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

I always perform in my student concerts, not to show off, but to demonstrate to my students (and their parents, who pay my bills!) that I can actually do it, that I too am continuing my piano studies by preparing repertoire for performance, and that I have managed my performance anxiety properly. I also feel that by performing with my students, we transform our concerts into a shared music-making experience.

I hope that by hearing and watching me playing, my students can better grasp aspects of technique or interpretation we might have discussed in lessons, as well as enjoying the sheer pleasure of listening to piano music, and perhaps drawing inspiration from it. I also get ideas when I am performing which inform my teaching.

For the teacher who is nervous about performing, one can start in a very low-key way by hosting an informal concert at home, or by joining a piano group, such as the one I run with my colleague Lorraine, which provides a supportive and friendly environment where people can perform for one another. Choose repertoire with which you feel comfortable, and practise performing it a few times (at least three) to friends, family and pets before putting it before an audience. I guarantee your students will be dead impressed by anything you can play as a teacher!

Resources

London Piano Meetup Group

Music from the Inside Out by Charlotte Tomlinson. A clear and well-written book on coping with performance anxiety, with tried and trusted techniques for dealing with nerves and improving self-confidence.

Reblogged: Stage Fright – 5 tips

I am reblogging this post from pianist Melanie Spanswick’s ClassicalMel blog as it contains some very helpful advice for anyone preparing for a performance (or exam), whether amateur or professional.

Over the past few days I have had several requests from readers for a blog post dealing with stress and nerves associated with performance. I have written on this subject before but there is always plenty to write about.

Nerves can a big problem for many musicians; it really doesn’t matter whether pianists (or any instrumentalists for that matter) are amateur or professional. Sometimes professionals can get even more nervous because so much depends on the quality of their performances. I have frequently suffered from nerves during my career as a pianist so here are a few tips to implement in your daily practice regime to help combat this problem.

  1. Before feeling comfortable in front of an audience, you really need to know the piece or pieces that you are going to play inside out – literally. Practise them every day (both slowly and up to speed) and then make sure you play them through to yourself at least once at the end of the practise session. Whilst doing this don’t stop to correct mistakes – just keep going as though you are already playing to an audience. This will help you become accustomed to ‘giving a performance’.
  2. Once you have done the above, try to ‘talk’ yourself through your piece. We all have a little voice in our head that is often very uncooperative under pressure. Tame this voice! Tell yourself that you already play your piece very well and nothing is going to stop you sharing it with your audience. This technique can be amazingly effective. I have used it many times as you can probably tell.
  3. It can be useful to locate different points in the music (this is especially important if you play from memory) where you can ‘regroup’ in your head. It might be a favourite section or passage. It really doesn’t matter where or what it is in the score but thinking about it or acknowledging it at a certain point (or points) can give amazing confidence. I don’t know how that works but it does so try it!
  4. Cultivate the practice of ‘thinking’ under pressure; the ability to ignore your audience to a degree and concentrate fully on the music. This is why it’s so important to love what you are playing and lose yourself in the music. Points 2 & 3 will help with this but you can also focus on what you particularly enjoy about your piece. List all the elements or features that you love and then mark them on the score (your music). Again, this will keep your mind occupied during your performance; more time focused on the music is less time worrying about your audience and potential mistakes.
  5. One of the most effective ways of learning to perform is to arrange a little piano group (if the piano is your instrument). Even if you are taking Grades 1 or 2, you can still find a few others who are a similar level to yourself and play to them – preferably once a week. You may be able to persuade your teacher to arrange a group for you. After a few (probably wobbly) sessions you will gradually become much more confident. It may even cure your nerves completely.

One other point that I feel is important and often ignored; never play pieces that are too difficult for you at your present level. This will merely make you miserable when faced with the huge and stressful task of performing them. Pick easier works so you play them well and with confidence.

If you are taking a music exam or planning a public performance don’t leave it too late to prepare – if you leave it to the day of your performance you may be very nervous indeed and will not play your best. My book, So you want to play the piano? has many helpful hints about performing and is especially designed for beginners. It will be available as an ebook soon.