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