No pressure: how to enjoy performing!
Earlier this year I attended a performance anxiety workshop for music teachers run by Gregory and Alison Daubney for the ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians). It was a fantastic day: very well thought out and structured, a good mix of theory and practice and full of ideas to go away and try.
As a freelance performer, I am aware of the potentially debilitating effect of performance nerves; as a singing teacher, nerves are something that frequently rear their ugly head and require careful and supportive handling.
How a teacher deals with a student’s performance nerves can make the difference between that student having a long and fulfilling musical life, or losing motivation and enjoyment and potentially giving up their instrument completely. (So no pressure...!)
So, below is a brief summary of thoughts and practical solutions from the ISM workshop, mixed with some of my own thoughts and observations.
If anxiety starts weeks or days before the performance, it might manifest itself in lessons as a withdrawn attitude, lack of responsiveness or motivation, or lack of practice. Other symptoms, especially as the performance date nears, can include increased heart-rate and fast breathing, sweaty palms, tight throat and dry mouth, muscle tension and rigid posture.
Physical symptoms are generally tied to negative thoughts, often ones which spiral out of control. For example, critical thoughts about ability, fear of failure, fear of what other people will think of us, fear that performance won't be 'perfect', worry about forgetting words or playing out of tune, or worry that we haven't worked hard enough to deserve success.
Giving your student back control
So much of the terror of performance anxiety is the feeling of being overwhelmed and out of control. There are many ways in which you, as a teacher, can help your student to address their mental processes and physical symptoms of anxiety, and give them the tools to feel in control again.
In my view, students need a mixture of tools to help improve confidence, reduce the impact of symptoms and alter the negative mental pathways. Here are some practical suggestions of how to do this:
- Mental pathways: encourage students to keep a practice diary. They should keep track of practice levels and frequency, what worked well, and what needs more work. In addition, writing an emotional journal will increase students’ awareness of how often they think about the performance, how that makes them feel, how they deal with those emotions and thoughts. Use cognitive reframing to prevent negative thought spirals. For example, if a student expresses a negative though such as “I'm not ready for this”, encourage them to reframe the thought, perhaps as “My teacher thinks I'm ready, I've worked hard, no one else in this room can perform this piece”.
- Leading up to the performance: help students set specific and realistic goals, in terms of both performance and practice; help them develop a practice planner detailing realistic, consistent and achievable amounts of practice and specific areas to be worked on; build confidence by identifying key strengths, noting past successes and being specific about areas that need work. Challenge negative statements. For example, don’t allow comments such as 'I can't play this' when 99% of it is correct and can be played with enjoyment. Help students keep perspective and remember the reasons for performing as part of ongoing learning.
- On the day: it may help to see the space in advance, think through stage set-up, and envisage or practice walking on and off the stage; create a performance-day checklist to remove worry around the logistics of performance, such as forgetting one’s music or instrument; create a short pre-performance routine to help with focus and calming immediately prior to the performance; use relaxation and meditation exercises to reduce tension and improve focus; discuss the importance of sufficient sleep, water and regular food in the lead up to performance; encourage students to make time to warm up, tune their instrument and feel prepared.
Make time to discuss the performance afterwards and help students to be specific about the things they didn't like or want to change, encouraging them to avoid generalised negative statements such as “I was rubbish”. Reframe statements to a positive version where necessary, and encourage awareness and appreciation of the positives.
In my experience, the biggest key to reducing performance anxiety is self-awareness: awareness of our physicality and how it changes under pressure; awareness of our inner critic, what criticism it gives us and how that can spiral from a tiny statement to a mountain of negativity; and awareness of why we perform - hopefully it is for enjoyment, as a creative outlet, and to communicate something. As self-awareness increases, so too do the options for combating the causes and symptoms of anxiety, so every performance can be part of an ongoing journey to improve performance, confidence and enjoyment. This removes the pressure to perceive one individual performance as an all-out success or failure.
Further help for you and your students