Friday, May 24, 2013

Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances


As a music student in college and graduate school, I suffered from a huge amount of performance anxiety. Every jury, recital, or solo performance left me shaky, and I hated how my nerves negatively effected my playing. After years of suffering and stress, I decided I had to make a change in how I prepared for high stakes performances. I read and re-read Barry Green's The Inner Game of Music, and started using many of the techniques he recommends. My hard work paid off--I still had performance anxiety, but I felt much more in control of my performances and my stress levels. I no longer felt like every audition or recital was torture--I even felt good about my performances! 

As I started teaching, I noticed that many of my students had the same issues that I'd had, and I wanted to help them find a way to perform comfortably early in their development. I hoped that this would save them the many years of anxiety and fear I went through when I performed in public or for auditions. To my delight, I've found that the right kinds of performance preparation help young students overcome stage fright and develop confidence in their performances. When I taught eighth grade English, I used similar techniques to help students who were afraid of public speaking. Here are seven ways to help students (and teachers) psychologically prepare for a performance and keep anxiety under control.

1. The Game of Distraction

For young students especially, public performances are full of distractions. There's an audience full of people looking at them and shifting in their seats, flashing lights from cameras, rustling papers, maybe even other children shuffling around. Thus, one of the most crucial skills for a strong performance is learning to focus on the music despite all the distractions. In one recital I gave, an older man sat in the front row and gave loud commentary throughout the entire first half of my program. Luckily, by then I'd practiced focusing past distractions, so I stayed focused and gave an excellent performance.

I help my students learn to handle distractions by turning them into the Distraction game. Here's how to play: the student must play through their entire piece(s) by memory, while the the teacher (and the parent, if they are attending the lesson) will do her best to distract the student with noise and movement. If the student succeeds in playing through their music without getting distracted, then they get a point, but if the parent or teacher succeeds in breaking the student's concentration, then they get a point instead. Siblings can help play this game at home--they often make excellent distractors! Since we usually assume standard concert etiquette, distractors aren't allowed to touch the student or to talk, but they can open and close doors, rustle papers, cough, sneeze, drop things, move chairs, walk around, and of course, beep or ring their cell phones. If the student is rehearsing for a jury or an audition, the distractor might also glare disapprovingly, scribble "notes" on paper, or sigh loudly. I've found children enjoy this game quite a bit! While it can be hard to focus at first, the more they play, the easier they find it to finish their pieces despite the unpredictable distractions going on around them. 

2. Awareness

This is one of the techniques from Barry Green's book, and it helped me enormous. I often use it with students as well, particularly when they're performing by memory. There's a full explanation in  The Inner Game of Music, but it comes down to focusing on your senses, or on the music itself, in order to keep your mind grounded in the present. For example, when my students are memorizing music for a performance or an audition, I tell them to keep their awareness on how the piece feels under their hands. They can stay aware of how the bow touches the strings, or how the level of their bow arm changes when they change strings. If they focus on their left hand, I might have them think about how their fingers feel against the strings, or how the half steps and whole steps feel. A student might also focus on listening to the music by hearing it in their head or listening carefully as they play.

Often, when someone is nervous, they lose track of the present moment, or lose touch with the sensations of their body. This distance distracts performers, causing mistakes. Awareness techniques can help pull a young musician back into the present moment and focus their mind on playing well.

3. Choose Repertoire that Students Play Comfortably

It's true that in auditions musicians rarely get to freely choose the music they play. Yet, even in an audition, we have choices. In most auditions, for example, a musician or music student chooses their own solo repertoire. Of course, in recitals and other public performances, we often have a great deal of freedom in the music we choose to play (or suggest that our students play). If we want  our students to perform beautifully, then it's usually best to have them play a piece they know very well, instead of something brand new. 

Since I regularly review repertoire with my students, they often have multiple pieces memorized and ready for performance at any given time (that's one of the advantages of Suzuki Method). Instead of having my students play their newest piece, or even their second newest piece for a recital, I often have them play an earlier piece--one they've played by memory in lessons on a regular basis. For older students, I like to help them select repertoire that plays to their strengths. A student might have beautiful tone, but struggle with a technique like shifting or double stops. While it's important to work on weaknesses during lessons, it's not a good idea to convince a student to perform a piece when they're shaky on the underlying skills it requires. 

4. Adversity Training

One way to control nerves is to practice dealing with the physical sensations that they create. Performance anxiety often makes musicians sweat, their heart rate increases, and they start breathing faster or shallower. So how can we re-create these "symptoms" in a non-performance setting so students can practice handling them? With adversity training! When we're preparing for a recital, I have students run in place, or do jumping jacks until they start to feel their heart rates rise.  I give them a few seconds to take a deep breath, then I have them play through their performance music. It gives them a chance to "practice" being nervous, so that they are more comfortable with the sensations it can produce. That allows them to stay focused on their music, not their sweaty palms.

5. Perform Before You Perform

Often, the first time a musician performs a new piece in front of an audience, it doesn't go very well. I have often had frustrated parents tell me how children perform beautifully at home, but then struggle to play as well in front of the teacher. That's normal; at home, a student's in a comfortable, familiar environment with no one watching except maybe mom or dad. On the other hand, a teacher's studio, or a performance hall, or an audition room are much more high-stress environments, which harms performance. What can teachers do to keep students from struggling in an unfamiliar uncomfortable situation or place?

For one thing, try to make the situation and place familiar! The more recitals or other performances students play, the more comfortable they'll be performing in public. An anxious student might avoid playing public, but that only increases their fear when it does happen. Instead, take every opportunity, from masterclasses to recitals to group classes to play in front of other people as often as possible. A student might arrange to play their recitals piece in front of their family, treating the performance just like a public recital (bowing before and after their performance, announcing their pieces, walking on "stage" with their instrument). 

It can also help to practice in the same room or on the same stage as your performance, if that's possible.

6. Breathing and Centering

Often, when a performer gets nervous, their heart rate goes up and their breathing becomes quicker and shallower. These are classic fear responses, but we can counteract them by using deep breathing and centering techniques. I teach students to deep breathe by having them put their hand on their abdomen, right below their rib cage but above their navel. Then I have them breath so deep into their lungs that this spot in their abdomen expands out. I try to keep these breaths slow and even, maybe even having students breath in for a count of ten, and out for ten counts (singers do this to warm up their voices). About 3-5 deep breaths can make an enormous difference to nervous performers. 

To center, a student should stand with their feet about hip distance apart, and focus on the middle of their body (the same spot where they focused on deep breathing). They should focus on pulling their awareness into this body center, and on keeping it relaxed and open. That can help relieve stomach tension and cramps that nervous performers sometimes feel. Centering can accompany deep breathing.

7. Nerves are Normal!

Last, I always try to remind students that many, many people, even famous musicians and actors, get nervous before they go on stage. I remember thinking I must be the only musician to suffer so much from nerves--all the other performers I knew seemed so confident on stage! But of course, that's not true at all. Plenty of people get nervous when they perform, so many that there are many excellent books to help us overcome stage fright. Reading these books and hearing about how other musicians, including many prominent ones, overcame their nerves made me feel less alone, and gave me the confidence that I could handle my nerves as well. Barry Green's book The Mastery of Music introduced me to stories of highly successful musicians who'd overcome the same issues I had. 

Learning to handle performance anxiety might be one of the most valuable lessons a young musician can learn. Not only will this help them perform confidently and beautifully on stage, many of these same techniques can help them with public speaking or even stressful situations like college or job interviews. 


Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:


For Parents: How to Support Your Child's Music Practice and Development

Suzuki Method for Adult Students

Inspiring Books for Violin and Viola Teachers


Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective

Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent

Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key

Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice

Practicing Violin Effectively

Great Apps for Musicians

Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession


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