Managing performance anxiety: a continuation
As a follow up to the article in the last issue of Libretto on short-term strategies for coping with performance anxiety, Marion Long looks at ways to provide sustained support for students. In this article I’ll be summarising some of the ways in which teachers can support their students in dealing with anxiety. What is certain is that, together, motivated young performers and supportive music teachers can limit the potency of music performance anxiety. By reflecting on the student’s experiences, which may range from helpful levels of mild excitement to a profound physical lack of control requiring professional intervention, teachers can develop a personalised strategy for each individual. Over 80 young people, aged 11 to 21 took part in interviews – so let’s hear from them.
Self-doubt and expectations
‘I was scared to sing to them because they might think that my voice was rubbish.’ Singer ‘As you go up the years, you just feel more is expected of you... I think I should be playing at a really high standard.’ Bassoonist
To counter self-doubt and to meet self-directed expectations of ever higher standards of performance, thorough preparation is essential. ‘You have to have a piece prepared to the level at which you can forget about the nuts and bolts kind of detail... if you’ve not done the work and the preparation, there is no magic cure.’ International concert artist This is achieved with time, realism and perseverance. ‘Just being prepared was the most valuable coping strategy.’ Singer
Secure performance is realistic if the choice of music lies within the young performer’s capability and they have prepared it well, but preparation should also include a degree of flexibility. ‘All the work you’ve put into rehearsing and achieving what you want can be thrown over by elements that you don’t expect in the performance.’ Clarinettist
A realistic approach
Perfectionist attitudes need to be identified, discussed and converted to realistic approaches. ‘I’m not perfect, so I can just try and show them what I can do... that seems to make it easier to cope, because you realise that you were stressed about being perfect!’ Trombonist
Paying attention to posture and breathing is essential for all performers. ‘Breathing into the stomach and then supporting the abdominal muscles separately from the natural breathing process is essential. Often vaguely called ‘support’, the mechanics are rarely explained or understood at the early stages of learning... but everybody can feel the abdominal muscles, which actually provide breath pressure and support.’ Trombonist ‘Initially, I was taking massive breaths causing an asphyxiation feeling and, basically, to stop that, I now just breathe in less and relax more.’ Clarinettist
Breathing and relaxation exercises can also systematically induce the brain and body into a state of calm. Alexander, Dalcroze and other techniques can help performers to gain physical and technical awareness, and to unlock tension. ‘Alexander Technique really helps... taking the space, thinking about the connection with the audience, and breathing. Trying to relax yourself before you play, taking time to create your performance... just think about how it’s going to go, the actual music. Don’t just rush, take a minute to think.’ Bassoonist ‘If I’ve got a performance coming up and I’m getting quite tense, I can see that in my body language in the mirror, and I know just to relax.’ Clarinettist
Acknowledgement of problems and the determination to perform, in spite of these, appears to be paramount. ‘It’s just learning to actually play the pieces whilst you’re shaking.’ Pianist ‘To feel what’s going on in your body, to feel why you’re being nervous. Not to tell yourself that it’ll be fine, but just say I’m nervous about that, and I’m just going to have to be, but I can do it. It’s not going to stop me.’ Pianist
Relaxation techniques can be used alongside positive imagery. Thinking of images that project the musical and technical skills and competence of the individual in a positive manner can increase resilience to negative thinking. ‘I try to imagine it going well. This gives off positive ideas about the performance and usually (hopefully) it goes well.’ Clarinettist Young performers should be guided to understanding what works best for them, but by providing clear direction and advice, from the very first lessons, teachers can help to prevent problems accumulating in the future.
Marion Long is a cellist and a researcher in music education.
This article was originally featured in the May 2012 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.