Submitted by Mary Tickner

After the September workshop, some teachers contacted me with questions about coping with performance anxiety. Since November is the beginning of the annual “Festival Season”, it seemed an appropriate topic for this month’s forum.

Frances Clark, in her book “Questions and Answers” says “a student learns to play in public by playing in public”. She then goes on to say that how to do this is the teacher’s job. So one of the first things a teacher should do is convince the student that being nervous is normal whether it is a public performance in music, acting, or a job interview, going to a new school or taking an exam. Stage fright is a reaction to an unusual increase in adrenalin level and is related to one of our most primitive emotions referred to as the “fight or flee” reaction.

How to help a student cope with this natural reaction takes some perseverance and patience plus time on the part of the teacher (and quite often, the parents). Several suggestions have been offered in textbooks and lectures such as careful choice of repertoire that is within the technical and musical skills of the student. Another consideration is the interest the student has in playing selected repertoire. I have found that having a series of mini-performance classes on a regular basis (last Sunday of each month) in small groups has been most beneficial. Students get to perform in an intimate setting with other students (and parents sometimes if space permitting), plus receiving helpful comments from the “audience” and an opportunity to critique their own performances. They also hear new music and meet other students from the studio. Comments from the teacher should place less stress on wrong notes, etc. and place more stress on the positive aspects of a performance (i.e., much improved dynamic contrasts, and great ending).

In preparing this column, I accidentally found a Vancouver Sun clipping from February, 2011 titled “Expert Advice to Tackle Those Stage Jitters” and contacted the columnist, Francois Marchand, for permission to use it as part of the Forum. He, most graciously consented, so thank you, FRANCOIS and THE VANCOUVER SUN. Mr. Marchand had interviewed 2 SFU faculty members and the result is the following advice they offered (with some deletions).

    1. Breathe: Much like any athlete would, an artist needs to remember to simply breathe properly. Breathing not only helps in keeping the flow of oxygen to the muscles and brain normal, if it is controlled properly it can help in reducing stress and converting negative anxiety into positive anxiety.

    2. Don’t Think Ahead: Be in your immediate self. Be in the immediacy of the moment. If you are a musician, don’t think, “five bars from now, it’ll be HT…’. Arrive there and then work through it. In other words, focus on the task at hand, not on what is coming next, whether it’s your next set of lines, your upcoming guitar solo or the difficulty of the dance move you are about to perform. Stay in the moment or you risk unravelling.

    3. Positive Imagery: You must imagine a successful outcome. You have to be able to imagine every part of the performance, including the way you are going to try to connect with the audience and making that a part of your imagining … being mentally prepared to succeed is a big part of winning the battle.

    4. Trust Your Memory – It is a horrible thing when all of a sudden you are on stage and you decide not to trust your memory … you can really suffer from that. You have practiced your craft, and you know what you’re doing. Trust that you will remember how to do what you have done so many times.

    5. Concentrate – Sometimes we allow our minds to wander. That has to be cultivated during practice … we are multi-tasking; we keep in touch through technology, but put it aside when it really counts and just focus. Do not overdo it to the point where it becomes detrimental. Strike a balance.

    6. Trust Your Audience – Your audience wants to see you perform and they have their own anxieties to deal with, just like you. Ultimately, the audience wants to see you succeed, not fail.

    7. Don’t Medicate – Do not take medication before performing. You are only hurting yourself in the long run and blocking things out rather than converting your anxieties into something positive.

    8. Nobody’s Perfect – There is no such thing as perfection; there is only what is happening in that moment. And sometimes it is the little things, the hiccups, the pauses and hesitations that give a performance its true “real” quality. And that is something both the performer and the audience need to embrace.

A final note: in “Creative Piano Teaching”, Gail Berenson has an excellent section on performance anxiety and other suggestions that are most useful. Best of luck to all our students!