I am excited to introduce a series of articles which will specifically focus on the psychological and mental aspects of performance. The series of articles aim to provide you with some helpful suggestions and hopefully clarify some of the more cognitive issues inherent in performance. The articles form part of a Performance Coaching initiative at Beau Soleil.
As a music teacher one of the more common refrains I hear from students: “Please don’t make me play in the concert. I get so nervous…I’ll mess up and then I’ll look stupid.”
A teacher may reply: “Well you’re just going to have to practise harder and be 100% on top of your piece.” The standard result, the students visibly sags, mumbles a reply and surrenders to an inner crisis. In their mind’s eye already picturing their performance in IMAX quality, feeling the fear and skilfully scripting the worst possible outcome. But before you can stop yourself you hear yourself saying (a week or two later): “You’ll be fine…just practise more.” Once you’ve shared this nugget of teaching wisdom, you smile reassuringly and ask for the next scale…Sound familiar?
Many musicians have a slightly twisted relationship with ‘all things performance’ which begins when we are expected to step on stage. When a performance does not go as well as planned we tell ourselves that we fully deserved it as we clearly did no pay enough homage to the gods of practice. We grit our teeth, cruelly admonish ourselves and prepare for the next post-performance flailing. Reminding ourselves ‘you are only as good as your last performance’ and replaying the teacher’s advice ‘just remember to go out there and have fun!’ It’s all very confusing.
So how do we tackle performance anxiety? A good starting point is to explore successful players’ general attitude and perception of performance.
Experienced performers accept that intimately knowing the score and material is only the first step in getting ready for a good performance. The knowledge of the score ensures that any tricky technical sections pose little difficulty and are established under the fingers. Skilled performers realise that it is nearly impossible to perform successfully if you still require active ‘thinking’ time. Practise time is the ideal opportunity to gather verbal instruction and correction. Effective performance requires minimal instruction. The performer reports having an emotional state of being in the ‘flow’ or ‘zone’ which can also be described as effortless attention.
This positive performance experience has been extensively researched and is described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (I can’t pronounce his name either)! For additional information check out his 2004 TED talk: https://youtu.be/I_u-Eh3h7Mo
Some of the characteristics of this positive performance state:
• The ability to focus intently on the musical task.
• Managing all distractions comfortably and easily.
• Having a vivid inner musical picture and intention.
• Physiological feedback that supports their musical purpose.
• Fluid responses to the challenges of the performance situation. They are able to absorb and handle any performance ‘blips’ without losing their musical voice or meaning.
• An altered perception of time passing – sped up or slowed down.
In tackling any issue such as performance anxiety, it is always helpful to know that there are tangible characteristics which many successful performers share. This research provides us with a template which will help us begin the process of understanding and managing our ‘between the ears’ life.
How does your performance experience relate to being in the zone? Are you able to summon up powerful vivid images which help you keep to your attention and focus when performing? Is your inner voice quiet or is it a busy channel broadcasting constant correction and unwanted advice. Are you able to move on easily when you trip over something in the score? Do you perceive your body as a supportive influence or a stumbling block that just isn’t ‘getting with the programme’?
Give yourself a little time to reflect on your relationship with your body and performance. These moments of insight might be the catalyst you need to start the required change of behaviour and renewed mind-set to put performance anxiety in its place. Eloise Ristad in her book ‘Soprano on her Head’ summed it up perfectly ‘Trying fails awareness cures’.
In my next article I will explore how we can learn to manage and manipulate our emotional state in order to set ourselves up to enter the ‘zone’ more consistently and easily.