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11 minutes reading time (2147 words)

Perspectives: Managing performance anxiety

brain

Mastering the inner game: Three "mind coaches" on managing performance anxiety

by Ali Snow 

Don't be nervous! You'll do fine!" "Take a few deep breaths and it'll all be OK." "Here, eat this banana. It'll help your nerves." "Just picture the audience in their underwear!" "You should put yourself in a lot of pressure-filled situations and soon you'll just get used to it." 

Sound familiar? These are just a few of the most common answers musicians hear when asking how to overcome performance anxiety. Although wellintentioned, each statement is either false folklore or a fad that has gone in and out of style. So why are students seeking advice in the first place? Perhaps it is because one of the biggest challenges many music teachers face is how to adequately prepare their students for the mental side of performance. In his classic book The Inner Game of Tennis, author W. Timothy Gallwey wrote, "Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game."1 If this is true, then how can teachers effectively teach the inner game, a game that often seems so abstract? This question will be explored through tips from three leading minds in this arena: performance coaches Jon Skidmore and Kjell Fajèus, and sports psychologist Richard Gordin.  

Figure 1: Brain diagram. Illustration by jonskidmore.com


Physiological responses and the brain

According to Jon Skidmore, a performance coach and adjunct professor at Brigham Young University, the first major obstacle in approaching the inner game is rooted in the very definition of a "performance." Rather than labeling it as an event, a performance should be shifted into the context of a process. "If you're a professional and you're throwing a gig, that's an event. There are certain expectations," says Skidmore. "But if you're a student learning, you've got to look at this as an experience—whether it's a performance or recital or audition. [This is] part of the process of becoming the musician you want to be."

Consider how an event is processed in the mind: A portion of the brain called the midbrain constantly scans every experience for danger. It functions as a survival center (see Figure 1). "Once something has been programmed into the midbrain, there's an automatic response," says Skidmore. "It is often referred to as the 'fight, flight, or freeze' response. Now that works great for a rattlesnake, but it can be devastating in an audition." 

What Skidmore suggests is to shift the focus out of the midbrain and into another area, the prefrontal cortex (see Figure 2). This highly-developed part of the brain assigns meaning and allows for reasoning. By making this change, students can be in control by designing their mindset, rather than reacting by default.

Figure 2: Prefrontal cortex. Illustration by Wikimedia Commons


How then can teachers train their students to shift their focus into the prefrontal cortex? Consider this situation: 

Minutes before a studio recital is about to begin, a student approaches her teacher and says, "I'm nervous!" The teacher responds with, "So, you are activated." The student says, "Yeah, I guess so." The teacher continues: "Jenny, for the last seven weeks we have talked about the skills you can use to manage your performance mindset. What are your trigger words?" The student says, "Bold, Confident, and Free." "Great!" the teacher says. "Practice managing your mindset and do the breathing exercises you have learned. We will talk about how these performance skills worked at your next lesson. We need to start the recital. You will do fine!"

The teacher begins by reminding the student that she can redefine her emotions from negative "anxiety" to positive "activation." She then allows the student to regain control of the situation by reminding her of the mental skills she has practiced. Finally, she finishes with a statement which reaffirms that this is a work-in-progress and that they will evaluate how this worked in their next lesson. Skidmore says that in order to master the mental game, students must practice these skills before performance, learn how to effectively use these skills during performance, and create a habit-healthy postperformance evaluation. 

Stages 1-3: Pre-performance preparation

Remind students why they love to play: Just as perfect practice makes perfect when mastering musical skills, the same concept applies in mastering mental skills. In what he calls his "Five Stages of Peak Performance," Skidmore names the first stage the "Foundation." In this stage, he asks the student to consider questions such as "What is [my] goal? Why [am I] doing this? What is [my] current attitude about this?" These questions begin to shift the student's mindset into a designed, prefrontal focus as he remembers why he chose to do this in the first place. 

Assign weekly mental preparation exercises along with music assignments: The second stage, "Preparation," incorporates both musical and mental preparation. Along with the weekly music assignments, teachers assign mental exercises at each lesson. "This could include five- to ten-minute relaxation sessions as part of their weekly assignment," Skidmore says. "A teacher may also incorporate a thirtysecond breathing exercise at the beginning of each lesson." By doing this, students can successfully master the inner game through consistent practice. Perhaps that was what was meant in the general comment, "Take a few deep breaths and it'll all be OK."

Create individualized pre-performance routines for each student: Another skill students should pack into their "activation management toolkit" is a pre-performance routine (stage three). Kjell Fajèus, a mental trainer and former principal clarinetist in the Royal Opera Orchestra in Stockholm, has a system where he helps students "prepare themselves in a positive way." Weeks before a performance, students train themselves to trigger certain emotions by standing on or holding different colors of paper (see Photo 1). Then, in performance, if one emotion is beginning to overwhelm the other, the performer can imagine the pieces of paper on the ground and "move" to the appropriate color. For example, a blue paper represents calm, a red paper signifies passion, and a gold paper triggers the memory of an excellent past performance. Students practice with one paper at a time and fully imagine and experience each emotion. They can then incorporate this simple routine backstage, minutes before a performance; although this time they only imagine the paper. This can also be done during performance. Fajèus says this system "trains students to improve in four important areas: self-respect, self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-awareness." This is just one method teachers can use to prepare pre-performance routines (rather than superstitious rituals) for their students. That way, even if the student were not able to eat her banana before the performance, the show would still go on.

Photo 1: Kjell Fajèus standing near two colors of paper to help manage emotions. Photo by Blanca Linder


Practice vivid visualization exercises well in advance of the performance date: Finally, teachers should incorporate visualization practice in their students' weekly assignments. Richard Gordin is a sports psychologist at Utah State University and has worked as a mental coach for several USA Olympic teams. He says "The question becomes 'when does the performance begin?' Well, it begins way before you start to perform." During practice sessions, the student should imagine the entire performance— beginning with the morning of the event and ending with the applause after the final note. He says good visualization incorporates as many of the five senses as possible and creates an image that is close to reality. Picturing the audience in their underwear is optional. Gordin adds that inexperienced students may find it difficult to create vivid images, but do not despair; this also will improve with practice. Through pre-performance mental preparation, students can design and access a mindset that Skidmore describes as "bold, confident, and free."

Richard Gordin. blogs.owu.edu.


Stage 4: During Performance

Be completely in the present moment; perform with a free sense of play: Stage four, or the "Performance," is the moment all of these mental skills are put to the test. Skidmore, Fajèus, and Gordin agree that the most important thing a teacher can do is to teach the student how to remain focused in the present moment as she performs. At stage four, Skidmore says that students should be ready to "close the door to the rest of their life and open the door to the stage." He goes on to say that all of the mental preparation done beforehand will help students remain present during performance and contribute to a childlike, carefree state. The stage has now transformed into a sandbox to play in, rather than a snake pit. 

Make a specific plan for the moments when one does lose focus: In the real world, students quickly realize that at some moment during the performance they will lose their focus. From experience Gordin relates: "I don't worry so much now about focus as I do about the skill of being able to refocus when you lose it." The teacher and student must create a plan for what exactly the student will do when they lose focus. "You give yourself permission to have lost your place for a minute," he says. "You don't dwell on it. You come back." 

So what kinds of things can a student do to refocus during performance? Gordin uses baseball star Evan Longoria as an example. Whenever Longoria makes an error at bat, or lets his emotions get the better of him, he steps out and takes a look at the top of the left-field foul pole. Fajèus put this same idea a different way. "A very simple picture or single powerful word can bring you back into the zone." Gordin and Fajèus list images and words that have helped performers get back into the zone. These include: visualizing a Tibetan singing bowl (both the sight and sound); thinking words like "flow" or "zone" or "joy;" or imagining standing on a colored paper that signifies focus. They suggest trying out several methods with students to discover what works best for them, and practicing them just like the aforementioned mental skills. The idea is to bring the student back into the present in a quick and non-disruptive manner. 

Jon Skidmore. Photo from: jonskidmore.com.


Stage 5: Post-performance

The final stage, "Post-Performance Debriefing," occurs after the last bit of applause has died out and the piano has been moved off the stage. At this point it is critical to evaluate the performance. Gordin tells his athletes this: "You always learn a lesson from every performance, good or bad. You do a constructive evaluation of what happened, which means you don't beat yourself up and you don't build yourself up. You simply try to pick what went well and what you can improve upon. You don't judge; it's just an awareness."

Along with this, Fajèus recommends letting a day pass between the concert and the evaluation to let emotions (and the midbrain's initial, brutal judgments) settle. This allows for clearer, conscious thought. 

Finally, Skidmore emphasizes the need to not just evaluate the performance, but all of the stages of preparation preceding it. This way a student can pinpoint exactly at which stage things went right or wrong. This approach teaches students to view each performance process as a new learning opportunity, rather than simply entering competitions or playing in recitals with the narrow and unrealistic goal of becoming desensitized to the fear. Pianists should evaluate the recent performance in the next lesson with questions such as "what went well? What didn't? What will I do differently next time?" This hearkens back to Skidmore's definition of a "performance," a moment within the larger process. Knowing this removes the pressure that how one plays at a given moment is a reflection of one's self-worth. Once realized, a whole world begins to open up. As the great artist Pablo Picasso once said, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." The three professionals agree that as one learns to manage performance anxiety, he becomes more like a child; carefree, uninhibited, willing to take risks, and playing simply for the joy of play. Skidmore leaves his clients with two childlike phrases to provide an easy way to remember the stages of peak performance. They are: "Ready, set, go!" and "That was fun, let's do it again!" "Ready" represents stages one and two, "set" stage three, "go" stage four and finally, "that was fun, let's do it again!" represents stage five. With these tools at the ready, teachers can train their students to master the inner game with confidence 

1 Gallwey, T. (1997). The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, p. 2. 

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