March/April 2018: Mind Matters
What is your performance fear?
I just returned home from doing an interview with Dave Wagner, host par excellence, at the WRCJ-FM in Detroit. It felt wonderful to walk into the studio on a frigid morning here in Michigan and to be warmly welcomed with Dave's greeting, "I look forward to talking with you about combating stage fright."
Dave's comment broke the anticipatory nervousness that I experienced about freezing up during a live radio interview. Not knowing what questions would come up, and how my mind would work answering them always gives me some anxiety. But, it also presents an opportunity to use some of the coping strategies that I have shared with you over the past several columns. Stage fright that is associated with performing on an instrument in public and knowing what is coming next is one thing. But, giving an interview—even on a topic I know well—involves the chemistry between the interviewer and myself, being able to think on the spot, and finding the emotional comfort that will allow me to be spontaneous about a complex topic. This is more than the proverbial "thinking on my feet," but also thinking confidently about myself, despite jitters. Dealing with all kinds of stage fright involves mental attitudes as much as aptitudes.
As an example of feeling comfortable prior to the actual interview, just after I entered the studio and before I took off my coat, and earmuffs, and gloves, and boots—the uniform of survival in our minus zero temperatures—I felt a growing warmth and readiness to begin. Shortly after a sound check by the recording engineer, Dave and I began to talk on air. As the interview progressed, Dave, a fine professional organist as well as radio host, spoke of his own difficult moments on stage and posed the following question to me: "What would you do if you were in the middle of your performance, it was going well, and you began to think about the difficult passage coming up that raised your anxiety?"
This is a difficult question to answer in a few sentences but also a crucial question that is familiar to many performers. As I quickly scanned my mind for what to say, I realized that I wanted to address the necessity of psychological preparation for performing as equal to that of musical preparation. I spoke about several mental strategies to incorporate into one's emotional repertoire, which include slow deep breathing along with cognitive coping techniques that address negative beliefs about oneself that elevate anxiety. I also suggested that a student's "performance anxiety insurance" would benefit from including a "jam plan" in case one was needed. This plan would include an escape route for how to jump mentally and musically to other passages, use the musical score, and/or have a knowledge of the music beyond finger memory. It was important to add, that if a problem occurs while on stage, that the performer must not (or try not to) be critical and harsh on himself. Rather, it is helpful to use such experiences as powerful learning moments.
But the answer to his knotty question required additional comments. I emphasized how security on stage must begin off stage. I stressed the importance of the teacher-student relationship where stage fright is acknowledged as real and is dealt with appropriately in the teaching studio. To this idea, I added that if stage fright was chronic and interfering with the student's personal and/or professional success, that a teacher ought to make a referral and/or consultation to a mental health professional, and, if age-appropriate, she should also speak with the parents.
In difficult situations, teachers benefit from consultations themselves—either with professionals or with peers. It can be very helpful to form links with mental health professionals who are knowledgeable about stage fright. Perhaps, they can periodically visit studio classes to dialogue with students in a safe atmosphere.
The most important strategy for managing stage fright in any situation, however, is develop a feeling of increased self-confidence and self-esteem, and letting go of the pressure that expecting a perfect performance brings. The emphasis on perfect performances involve magic thinking that one can be perfect (whatever that means) and/or that mistakes will not (or should not) occur. Of course, mistakes happen, our minds wander, and some passages are fiendishly difficult. The wish to give a perfect performance—or to obsess over the most difficult passages—denies the reality and pleasure of competence and doing one's best. It also distracts one's concentration.
Psychological preparation begins off stage along with musical preparation, long before a recital, studio class or concert, so that the "most difficult passages" are not as formidable as they might appear. The combination of psychological and musical practicing provides a more stable and secure base for anxious performers.
How do you manage your performance worries about difficult passages? As always, I enjoy hearing your views and your strategies.