Finding a Place to Start Part 1: Success in Adequate Preparation
When struggling with Performance Anxiety, one of the biggest issues in solving it is figuring out where to even start. There are a million methods out there: Alexander Technique, yoga, multiple theories from books and websites, beta blockers, meditation and so much more! It’s kind of an overwhelming experience…
So...where do we start?
Everyone is different, and everyone’s performance anxiety is different. So it’s hard to give a straight answer as to where to start. However, I would suggest that we start with some of the basics, and the techniques most commonly recommended by instructors. Let’s get to it!
Like I mentioned in the previous blog post, performance anxiety can stem from different places. It could be a result of generalized anxiety, environmental factors, trauma, or could be general “stage fright”. It’s important to be able to identify which category you fall under so you can find the best coping methods. If you’re unsure, or you realize that the anxiety stems from a deeper seeded issue, it’s important to meet with a therapist. Therapists can help you identify your base problem so that you can then identify which performance anxiety category you fall into. Therapists also offer assistance with anxiety relief using more advanced methods such as talk therapy, grounding exercises, exposure therapy, and more. I especially recommend a therapist if you fall into the categories of generalized anxiety, or trauma. These require more work with learning to cope and manage the issues beyond performance anxiety.
Oftentimes, your private teacher has dealt with their fair share of performance anxiety and may also have some valuable suggestions. Before checking out books and doing research, or taking medications, teachers should recommend that you focus on the art of practicing the way you want to perform. Some teachers are religious about this, having their students walk in the room, introduce the piece before they “perform”, and give a performance or “mock audition” during their lessons. I’ve found myself that by doing countless mock auditions and playing for different people before actual auditions has been incredibly beneficial and has helped to put some of my mental nerves to rest.
Performing for others, and learning the art of performance is something that is often left out of the teaching process. We prepare students with the best technique and insight on the pieces or excerpts they’re playing that sometimes we forget to teach them how to perform. I don’t mean learning to stand and play your instrument, I mean how to walk on stage, how to maintain consistency throughout, how to remain in a good and stable state of mind, and not waver in confidence. These are the things that as educators, we need to keep in mind and promote to our students early on in their education.
Mock auditions are a great place for performers to start. Grab a friend or two (or a few), and ask if you can play for them, or play for each other! You can ask them to provide feedback, or not. Totally your choice. If your audition or performance is a bit further out, I would accept the constructive criticism from your colleagues. If it’s coming up soon, just general comments would be enough, or you could opt for no comments, just the audience's attention!
Throughout my first year of my Masters, my teacher, David Jolley, got me hooked on mock auditions. For my first placement audition at Mannes, I had performed a mock audition and recorded it every day, starting two weeks out from the actual audition. While I made some silly errors due to a lack of focus or concentration during the actual audition, I still played quite well and I was content with that. I ended up placing high in the studio rankings. Throughout the rest of the year, before any auditions I would prepare by starting to play and record mock auditions daily, play them in my lessons, and play them for my friends and colleagues. I’ve found that this was super helpful in terms of realizing my level of preparation, as well as gaining and maintaining consistency in my playing.
Other simple things that you can try are walking on stage, presenting yourself, and starting your first piece. There are three important parts to this:
1) The art of walking on stage. Think about the way you want to carry yourself. How do you feel? How does it feel to walk from backstage to front and center? For recitals or juries you will most likely have to announce the pieces that you will be performing. For auditions, you won’t need to, however getting into the frame of mind of, “what will it feel like to take my first steps onto a stage?” is still an important part of maintaining confidence and getting comfortable and familiar with your setting.
2) Practice your public speaking wherever and whenever you can. If you have performance anxiety, it’s more than likely that you have a fear of public speaking as well. What does it feel like to speak to a large open crowd? Are you loud enough? Resonant enough? Are the words you’re saying comprehensible to the people who aren’t musically savvy? Make sure you’re not speaking above your audience and that you’re not speaking down to them either. Get comfortable with your words, and how you intend to say them.
3) Finally, consider how you will start the piece. Many professionals recommend not playing through all your excerpts before you audition but rather starting each one and playing the first bar or two. You should have a plan for exactly how you’ll start each piece or excerpt. You should know the breath and what kind of prep you’re running in your head. Where’s your tongue and where is the first note in your mouth? The prep, the breath, and the attack are the top three things that should never change. Repetition on this is key. Make it consistent so that when you walk on stage, you know exactly what you need to do.
If you aren’t adequately prepared, your performance anxiety can be exaggerated during the audition and during the time leading up to it. When I feel unprepared for something, even in situations not involving my music, I find that I stress about it for days before the actual event. My biggest suggestion for preparation is to make yourself a schedule. I talked all about making practice plans and schedules in my first blog entry, How to Spark Motivation. Be sure to check it out! In the meantime, beside practice plans and schedules, I suggest reading Rachelle Jenkins’ book, The Audition Playbook. This is an amazing book which includes worksheets to help prepare for auditions. Jenkins is completely flexible and has created worksheets which you can easily customize to yourself and what you’re working on and how much time you have to prepare. The book itself talks about all the worksheets and how to use them, and why they are a necessary part of your preparation. The frame of her preparation plan offers gentle reminders to be kind to yourself when working through difficulties or challenges in your playing. I would 100% recommend this book to everyone who will be taking auditions.
Along with the preparation of your audition repertoire, developing and preparing a healthy mindset towards performance is one of the key elements to learning how to manage your performance anxiety. Since performance anxiety is a psychological reaction that manifests both mentally and physically, it's important to be able to conquer the psychological side of performance. Jeff Nelsen, French horn player of Canadian Brass, developed a method, Fearless Performance, based on how to respond to your fears and master the mental side of performance. I will link both his website and his TedTalk on Fearless Performance below. He too offers worksheets as a guide to help you start your journey.
Preparation is key to feeling more at ease during a performance scenario. If you feel as if you know exactly what you’re doing, and you are confident with the repertoire, then the only thing standing in your way is yourself. It’s not about the notes on the page anymore. It’s about singing them through your instrument and making people listen to you and feel the music you are producing. It all comes down to a moment, a feeling, and an opportunity. Learning to be the best we can be at a given moment is the key to success.
Please welcome my featured guest this week, Spencer Miles. Spencer is an alumni of West Virginia University where he received his Bachelor's Degree in Music Education. He will be continuing his education at Temple University and will be receiving his Master’s Degree in Music Technology. Formerly a part of the 249th Army Band, Spencer is now a Trombonist at the 28th Infantry Division Band, and has his own Trombone Studio out of Lancaster, PA.
An advocate for finding performance anxiety relief, Spencer has created and written his own leaflet entitled, “Trombone Aerobics: A Comprehensive Warm-Up and Technique Routine for The Well-Rounded Trombonist With Practice Theories and Performance Preparation Strategies”. This leaflet will be referred to, and explained further in his interview.
Have you ever struggled with performance anxiety? If you have, what were your most debilitating symptoms?
As most musicians do, I’ve struggled a significant amount, especially in my earlier days of music school, with performance anxiety. As a freshman and a sophomore in college, I would get so worked up for juries that I would physically shake a little bit. I’d be extremely mentally nervous, but the biggest issue was the physical shaking. As I play a brass instrument, when you shake it loosens your embouchure and it's downhill from there. I'd forget things that I had learned, and probably my biggest issue was that I would not play to my fullest ability. So I'd have these times in lessons, or times in practice where I’d play incredibly, and then I would get to the performance or the jury and I’d play terribly. I had always wondered, “Why do I go from here when I practice, to down here when I perform?” It doesn’t make a lot of sense. It triggered my search for how to solve the idea of performance anxiety, and the resources that my professors got me.
What methods of relief have you tried? What did you find worked for you and what did not?
I’ve had the opportunity to work with someone trained in Alexander technique from the Pittsburgh orchestra, I worked with Barry Green who worked on his book with Tim Gallwey, The Inner Game of Music, which is kind of a stem of the Inner Game of Tennis. I think all of those items are valid and you should definitely try to use a little bit of it. The whole idea of Tim Gallwey's/Barry Green’s Self One and Self Two is very important, because you always have that little mind going in your head like, “Oh what if I mess up? What if this happens?” And they focus on trying to let that side of the mind go to focus on playing the music. I never really found success in either one of those, and that’s just me. I eventually realized that the reason I got so nervous was because I hadn’t prepared enough adequately. Here's what I mean by that. In college I used to practice 3-4 hours a day. I literally would spend more time with my trombone than anyone else I knew. It wasn’t that I wasn’t musically prepared enough, it was that I didn’t prepare enough for the actual scenario. And this is something that you don’t really hear talked about often. So as musicians we go into a practice room and we play over and over the stuff that we're going to play, tweaking it a little bit. But that is nothing like the performance. For a recital or a jury, you walk in there, you play it once, and you walk out. And that might be one of the first times you’ve played it for people, in general.
So practicing like you perform. On one side you have, “this is me practicing music”, but that is not the same as, “this over here is performing music”. You have to identify what it is that I actually do over here and how this plays into it. If you look on page 14 of the PDF it says a couple drills. So the drills I have listed here are: A Starting Drill, A Triple Drill, A Circulatory System Drill, The Nervous System Drill, The Room Entering Drill, and The Distraction Exercise. So this approaches a whole number of things that you’ll experience. The starting drill is pretty interesting. You walk in and you have to decide, “how am I going to start this piece?” Then you should put some repetition on starting the piece over and over so that come performance time you know exactly how to start. You know that you’ve practiced the start in a performance scenario. Then you move on to the Triple Drill. Like I said earlier, in a performance you only get to play your piece once, unlike practice. So you should be able to play your piece consistently over and over, exactly how you want. So the Triple Drill focuses on building up that consistency. Now this next one is pretty interesting; The Circulatory Drill and The Nervous System Drill. This goes into the physiology of the human body. This draws a little bit from the Alexander Technique, but goes off on a tangent. These two drills address exactly what happens with your nervous system, and what exactly happens with your circulatory system. The interesting thing about the Nervous System Drill is that this was actually stolen from a sniper school. This was a drill designed for snipers who were under an extreme amount of pressure and had to calm their body to essentially survive and complete their mission. It works equally well for the musicians. Now we have the Room Entering Drill. Just like in the military, we don't want to leave anything to chance, so you even practice entering the room. What is it going to be like when I’m entering the room? And the last part of this that I like to use with my students is the distraction exercise. We’ll be performing and you see someone not paying attention, or you notice a judge writing something down and your mind goes, “What are they writing?” Well you need to practice how to be able to ignore these things. We practiced music, and now we need to practice the art of performance. My idea is how to approach practicing for performance.
How have the methods you've mentioned impacted your Performance Anxiety?
It's nearly solved it, and it actually applies to every portion of my life. For instance I got engaged about a month ago and I used this technique and I wasn’t concerned. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t shaking, and a lot of people get shaky about things like that. So this technique has been extremely useful not just in music, but in all around life. I used to walk up to a performance scenario and be like, “Oh my goodness I hope I don't get nervous”. And what kind of plan is hope? Like, “Oh I hope this doesn’t happen”. It's a terrible plan. You should be able to prepare. Now when I walk up to a performance situation it's,” I prepared for this”, not just musically, but for the actual scenario itself. I am ready. It’s very freeing.
Would you recommend any of these methods?
The first thing you want to do whenever you are faced with a problem, is learn about the problem. I think the Inner Game of Tennis and The Inner Game of Music are great for learning about the problem; Learning about the psychology and what is going on. I don't know that it 100% gives you a solution. Now it does give you some things to do, but they may not work for you. It’s not a step by step. I definitely recommend reading both those books and other sports psychology books just to learn about it. Something that was really useful to me was the Psychologist from Juilliard, The Bulletproof Musician. He puts some incredible exercises up and that’s when I started learning, “Okay this is what the problem is and these are the steps we can take to fix the problem”.
So I think they’re all useful. I created my pamphlet specifically for the high school aged students. I think if you read it, it's a very short, easy, “Here’s my problem. Here’s my fix.” But if you’re more college aged students, I’d go through and read the two books, and I’d get on Bulletproof Musician. I kind of recommend all of it. It depends on your stage.
If you could offer a piece of advice about Performance Anxiety or one of the methods you mentioned, what would it be?
Preparation. Two things teachers don't really teach. They tell you to go practice, but they don't tell you how to practice. If they say get ready to perform, they don't tell you how to get ready to perform. You have to learn on your own how to learn these two things. Learn how to correctly practice, and learn how to correctly prepare for a performance and that will go miles. It's not just about the practice room, it's about practicing for the scenario itself.
Thank you so much Spencer for taking us through your journey and experience with Performance Anxiety, as well as sharing some methods that you have developed!.
This topic of Performance Anxiety Relief will continue for the next few weeks. Stay tuned for more methods of relief as well as interviews of more Performing Artists on their experiences with Performance Anxiety.
That’s all for now. Have a productive week of positive practicing!