How Mind-Body Techniques Benefit Performers
People worldwide utilize mindfulness practices to create a peaceful and clear headspace and to help calm themselves if they feel anxious or upset. Many of these practices such as yoga, meditation and visualization are useful to members of the performing arts community for a variety of reasons. Keeping your body in check with your mind and creating a balance between the two, leads to better focus, mental and physical health, and peace of mind. Many of these methods are used as grounding techniques to help those who struggle with past trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. While these techniques are particularly beneficial for those who struggle with performance anxiety, they can be beneficial to all musicians as well.
What I love about these mind-body techniques is that you learn to use your body to affect your mind. “Mind” doesn’t necessarily mean brain, it can mean the way you think, your beliefs, your confidence, your positivity, your outlook on things and so much more. You carry out tasks that then begin to affect your life positively. These techniques allow you to focus more on your mental state, which many of us tend to neglect, especially when sitting in a practice room for hours. Sometimes as musicians, we become very unkind to ourselves because of all the pressure we feel to perform a certain way or win a certain job. It’s exhausting. Many musicians begin to include these practices into their daily routines to help create a positive mindset towards practice and performance. It's crucially important for us to fuel our minds with self care, as we fuel our bodies with food to create energy.
Mind-body techniques have been proven to help reduce stress. Not only reduce, but with time and practice, they can help with the way you react to stress, both psychologically and/or physically. These methods can help us cope with the pain and irritation we feel from daily struggles and inconveniences as well as more high stress situations such as performance anxiety prior to an audition. Rather than expecting the worst going into a performance situation, these techniques can help change your outlook on performance. So rather than anticipating and going in knowing you’ll be fearful or feel a certain way, mind-body techniques can help you feel more confident in your abilities and ready to go in and nail the audition. These methods allow you to change the way you perceive performance, and help you to heal your relationship with performing.
When mind-body techniques are used in stressful situations, they help to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s sister, the sympathetic nervous system is what causes the fight-flight-freeze reaction when we perceive a threat. When using a mind-body technique in a situation where you perceive a threat, it will activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for relaxing and calming the body. So some of the physical symptoms of performance anxiety, such as shortness of breath, or a racing heart beat are lessoned; your heart rate should fall back close to baseline, and you should be able to catch your breath.
How do I know which one is right for me? Should I try them all?
A few things should be considered. Look at your lifestyle and the things you like to do. Are you someone who likes to move, or someone who would prefer to sit in peace and do things? Do you have any health concerns that may prevent you from doing moves in yoga, or are you in tip top shape and ready to go? Do you have any spiritual beliefs? If you’re someone who prefers a quiet space to just sit, I would suggest breathing exercises or meditation/visualization. These are great to do, even if you have just a couple of minutes before bed to take a minute to yourself. If you’re someone who likes to move and has spiritual beliefs, you might consider diving deep into the practice of yoga. Regardless of which you choose, these methods must be practiced. Yes, practiced! They are each an art form, and require training. Many people who practice tend to start out with video or audio instruction for any one of these techniques. Learning how to focus and stay calm and centered when meditating or visualizing requires repetitive practice. I myself like to go on Youtube and just search guided meditation. Many of these have a soothing soundtrack and a person who describes everything you do from how to breath and for how long, to what to feel and focus on in your body. For yoga practice, there are many options. Youtube is also a great resource. There are however, yoga programs and organizations such as Yoga For All Musicians (YAM) which tailor their programs to a specific art form/group of people. This site provides guided, informational, practice which can offer great benefits. It is so fun to partake in an online community!
Are there more mind-body techniques or is this it?
There are many more however these tend to be the most common. Painting or drawing is also recognized as a mind-body technique as it brings a sense of peace and calmness to the artist in the moment, as he/she creates. I do believe that the most common techniques are more realistic for managing symptoms in high stress situations. For those who enjoy art, it too can be used to release stress and decompress after a high-stress situation
The Alexander Technique is also another great mind-body technique. I have had a few blog entries on that and how it can help with performance anxiety so be sure to give those a look! Learning the Alexander Technique has proved to have been one of the most beneficial and helpful parts of my music career/schooling. It has helped me to conquer playing difficulties, pain, stress/anxiety, and performance anxiety. I HIGHLY recommend this method and think that it is the prime example of how a mind-body technique can be helpful to those of us in the performance field.
Finding a method of relief for performance is so tricky because everyone is so incredibly different. There is a big personalization factor that plays into what may or may not work for you. You might not be someone who likes the idea of medication, or someone who has a hard time focusing while just simply reading a book. You might do better with a hands-on, or movement technique such as Alexander Technique or yoga, where someone else might do better reading sports psychology books and taking beta blockers. Any combination of methods could work for you and be the right cocktail that you need to manage your performance anxiety. Just remember that there’s no right or wrong method of relief, it's just about what combination works for you.
Please welcome back Jessica Lombardo this week, and give a warm welcome to Sophia Fillipone.
Jessica is with us for a second week to talk about her experiences with mind-body techniques, and to reference a few other methods for performance anxiety relief as well.
What methods have you tried for relief?
It's a very recent thing for me trying to get more into the mental side of performance anxiety. I’ve been doing the Don Greene stuff which is when you take a quiz and it breaks down your performance into 7 different categories. Also guided meditation and visualization techniques before going on stage like imagining a positive outcome and things going well and just trying to center myself and stay focused as much as possible.
How did you hear about these remedies?
As for these more recent, more mental techniques, the guided visualization was taught to me by my teacher Ann Ellsworth. If I had an audition or something and I was able to see her, she would take me through a guided meditation. As far as some books I’ve been reading, I just started the Don Greene book, Fight Your Fear and Win. Also I just listened to a Brass Junkies podcast with Jen Monotone, where she talks about the same kind of stuff. All of that stuff I learned from Rachel Hockenberry who I believe teaches at the University of Illinois. I actually just facetimed her a week ago about all of this stuff and she was very, very helpful. She was the one who recommended all the books and the podcast.
So I haven’t read Performance Success yet. The one I’ve been reading is Fight Your Fear and Win. That's the one that I did the quiz for. There’s 7 skills for performing your best under pressure. You take the quiz and basically the 7 skills are determination, energy, perspective, courage, focus, poise and resilience. And when you take the quiz it determines what categories you’re weaker at and which ones you’re stronger at. Personally my weakest one was focus which was not surprising at all. Because when I’m on stage I’m very scatterbrained and very like, “who’s in the audience? How does my hair look?” And I'm not even thinking about the music. So yeah. It's a nice book too because you don't have to read it cover to cover. You fill out the quiz, the quiz does take a little while. It's kinda a little bit like actual math. It took me a couple hours to do the quiz, but it’s worth it because then you can skip to the chapters that you need to work on. You can read the whole thing, but I just like that it's more of a reference and not something you have to read cover to cover. And it's very personalized. That’s what I like about it.
What was most helpful about guided meditation & visualization? Can you give an example?
So my old teacher Ann Ellsworth, would have me do something like close my eyes and breath and get into a relaxed state. Then she would say, “imagine that you’re getting on an escalator and the escalator is going down. You’re going down the escalator and as you’re going down you’re breathing and getting more relaxed, and imagine that at the bottom of the escalator is the most relaxed place you can imagine, like your favorite place in the world. It could be the beach, it could be a garden, it could be your house, anywhere where you feel completely relaxed and happy." For me that’s the beach. So I imagine going down this escalator and at the bottom of the escalator I step off and I’m on the Beach. Just kind of imagining yourself there and getting to that relaxed state. Once you’re there, she kind of had me imagine myself, let's say I have an audition, going through the entire audition. I mean yes there are things that are going to happen that you don’t expect, but imagining yourself and the feeling of going into the warm up room. The feeling of holding your horn in your hands, and you pick up the horn and you sound amazing. You basically imagine the best possible scenario. You warm up, you feel great, and you go into the audition room and you nail it, and you feel really good. Then getting out of the meditation, you imagine yourself going back up the escalator and back to reality. So that’s kind of how she helped me with the guided meditation which I find really helpful. It can be hard for you to just sit there and clear your thoughts, and the guided meditation fills your mind with something, but you still feel like you’re in a very relaxed and positive state.
Have these methods you’ve used impacted your performance anxiety?
A lot of this stuff is trial and error and a lot of it is just like, “This is what I have to do. This is what works for me. This is my routine”, and I’m still kind of figuring that out. I have found with the Don Greene stuff, I read a little bit of the chapter about focus and the next day when I went to go practice I felt way more focused during my session. And I know that’s not a performance, it's a very low risk situation. I still felt like I was able to use those techniques in my practice session.
If you could offer a piece of advice about Performance Anxiety or one of the methods you mentioned, what would it be?
Take care of yourself. Try to find meaning behind what you’re doing. Trying to center yourself and ground yourself as much as possible. Just remember that music is a beautiful things and it's nothing to be nervous about. People was to hear you, they want to hear music, they want it to be an enjoyable experience at the end of the day. And music should be the priority above everything else. I think once you have that as the primary thought in your head, that it is about music and nothing else, then a lot of the other stuff falls to the wayside. I know it's easier said than done to fall into that mindset, but at the end of the day it's really not a
bout you. I know that sounds kind of harsh. But I feel like when we get nervous it's like, “everyones looking at me, it's all about me.” It's really not, it's about music. It's not really about you. That’s something I’ve used in the past when I’ve been in my own head. At the end of the day it's all about music.
Sophia Filippone is a French Horn player from Glen Mills, PA. She began playing piano at the age of 6 While studying piano she had recitals yearly that she would get to perform. She began playing horn in the 5th grade and has continued her studies and she now attends the Manhattan School of Music.
Have you ever struggled with performance anxiety? If so, what were your most debilitating symptoms?
Oh boy. Yes is the short answer to that. I have everything; the shakes, clammy hands, I get cold sweats, dry mouth, and I get really hot. Literally everything it's crazy.
What methods of relief have you tried? What worked for you and what did not?
So I’ve had people tell me different types of things and I haven’t really found what works necessarily. Some things will work sometimes, but definitely won’t work 100%. I took Alexander Technique this past semester, but because of the split semester I didn’t really get everything I needed out of it. So I couldn’t work that into my auditions I had this year, but when I took a lesson with Julie Landsman, she had taught me the 5 toe thing where you count your toes. She talks about walking and feeling your feet hit the ground while you’re walking to the chair, but taking your time to get there. Once you’re seated she talks about pushing and counting each toe, one at a time. This was a while ago that she told me about it so this is my spin on it. Sometimes my brain gets so fogged over that I can’t even think to do little things like that. Then I talked to Jen Montone about it. She advised me to do a lot of meditation, and do a lot of yoga beforehand. She was like, “The one thing that completely gets your body more grounded is if you’re in a practice room before your audition, and you’re freaking out, I would lay down on the floor and put my legs on the chair and just take deep breaths.” So I did that a lot before one of my auditions, and that did help. It lowered my heart rate. But you know once you go into the audition room, it just shoots back up again. And I can’t lay on the floor. That’s one of the things that helped here and there. It’s hard. I haven’t found something that works every single time for me.
What types of meditation do you do?
So I use Headspace a lot. Especially before I even get to the warmup room. So for all of my auditions, I would sit in the waiting room that they have there and I would put my headphones in and close my eyes and I would listen to Headspace. I would try to block everything else out, and then once I’d be in the warm up room, Jen talked about doing simple breathing meditations. There was one where she talked about breathing through each nostril, in for 5 and out for 5. Hold for 5, then in for 5 in the other one, and out for 5. So little ones like that, I thought of more as a meditation than a breathing exercise.
What have you found the most effective, even if it was just a small difference?
I think if anything these techniques helped my heart rate and when my heart is beating like crazy I feel like it takes over my mind. I am trying to focus on the music, but my heart is beating so loud in my head that it's so hard for me to just play. I'm thinking about every detail, and, “crap I screwed that up”, or "don’t screw up, don’t crack that note.” You know stuff like that, so the breathing a lot, and the yoga position things in the warm up room that Jen told me to do would lower my heart rate and stay more focused, and be able to control things better.
Have these methods you’ve used impacted your Performance Anxiety?
Yes, but I also think that I need to do more work in terms of having the opportunity to get nervous more often. Who ever is in an audition every couple of weeks? No one ever does an audition every couple of weeks and so the only way to cope with anxiety fully is to do it so often. I think that it's helped a tiny tiny bit, I’m discovering more things that are helping this much, a really tiny bit. But nothing like, “wow this works”. It’s tricky, it’s all about the mindset. It's too hard for me to trick my mind into anything else because I’m like, “ it has to be this. It has to be that. I want it this certain way”. So it's so hard to get over the fact of you almost not knowing; You never know what’s going to happen, and you cannot control what the panel is thinking of you. I think that’s a huge part of it.
Would you recommend any of these methods?
I’d recommend people to try anything. You can start anywhere. I know that people don’t know where to start because I’m in the same boat. I still don’t know where to start. So I would say, start with what you think might help, and go from there. Try everything you can. Do them religiously. I also think a big part of it is figuring out where the anxiety is stemming from. For me it's that fear that I’m either going to screw something up, or I’ll never be good enough for this. I’ve always had performance anxiety, I would even get nervous at the piano recitals I had when I was little. A big part of that was not wanting my peers to think that I’m bad. I don’t want to let them down. I would say try anything. It’s all personalized.
If you could offer a piece of advice about Performance Anxiety or one of the methods you mentioned, what would it be?
My advice would be to put yourself out there when you have the chance too. Because that’s something I regret for me. I get so nervous that I don’t want to play in front of my peers or I don’t want to play a solo or something for Masterclasses. I’d be the last one to say, “I’ll go”. And that’s something that’s bad, that's something I wouldn’t want anyone to do. I wouldn’t want anyone to be like that. I’d say put yourself out there. That's the hardest thing, but it will help you in the long run.
Stay tuned for more of Mind Over Practice! There will not be a new entry of Mind Over Practice next week, but we will be back on September 4th! Next week on August 27th I will be presenting a masterclass on Performance Anxiety at the Urubrass Festival! Interested in attending? Be sure to register at http://www.ubrass.com.uy/ .
Questions, Comments, Advice? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on instagram @mindoverpractice. Have a productive week of positive practicing!