A Tip for Countering Performance Anxiety

One of my favorite activities on a quiet morning when I don't have to DO anything is to sit in my Lay-Z-Boy, drink freshly-brewed coffee, and read. This morning was no exception, but instead of reading my book (which I usually do), I was tooling around on my phone. I subscribe to the Bulletproof Musician Newsletter, which always arrives at some point in the middle of the night Saturday, so it's new in my inbox every Sunday morning. This morning's post had an intriguing title, "Dogs... A Musician's Best Friend?" You can read the article here (and poke around the rest of the site too-- it's full of interesting ideas and research). Dr. Kageyama (the author) recounted research about children struggling to read:  the test group that improved most was the one in which the children, assisted by a therapist, read out loud to dogs.

He then told a story from his own childhood, which I think is really beautiful. He writes, "I grew up a few miles outside of town, in a heavily wooded area, surrounded by birds, squirrels, frogs, and other critters. I also had some chickens and ducks that roamed the yard. Like most kids, there were days when I didn’t feel like practicing. So often, my mom would “trick” me into doing a run-through or mock performance by setting up a stand on the porch, and suggesting that I give the animals a performance. ... The challenge being, to see if I could get the animals to respond to my playing. ... The goal was to see if I could play beautifully enough to get them to approach me – like that scene in Cinderella where all the animals help her make a dress."

He goes on to say that through this exercise, his mom encouraged him to practice a particular performance mindset from a young age. The goal is to make beautiful and emotional sounds, not to play perfectly. This is something I encourage my students to focus on as well, but sometimes it's difficult for them to get away from the "Oh my gosh what if I make a mistake!!" mindset that is so debilitating.

Reading Dr. Kageyama's post reminded me of something that happened over winter break. I was out of town, but had a recital in early January so had my viola with me and was preparing the program. My host had friends that were also out of town, and they let me use their apartment as a practice space while they were gone. I set up the music stand and was practicing away, when suddenly I noticed that I had an audience.

My colleague Amelia Kaplan wrote a piece for me and Ketty Nez to premiere at this recital. For various reasons, I was unable to start learning it until only a few weeks before the concert. Now, in general, this does not make for anxiety-free performance. At some point I read (and unfortunately, I don't recall the source) that having enough time to learn a work, and the work being of an appropriate level based on your abilities, are key for approaching anxiety-free performance. This makes a lot of sense. If you're expected to perform something that's well beyond your skill level (i.e. if you've just gotten comfortable with Suzuki book 3 and suddenly your teacher gives you the Bartok concerto), of course that's going to be super stressful. The other point, which was the one with which I was struggling, is that I only had about two weeks to learn a brand new piece of music. There were no recordings to which I could refer, and even a computer-generated recording wouldn't help, due to the many extended techniques in the piece.

So, I was stressed out about the piece to begin with, and practicing hard, trying to learn it in a lot less time than I wished I'd had. And then suddenly I notice the cute and cuddley audience, smiling up at me (that green toy with the big eyes is especially accepting), and I decided to perform for them. I knew I needed to practice performing, even though the piece was still new. Actually seeing those faces and all of those eyes looking at me triggered "performance mode" in my brain. It was incredibly useful. I "performed" Amelia's piece several times for this oh-most-encouraging and judgement-free audience, and it helped me work out my own anxieties about the piece. Here is the video of our premiere performance.

My experience isn't exactly what Dr. Kageyama talks about in his post, but I hope it might be useful for some of you out there who do struggle with performance anxiety. Performing should be about the sound and the emotion, not about getting everything right. If you have some toys lying around, create for yourself an audience, and perform for them (complete with bows before and after you perform). Let me know if it helps!

Happy practicing!

Semester Done!

I can hardly believe it's the end of Finals Week here at Ball State. Juries were on Tuesday, and I'm happy to report all of my students passed. This morning after a meeting and some makeup lessons, I cleaned my school office, and left the building! We had a studio lunch/baby shower to which seven students came...

Read More

Dr. McLeod, an exploration of Sound, and the Hibiki Trio's Final Concert

Last week I had the pleasure of welcoming our last guest artist to the Meidell studio for this academic year. Dr. Alex McLeod, whom I met at the American Viola Society conference last summer, came to Muncie and gave a fascinating presentation on how our instruments make sound (as in, the science of it all!). Then he proceeded to guide the studio in an exploration of the extremes,  playing with bow speed, contact point, arm weight, and how much hair was on the string. These are the four contributing factors to sound production (which a friend of mine cleverly calls SWAP: Speed, Weight, Angle (as in, is your hair flat or angled towards the scroll?), and Placement). I've been teaching SWAP forever, but hearing about the string theory and watching my students' faces as we explored sound was really fun. It's always nice to get a different take on really important information. Unfortunately we neglected to take any pictures (d'oh!), but I hope it won't be my last collaboration with Dr. McLeod! Here's a video Alex uses that I find absolutely fascinating. It's a bowed string that's been slowed down a lot, so you can really see the way the string moves. Fascinating stuff.

Then on Friday the Hibiki Trio had a performance, which went quite well. We had a very large audience, and they all seemed to really love our program. We performed a Telemann Trio Sonata, Takemitsu's And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind, a beautiful Irish Lullaby by Ian Krouse, and a really excellent transcription of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun. Surprisingly, the orchestral work sounds quite good with only three instruments. The Krouse was a real hit amongst my students (maybe because it starts with a melancholy viola solo??), so I'm very glad we played it.

Sadly, it turns out this was the last Hibiki Trio concert. Circumstances beyond my control have come to pass, and we will no longer be performing together. I'm really broken up about it, but there's nothing, apparently, I can do. Thanks to everyone who has supported our trio these last years. I've had a blast exploring the surprisingly sizable repertoire for flute, viola, and harp (who knew?!), and making music with this gorgeous instrument combination.

Till next time, happy practicing.

A week filled with Dr. Gerling!

The week before last was filled with Dr. Daphne Gerling-- so it was a very good week! Daphne is a fantastic pedagogue, violist, and best of all, friend. She came to Ball State on Wednesday, March 22nd, and gave an inspirational and energetic master class, filled with Hindemith and Zombies. Eh? Well, two of my students are working on a piece called Viola Zombie, composed by Michael Daugherty. Ironically, shortly after that portion of the master class had ended and we were on to our last Hindemith performance, the emergency loud speaker in the hall piped up that a man had been spotted on campus with a rifle. I locked the doors to the hall, we took a few minutes to gather our wits and make sure everyone was okay and we were secure, and continued with the master class (a very practical and violistic approach). Later we found out that it was a toy rifle and that the person was playing a game, Humans vs. Zombies. Ironic, that the only viola piece about zombies was performed and taught while a game of Humans vs. Zombies raged nearby!

Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the students with Dr. Gerling, but here she and I are (albeit a bit fuzzy).

Daphne and I had a nice dinner Wednesday evening, and enjoyed some down time on my couch before we headed off to our respective beds for the night. She left on Thursday morning, after we had breakfast and read a viola duo that we'll be playing together at the International Viola Congress in September (stay tuned for more on that later). But then I got to see Daphne again a few days later, in Illinois!

It was Redbird Viola Day, at Illinois State University. Dr. Kate Lewis invited me to be a guest performer and faculty member, along with the legendary Jeff Irvine, Dr. Gerling, Dr. Wendy Richman, and more. I invited my own students to attend the day, but only two were able to come. We all got up very early on Saturday morning and drove out to Illinois, where all of us had a fantastic time, and then drove home. It was fun hanging out with Anthony and Julie in the car, and then at Viola Day to spend time with friends, new and old, with colleagues, violists, and of course to play and teach lots of viola. I enjoyed performing Daniel Sitler's composition again, and as happens every time I perform it, got lots of positive feedback about it. Here are some photos from the day.

Just a note-- you don't HAVE to be tall to play viola. So all of you out there who aren't as tall as me or the other folks in the photos, don't despair! :-)

Happy practicing!

Gregg Goodhart: The Learning Coach

I've taken an inadvertent hiatus from blogging, and now am woefully behind. ASTA in Pittsburg was very informative and a lot of fun, and from there I went straight to Spring Break. A week of lying on a beach was exactly what my mind and body needed to get ready to finish out the rest of the semester! It was fantastic, but I think I might have slipped a little too much into enjoying the lack of schedule and emails. Though it's now been more than two weeks since Spring Break ended, I feel like I'm only now getting back into the swing of things.

Where to begin? It's been one exciting thing after another, so I think I'll start with the most recent event. Today in Studio Class, I had the pleasure of bringing Gregg Goodhardt, The Learning Coach, in for a Skype conference call. He taught my students about learning: how the brain does it, and how to systematically develop their skills. Then he had three "victims" demonstrate tricky spots, and with coaching, worked them to a much higher level than they were presenting when they first played. It was very cool to see, and though a lot of the information was what I already know and teach, it was great to see it organized and presented in a clear, concise, and approachable way. When I was young, I wasn't exactly taught HOW to practice-- I had to figure out a lot of that on my own. Now we have books and websites and learning coaches who do just that, and to be able to have one "in" class today was very cool. I hope Gregg's approaches will help my students trust in the slow and (somewhat unfortunately) laborious process. I've been telling them the same kinds of things from day one, but sometimes hearing it from another source is exactly what you need. I suggest you check out his research, especially if you're struggling with certain tricky passages! He has all of the answers.

Happy practicing!