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!