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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 1

The Performer's Equilibrium: The Key to Controlling Performance Anxiety

by Sarah Silvermyn / September 1, 2000

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Music is the universal language. This privileged communication between musician and audience can be an enlightening experience, yet it can also become choked by an accumulation of stress, tension, and overwhelming anxiety.

Aside from the stresses of normal everyday life, musicians live in a world of fierce competitiveness where there always seems to be someone who can play the same music with greater ease and technical mastery. There is often a constant fear of being 'shot down' by critics, colleagues, or friends, which results in a desire for perfect performances. This type of stress can inhibit musical development, yet if harnessed it can actually be a powerful motivator. When musicians are unable to cope with anxiety it creates paralysis. It is not the pressure of performing that causes this debilitating anxiety, but the lack of mind-body coordination.

Musicians must learn to release tensions and develop a harmonious balance to deliver their best performance. Psychologist Paul Lehrer in his book, Performance Anxiety and how to control it: A Psychologist's perspective, explains that our bodies are created simply for finding food and shelter and for reproducing. When faced with a life-threatening situation (being chased by a bear as opposed to the threat of an approaching performance), our body responds with a primitive self-protection mechanism known as "fight or flight." In emergencies we gain mental alertness, strength, speed, agility (sweating palms and soles gives agility for climbing rocks or trees, but can mean disaster when playing a musical instrument). Muscular tension increases to protect the body from damage. The blood vessels on the surface of the body (especially in the hands and feet) constrict. This reduces the blood lost during an injury but causes the sensation of cold feet or hands that musicians experience. In a "fight or flight" situation, more blood flows to the large muscles. This is ideal for escaping from bears, but reduces the fine muscle coordination so necessary to musicians. Being aware of these primitive physical reactions to anxiety and understanding the normalcy of "fight or flight" can help reduce panic. The challenge every musician faces is learning how to work with these natural reactions and use them positively.

Tension can also be dangerous

Playing an instrument involves the entire body, yet is extremely demanding on small muscles. One slight movement involves a whole chain of muscles. If a violinist plays with the chin pressed into the chin rest, the shoulder reacts by pressing upwards. The arm socket locks and stiffens, which can lead to neck, back and arm aches.

Pianist Madeline Bruser in The Art of Practicing: A guide to making Music from the heart stresses the importance of taking frequent breaks in practice sessions to release muscle stress. Just because the heart and lungs aren't pumping doesn't mean our muscles don't need a rest. Practicing through pain can be extremely dangerous or even curtail a career, as in the case of pianist Leon Fleischer. "There was something macho about practicing through the pain barrier," he noted. "Even when my hand was exhausted, I kept going. Although I thought I was building up muscle, I was, in fact, unraveling it."

Most often physiological tension leads to loss of emotional expression and musical communication. The inefficient use of tense muscles produces an inferior sound, which causes the musician to use more force, resulting in a tighter grip and more tension. When physical tension is released, the sound produced increases in fullness, warmth, purity and control.

Learning to relax

Musicians need to learn how to use their bodies more naturally. There are many different techniques designed for physiological relaxation. Perhaps one of the simplest forms of relaxation, "mindfulness of breathing," was discovered in ancient times by Shakyamuni Buddha. It began as a type of meditation focusing on breath, especially exhalation, in an attempt to clear the mind and relax the body. We often tend to rush the natural breathing process, and during tense situations even hold our breath, as if this could help us to release our stress! Often a few simple exhalations can release a complex amount of tension. Musician Carola Grindea explains that pianists playing a technically difficult passage will sometimes stop breathing and sigh heavily when the section has passed! This only increases the amount of tension in the body. If the pianist learned how to slowly exhale before the passage, the inner tightening of the body would decrease.

Another technique used to help free the body of tension was developed by Frederick Mathias Alexander. A performer himself, Alexander suffered from voice loss during recitals. He created the Alexander Technique after years of observing the functions of the human body. He discovered that the primary control (the interaction between the head, neck and back) directly influences the quality of activity we engage in. We all have habits of using the body incorrectly, as Alexander teacher Hope Martin explains: "Our kinesthetic sense-our sense of the body's position and movement-adapts to our habits and reads them as 'right'. So we may think we're sitting or moving one way when we're really doing something quite different." (as quoted in the Madeline Bruser book). Alexander was actually causing his own voice loss. When he began using his body by not interfering with the primary control, his problem disappeared.

Teachers of this technique focus on how to release the neck and lengthen the torso, which reduces unnecessary tensions. Students also learn how to let things "happen" rather than focus on "doing" them. This idea of "doing" something, such as, "I am going to get out of the chair," causes instant tension with a locking of the head and neck and tensing of the back.

Freedom from physical tension is extremely important, not only for playing an instrument, but also for the performer's mental state. Alexander teacher and pianist Nelly Ben-Or says in The Alexander Technique and Performance, "No mentally disturbed or ill person shows any signs of good use or balanced bodily co-ordination."

Avoiding negative thoughts

Just as our physical responses affect our emotions, our thoughts influence how we act and feel. Through negative self-talk and catastrophizing, musicians can create a distorted and stress-filled reality for themselves. They may be convinced that they are not good enough to reach the high levels of performance that others seem to expect. According to Barry Green, author of The Inner Game of Music, if we wish to perform to our full physical potential we must avoid negative thoughts. Through fear of failure we may begin to try in an anxious way. He says, "This kind of trying results from doubt. If we didn't doubt our ability to perform. we wouldn't need to try. You don't 'try' to sit down and pick up the paper when you get home from work, do you?"

There is no single, definitive solution for reducing the influence of our thoughts on our performance. Each individual needs to develop coping skills that relate to his or her needs. For some, a simple meditation technique involving the repetition of a chosen "mantra" (any soothing word without a meaning) can block worrying thoughts. The mantra utilizes the same brain pathways involved in making words. Since it is not possible to think of two words at once, it can be a powerful tool to combat negative and intrusive thoughts.

Becoming aware of thoughts that affect feelings or actions and using this awareness to alter attitudes is a method known as 'cognitive restructuring'. During moments of anxiety our thoughts can become irrational and prevent us from keeping things in perspective. By altering negative attitudes and accepting anxiety as a fact of life, an incredible amount of self-inflicted pressure and tension can dissolve.

Behavioral problems

Besides causing physical and mental conflicts, anxiety also leads to behavioral problems. Musicians may avoid practicing or ignore difficult passages. They need to fight this reaction, as there is absolutely no coping technique that can substitute for proper artistic preparation.

Properly preparing for performances through efficient and thorough practice is of paramount importance. The physiological response of "fight or flight" brings the body into a state of hypervigilance. Notes may stand out on a score, or problematic fingering in a passage that was glossed over in rehearsal may cause trouble. Learning to fight the desire to avoid the dirty work is difficult. There is a well-known phenomenon in psychology called the "incubation effect." The longer you avoid facing a threatening situation the more anxiety you experience when you do face it. Madeline Burser suggests practicing performing for people and to becoming accustomed to making mistakes. Constant, absolute technical perfection is, after all, humanly impossible.

How much musicians practice is not as important as the quality of time they contribute. During practice sessions musicians often repeat sections joylessly in a desperate attempt to gain technical security. However, the value of an exercise is only equal to the state of mind in which it is approached.

Anxiety is a natural part of the human condition. It can't be completely eradicated-indeed, when controlled it can enrich both life and performance. Carola Grindea describes anxiety as electricity. When harnessed it results in light and power, but when not, it can become destructive and dangerous. Developing the proper skills to cope with anxiety is a gradual process. The night before a performance is no time to have a revelation and decide to experiment with new techniques. Being aware of the body as a whole and working with its natural functions will lead to a harmonious balance between mind and body. This balance will enable the musician to prepare positively for the performance experience. Anxiety will no longer be a threat but a tool. As the great philosopher Hoch once asked, "Why should the alarm burn down the house?"

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