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Help Students Develop Effective Strategies to Deal With Performance Anxiety?

Performance anxiety is something almost all of us have dealt with at some time during our musical careers--whether it was as a young student, giving our senior recitals or during an important competition. Music teachers can, and should, help students develop effective strategies to deal with performance anxiety. Below, five colleagues share how they assist their students.

--Craig Purdy, AMT Editorial Committee, is assistant professor of violin and director of orchestras at Boise State University.

Being truly prepared, physically and mentally, is the single most important strategy a student can implement to deal with performance anxiety. This preparation must begin with a deeply considered interpretation followed by a technical plan that helps the performer to realize their musical vision in a logical, step-by-step fashion. Consciously working out every technical matter in detail and then assimilating this minutiae into a cohesive whole will allow the performer the confidence needed for clear delivery and musical spontaneity onstage. Visualizing the entire performance and surrounding your vision with positive thoughts can lead to the real thing having a wonderful feeling of deja vu: "I've done this before and it went well!" Visualization works best if you have prior access to the space where you will be playing, as you want to vividly experience every aspect of the performance in your mind, from warming up backstage ("I feel confident and calm") to the final bow afterwards ("That went well--I am pleased").

Speaking to the audience before you play not only breaks down the perceived barriers between you, it also affords the opportunity to get them "in your corner" before you have even played a note. I remember hearing Itzhak Perlman call out the score in the world series game being played that same evening each time he came onto stage. The audience loved him before he had even set bow to violin string. Your audience will love you, too--they are there to enjoy your music, not judge you!

--James Lyon is professor of violin at Pennsylvania State University and a recent recipient of the George Atherton Award for Teaching Excellence.

Performance anxiety is one of the biggest hurdles for music students. As a teacher, the only truly guaranteed way to help students deal with their anxiety is to have them frequently perform so that they become accustomed to how their fight-or-flight response impacts performing. Another effective strategy to combat anxiety is being over-prepared. This is easier said than done for many students, but once they experience the comfort of being very prepared, it is easy for them to understand its value. As the adrenaline kicks in during a performance, a well-prepared solo is less apt to suffer due to changes in headspace. As a trumpet teacher, I find that the actual mechanics and fundamentals of how we play the instrument can have a massive impact on how we deal with anxiety. There is no substitute for solid trumpet mechanics, and preparation must begin and end with positive and efficient playing habits. For the trumpet we must have a focused, responsive and flexible embouchure in order to gain the efficiency necessary to perform without over-exerting on a physical level. As we tire, our lips are less able to hold an embouchure and this leads to a breakdown in air-support as more is needed to attain speed through a larger aperture. This must all be dealt with before we practice musical elements. By having students focus on something they can measure and control (mechanics) they will focus less on things they cannot control (how they feel while performing).

--Derek Ganong is assistant professor of trumpet and director of jazz at Boise State University.

I remember precisely the moment in which I myself became aware of performance anxiety: I was 13 years old, playing the first movement of Haydn C Major Cello Concerto for a competition, and my fingers just wouldn't go to the right notes. For the first time, I felt waves of embarrassment and a stab of terror on stage. Though as teachers, we desire to shield our students from that first bad performance experience, most students will at one time or another be faced with an incident similar to that of my 13-year-old self. As a teacher, it is important to give students the opportunity to talk about their feelings, help them self-reflect about how anxiety affected them and why, and to reassure them of your support and respect. Encourage them to get back in the saddle and to counter the bad experience with a collection of good performing experiences. Help them to find a variety of low-pressure contexts for them to share music with others such as playing in retirement homes or at church. With students for whom performance anxiety is a persistent block, it is important to help them address both the physical and mental sides of that anxiety. Breathing exercises can be a useful tool to calm the body and mind when one notices the mind racing or the body trembling. Visualization of enjoying an upcoming concert and self-affirmation practices can help bring positive associations to the act of performing. Above all, emphasize kindness to oneself.

--Elizabeth Hall teaches baroque and modern cello at Cornell University and Opus Ithaca School of Music.

Every musician, no matter how studied or famous, deals with issues of performance anxiety. Once you acknowledge the problem, the first step is identifying the root of the anxiety and how it manifests itself. Are you afraid of making a mistake? Be more prepared! Do you have a physical reaction? Shaking? Sweating? Develop some habits like not drinking coffee beforehand and creating a calm, cool environment. I find that having a pre-performance routine is paramount to overcoming my own anxiety. Not ALL anxiety or adrenaline is bad, and you can absolutely develop some tactics of harnessing nervous energy into BETTER performance! Professional and amateur athletes also deal with performance anxiety, and many great resources exist in their realm for dealing with this problem. I recommend books, articles and videos about this topic from athletes and sports psychologists so that students can relate to this problem on multiple levels. Overcoming performance anxiety is a mental game. The psychological issue manifests to varying degrees in physical ways, but you must ultimately address the cause of the issue (mental) not just the symptoms (physical). As a LAST resort, I would recommend talking to a doctor about the possibility of using beta-blockers. I only recommend this step for those who have truly debilitating performance anxiety that has not been able to be addressed using non-medical strategies. Lastly, I encourage more performance so that the student, and teacher, will have more observational information about their personal reactions to tackle this issue going forward.

--Kim E. Ganong is an oboist and teacher in Boise, Idaho

1. Positive Thinking

The more we practice a healthy inner monologue in our daily lives, the less likely we will be to mentally admonish our own performances.

2. Inspiration Sheet

List three phrases that remind you of your all-time favorite musical experiences. Reference it often as a way to maintain your best performance mindset.

3. Be a Supportive Audience Member

Enthusiastically support your peers, and they do the same. Remind yourself that the audience truly wants you to play your best.

4. Positive Stage Presence

Act the part. Physically showing comfort on stage can convince the audience (and yourself) that you are at ease.

5. Magic Line Theory

The stage door is your magic line. All actions beyond this line must be intentionally performance oriented.

6. Write in Your Music

Write inspirational reminders to help you remember your performance goals.

7. Perform Your Story

Audiences are moved by musical messages. Develop the story that you want to share and deliver it to your audience.

8. Practice Performance Daily

We will not improve at a skill if we only practice it once a year. Stand up and perform regularly.

9. Fake it Till You Make It

Not feeling confident? Act the part, and you will eventually get there. If we wait until we feel absolutely confident, we could be waiting forever!

10. Choose your Path

Clearly identify your short- and long-term goals. You will reach your destination if you are continuously working for it.

Based upon the teachings of Jeff Nelsen (

--Sarah Paradis is professor of trombone at Boise State University
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Title Annotation:HOW DO YOU...?
Author:Paradis, Sarah
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2019
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