A deep look at Performance Anxiety and what to do about it.
How an artist deals with their nerves may be the single most determining factor in her or his success in a musical career. This issue is the all-important bridge between the artist's inner life (Their ability to produce sound from feeling in an artistic and personal way), and their outer life (Their ability to effectively communicate these feelings to others.)
The very fact that such a bridge need exist is unfortunate. Why can't we perform the same way in front of others as we can alone? It would seem they should be unified. Apparently, evolution is to blame; the adrenaline hormones the body releases when it feels under threat (which make our hearts beat faster and our minds go into panic mode, and which appear when we perform), helped us millennia ago when we needed to outrun a saber-tooth tiger, but have little use in the 21st century (unless you live in war-torn regions). Perhaps in another few thousands years we will have completely out-evolved this phenomena, but since we live in the here-and-now, we need to find here-and-now solutions.
I've noticed that the authorities in the field of coaching nervousness tend to be those who never make it to the stage much anymore, or who have never been there in the first place. They prescribe wishy-washy techniques saturated with new ageism (Visualization, deep breathing, self-acceptance, self-love, affirmations, positive thinking, centering, etc.) And it's not that these things can't be helpful; they can. But they don't even begin to scratch the surface of the real issue. They are the Alpha and Omega, without much in between.
Yet the coping mechanisms used by some of the most prominent performing artists of our time include some of the most bizzare and extreme concoctions mankind has devised - Electroshock Therapy (Vladimir Horowitz), Freudian Analysis (Claudio Arrau) Scientology (Cyprien Katsaris), Hypno-Therapay (Stephen Kovacevich), cancelling concerts when the stars are not aligned (Martha Argerich), or practicing each bar of a piece 100 times in a single sitting (Sviatoslav Richter), Beta Blockers, Xanax, and Valium (Too many to name).
And who can blame them? Any spirit destined to perform has a right to attempt any possible remedy that might obliterate the demon that blocks them from doing the very thing they were put on this earth to do.
However, one of the refreshingly insightful pieces of advice comes from non other than one of the great performing heroes of our time - Violinist Itzak Perlman. His words of wisdom? Know thy ENEMY! The enemy, contrary to what one may think, is not nerves. The enemy is the way nerves effect YOU - the individual. Part of the problem is that "nerves" is actually a suitcase word that encompasses dozens of different symptoms in dozens of different people, and they are all wildly different.
Some people rush uncontrollably. Some people have memory blackouts. Some people constrict their emotions. Some people lose control of their coordination while playing fast. Part of the problem with traditional remedies and advises is that they offer a blanket procedure for everyone, while in reality most people are just fine in most elements of performance, but suffer because of a singular type of blockage their nerves present. Specificity being a key to success, the issue is to then look deep within yourself, ask the hard questions, pinpoint a tangible, recurring side-effect of your nerves, and work on that. Once this is determined, one can outline a workable, regimented plan of action to address these steps.
The first thing, however, is to step back and see if your symptoms are even worth addressing. All performers are well aware of being too scared to program a specific composer, texture, or type of piece. Maybe you're fine with a program of hearty romantic music, but the idea of playing Bach Fugues is too much for you. It's easy to then convince yourself that performing is not in the cards. Not necessarily so. Why not just perform music you love, and leave Bach for the contrapuntalists? Maybe you're fine in a group setting, but the idea of performing solo recitals and concertos induces too much insomnia. Is a career as a chamber musician or accompanist really something that has too much shame? If your fingers fly like a jet fighter when the score is in front of you, but clam up as soon as it's taken away, is performing with the score really too much of a taboo? Tim Ferris has an interesting theory that one should really only focus on capitalizing on their strengths while ignoring their weakness. His reasoning being that no matter how hard you try, your weaknesses can only be mediocre at best, and all the time you spend honing them is time lost refining your strengths to be the best that they can be. Something to think about.
But let's say you really want to go all out. Tackle everything in every way. Then you must go back to your OWN weakness. The weakness that owns you. Your nemesis. And you must tackle this in the most ruthless, painstaking, down-to-the nails way humanely possible.
Let's take a common problem: Memory Slips. A former teacher of mine is a musical genius in every sense of the term. A child prodigy who had been Nadia Boulanger's last student, with a perfect pitch so developed he could memorize a score of any length after one readthrough. One of his uncanny abilities was being able to play - on call - every individual voice of every Bach Fugue from the Well Tempered Claiver. Alto of C minor, book 2? He could solfege it for you, at tempo.
Needless to say, he had no problems playing things from memory. The fear most of us face in this situation was never a reality of his consciousness, because every voice seemed to reside in a permanent home in his neural pathways.
Just because most of us don't have this ability doesn't mean we can't aspire to this type of learning. So let's say you are indeed working on a Bach Fugue. Chances are you have practiced it, many many times. Slowly, hands separately. Probably practiced the individual voices, maybe tried to play one voice and sing the other.
If doing all this still doesn't yield the results you are looking for, it's tempting to think you've done all you can do. But really, you've just scratched the surface. You can go deeper. Much deeper. There are many more tactics you can take to make sure your performance is actually bullet-proof. Some examples:
1.) Write out, on staff paper, every voice individually. Devote each day of the week to practicing only one voice. The next week, mix and match; pair each voice with one other. The following week, try putting them all together. Do this with the traditional fingering as well as using completely random fingering (This will scramble your reflexes, forcing you to rely only on aural memory, and discarding the tactical.) See if you can eventually do this process from memory.
2.) Pick random spots throughout the piece and label these as "Emergency Spots".
Be able to start from each individual spot, on call. This will increase your knowledge of the geography of the score, and take away the fear of getting lost when the heat is on.
3.) Be able to write out large sections of the piece from memory on scratch paper.
(One famous pianist says that the only way he could memorize was if the visual imprint of the score was so ingrained in his memory that he could actually "Play" it in his mind as if a movie reel was going by. I can't imagine doing this. To each is own).
4.) Be able to map the whole piece (Or at least the problematic spots), intervallically. Diagram the piece on paper the way you used to diagram sentences in middle school - (i.e., the subject starts by going up a perfect 5th, dropping a titan, moving up by major 3rd, etc).
Doing this type of work is akin to building a safety net below you while tightrope walking; The fear of falling is almost eliminated because we know if we fall, we'll be able to have something right underneath us to catch us. Many of us perform, fall, and with the knowledge that we don't have a safety net underneath take that as the assumption that we must not perform, when in reality we just never learned the techniques of building a sturdy-enough safety net. In a similar analogy, the pianist John Browning said that practicing is really insurance: 50% of it we need to do, the other 50% is just insurance, in case something goes wrong.
The steps I've outlined above were just one specific example catered specifically to the issue of memory. If memory is not a symptom of your nerves, it takes a little imagination (and a lot of digging) to figure out all the possible ways your nemesis can be confronted. But ways there are - we just must learn to be as probing as we can, to dissect every aspect of our shameful performances and figure out activities that will incrementally squeeze the most amount of progress out of our work. The more specific you are with finding out exactly the cause of your slips (They will likely all stem from your same personal root-cause), the less likely it will that you will waste your time on practice strategies that do nothing to address the problem.
The key is to pinpoint, analyze, then practice. It is of paramount importance to have incremental, low-stress performances along the way to test if your specific methods have been working. A fallacy in thinking that leads many people depressed and forlorn is this:
Practice ---> Perform
When the performance goes horribly wrong (as it likely will, the first time of a new piece), They will automatically deduce that even thought they put in the work, the results are not consistent with the work. The ends aren't justifying the means. They are wasting their life. It's not worth it.
A more fruitful way to think:
Practice --> Perform --> Practice and refine your strategies--> Perform--->Practice and refine your strategies-->Perform--->Practice--->Practice ---> Finally give the performance you wanted to give the first time.
A good teacher can help here (Although teachers who have battled your specific problems can be notoriously hard to find). Over time and with patience, these improvements will show up in our performances. It's impossible for them not to, if the right techniques are used. One of my favorite quotes is by the pianist/pedagogue Seymour Bernstein "The stage is a battlefield between the performer and himself; the outcome determined by how he practiced."
OBVIOUSLY, the problem is that if you follow the steps I've outlined in the example above, you will need to practice 6 hours a day for 6 months on just one aspect of your performance. But now finally for some good news; once you experience even a single success onstage, it can become contagious. Success begets success. Just as nothing is more lethal in performance as the memory of a previously failed passage or performance of a piece, nothing is more assuring than the memory of a recent, similar success. Prepare once like you've never prepared before, and there are chances that the next time around, you'll only need to prepare half that, and the time after that, a quarter - for the psychological aspect has been conquered. And that's the most important one. Because we are what we think. The problem is that no matter how much we TELL ourselves what to think, it doesn't matter. We have to have an experience that will naturally open the gates to the correct through process the next time it counts. With tenacity, patience, and militantly scheduled regular work, we can begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
It's true that there are a few great artists don't seem to particularly seem to be victims of this plight. They are few and far in between, and my theory about why they don't have this problem is that most of them began performing at such a young age and with such expert teaching, careful guidance, that they never had a chance to not experience the feeling of no safety net or any colossal faliure in performance, so successful performance for them is something that is almost as natural as breathing. One such example of somebody who most certainly did not fall into this category was the great, American pianist William Kapell. This is an excerpt penned by Kapell a few days before his he was killed in a plane crash en route from Sydney to California: (Full text at the bottom of this link http://www.williamkapell.com/articles/notes.html)
"Your plight with your work is sad, but I believe it is one of the penalties of having sensitivities and fire for an art. It seems to me that on the highest levels of achievement, even with those who represent those levels on stage, that there is inherent in those achievements a kind of agony that results from an inability to cope successfully with the material......Consider each challenge soberly, and then, step by step, meet it, in your own way. That's what I try to do. Sometimes my fingers work, sometimes not, - the hell with them! I want to sing anyway. And my heart seldom doesn't work".
The last line really gets to me; "My heart seldom does not work". Finally, as a last resort, we can return to a bit of new-ageism; Performance is ultimately an act of giving. Regardless of how stellar your preparation is, things will still go wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong. It doesn't matter. If you've given your all to your preparation and have something to say, people will still enjoy it. Although this is not as pragmatically helpful as it is philosophically true, just re-affirming yourself of it will go a long way in giving yourself the permission to perform freely. While it is true that in academic and competitive circles, every error can count against you, that is not true for the larger world who comes to a performance in order to be moved by music, which is the world that ultimately counts. There is a greater good that comes from the act of sharing music with other people than that of personal ego and the pleasure one feels from overcoming one's weaknesses.
I'm reminded of Mother Teresa's famous prayer "Do It Anyway":
"People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway."
"If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway"
"If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway"
"If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway"
"Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway."
........and how this can translate into a psychology of performing:
"You may humiliate yourself and be the source of Schadenfreude. Perform anyway."
"You may feel you have wasted your time practicing for something that will eventually not go as planned. Practice anyway."
"You may worry that you won't do justice to the music that so many others have done justice to in the past. Do it anyway."
Yes - do it! Results only come from action.