For too long performance anxiety was a taboo subject, always swept under the rug.
I remember grappling with paralyzing jitters during my years at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. My piano teacher at the time, a seasoned professional, would always say the same thing:
“Honey, the music is bigger than you or me.”
Of course it made me otherwise feel like an Egomaniac.
Her altruistic mantra never worked beyond the opening measure of a piece. I would fall apart quite instantly, and hardly remember if I had ever played a composition before an audience of anyone other than myself.
In a previous blog, I referred to going cold, like an ice cube when I was invited to play on “Music in the Schools,” a WNYC F.M. program that showcased talented youth in the city.
It was Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 311 that was for all intents and purposes on automatic pilot without a real “live” pilot at the controls. The final cadence was a crash landing with emotional consequence. I was miserable for weeks and months following the disaster and I never again wanted to play in front of a microphone!
REDUX: My teacher would say with even greater urgency, “The music is bigger than you or me.”
The problem with engulfing nerves, is that unless there’s a break in the cycle, it can perpetuate itself. You can go from one performance to another saddled with the same crisis with no end in sight.
And don’t believe the instruction: Learn your notes inside and out and all will be well.
Preparation is a given, but not God given when you need a life preserver in the middle of a piece.
I remember a nightmarish situation that played out at the Oberlin Conservatory when I was a student majoring in Piano, Performance. A very gifted young woman was publicly auditioning the Schumann “A” Minor Piano Concerto, when suddenly she had a massive memory lapse smack in the middle of the first movement. One phrase trapped her and she couldn’t get out of it. The same few measures were repeated 15 times to no avail which kept her from advancing to the final cadence. (I wondered if she would be signaled to go offstage, as happened recently to a participant in the Chopin International Piano Competition) I resisted jumping on stage with the music so the afflicted young Oberlin pianist could make it safely back to her dorm before nightfall.
As it happened, the player finally found her away out of the snag, and managed to play the next two movements impeccably well. She wasn’t chosen among the finalists but the following year she came back and won! Now that’s a story of fortitude and courage that should teach us all a lesson about not giving up.
I might add right here, that my own piano teacher had a significant memory lapse at her well publicized concert at the 92nd Street Y, so I began to make the connection between her son’s life’s work as a psychiatrist and her possible difficulty performing onstage. (though I’m not certain whether her memory lapse was self limiting or a symptom of a greater problem)
To give others a twinge optimism about finding a cure for their paralyzing nerves, I will explain what I did, that not only helped me, but had been passed down to my students over the years.
1) Hypnosis: I became a confirmed Believer.
I had the courage to visit a hypno-therapist about 20 years ago who began by asking me about the piano; challenges to playing in public; what were my worst fears when performing or anticipating a performance (and inevitably these were related to fear of failure and its consequences, loss of love, loss of identity, etc.)
At that point, I reminded myself that my piano teacher’s son, Dr. David Freundlich, had published papers on Performance Anxiety that focused on masturbatory fantasies. I recall reading his Journal writings from the 1960’s that tied asphyxiating nerves on stage to fear of auto-erotic activity exposure. So if a player was crippled by anxiety, it was because playing piano was a self-gratifying, libidinal process best kept in a dark closet and not exhibited in public.
Well and good, for a beginning construct, but who could afford to lay on a psychiatrist’s couch and mull over the first five years of life, honing in on the psycho-sexual stage as a key to unraveling a Neurosis. It might take decades!
As reference, the late David Freundlich’s paper on the subject of “performance anxiety and musicians, American Journal of Psychiatry. 148:598-605. …. Freundlich, D. (1968) Narcissism and exhibitionism in the performance of classical …
For me, talking to my hypnotist who had her Certification posted up on the wall, was a more practical and direct approach to my problem.
With the information gathered from me at the first session, she put together an audiotape. And as I lay on the couch, not facing her, she soothingly repeated mantras that were more useful than “music was bigger than me.”
It was more like, “Imagine slowly descending a staircase to a beautiful room that looks out on a magnificent garden, with flowers of all varieties..” She led me to the garden where I contemplated nature and its bounty. I became more relaxed. She reminded me to breathe easily and deeply. She kept coming back to the breath. After 30 or more minutes, I was breathing without anxiety. She then placed me beside my piano which I “loved as a faithful friend.” The elegant, stately grand was not a threat, or something to avoid. She kept revisiting the garden, the relaxed contemplation and meditation. The tie-ins were natural, not contrived.
After 45 minutes, I was in a deep trance, needing to be brought back up the staircase by my hypnotist.
At the very end of the session, before I was in a completely conscious state, she transported me back stage as a rehearsal for my upcoming performance. (Incidentally, my own piano would be shipped to the location so that’s why she referred to it)
I was at the same time in the midst of the lush garden, very relaxed and at peace with myself. The people in the audience would “share” my music with me. They were “not judging” me or otherwise waiting for me to fail.
She planted many of these ideas as I was in my subliminal state, and it helped me on the day of my concert.
I can say with certainty that my performance following many re-playings of this audio-taped session was 90% improved over those I had ever previously given.
And in the course of 6 months, I continued my sessions with the hypnotist and acquired a sizable collection of cassettes.
Going Beyond Hypnosis
2) What I previously discussed would fall under Hypnosis and Self-Hypnosis strategies in dealing with performance jitters. After all, what I took from the hypnotist was the ability to go home, listen to the audiotapes and then make my own recordings with variations on the same theme.
But in the course of the 20 years since I visited this wise woman, I went further in exploring additional ways to handle performance anxiety. And these, again were allied to the breath and to Yoga in its many forms.
In the present, I advocate a healthy regimen of exercise, at the gym or otherwise. Yoga, again is a wonderful activity.
I tell my students to “breathe” through their playing.. through their scales, especially at the turnaround (the very end of the passage and the very beginning) And I use words like “roll in” into a scale or passage. “Play into the silence.”
I tell them to use MENTAL IMAGERY, and that again, is tied to self-hypnotic routines.
Elite athletes use mental imagery as a matter of course. Just imagine what floats through a diver’s mind as he prepares for an impossibly difficult maneuver— same for
gymnasts, skaters, runners, et al.
Pianists are part athletes, mastering great feats of coordination while simultaneously being artistic interpreters. They have a double challenge.
The mind/body connection applies, as always.
Examples of mental imagery for a pianist:
Playing staccato: Think of the piano as a playground, and in that association, you are a child. Use words “like bouncing a ball,” or for light staccato, imagine “ping pong balls.”
Piano can be child’s play.
For legato, “float, relax, play more effortlessly, don’t squeeze, or hold on.”
These prompts often relax the students, at least during their lessons.
For a more long lasting effect in dealing with upcoming piano recitals, I copy specific quotes from Just Being at the Piano, by Mildred Portney Chase, that I extract as mantras:
“To be a pianist, is to think that a daddy long legs on the window sill is dancing to your playing; it is to think that the breeze came through the window just to talk to your music…it is to feel that one phrase loves another….it is to think that the tree is a teacher of the tranquility you need in your playing.”
Important chapters: “Body Awareness and Movement,” “Tone,” “Listening,” “Slow Practice,” and “Performance.”
My other favorite book is The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey.
“Listen to how D.T. Suzuki, the renowned Zen master, describes the effects of the ego mind on archery” (a metaphor for just about any endeavor, piano playing included)
“As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes.” DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR? Too many of my students talk about “losing concentration,” with tangential thoughts creeping in. Much of the time, they refer to a little voice telling them things are going too well and a “mistake” is about to happen, and as soon as the thought enters their mind, guess what happens?
“Calculation, which is miscalculation sets in……”
“Man is a thinking reed, but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored with long years of training in self-forgetfulness.”
“Perhaps this is why it is said that great poetry is born in silence. Great music and art are said to arise from the quiet depths of the unconscious…”
Performance anxiety doesn’t have to be crippling but it takes patience and a grain of optimism to move forward to a better place. Start where you are and go further, one baby step at a time.