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Performance anxiety as a result of trauma

It has occurred to me this month when teaching and coaching how incredibly important practice is for the performance we give at the end of it. This isn’t just an issue of practising the notes, but more an issue of how we practise in an emotional, psychological way. Practising in an emotionally healthy way can have a big impact on how we perform.

Focus: armchair practice Being focused in performance is one way of keeping nerves at bay. When we are totally engaged in what we’re doing, we’re far less likely to feel exposed, or concerned about what people think of us and our playing, which are key contributing factors to performance nerves. I have found ‘armchair practice’ to be very valuable in this respect. Armchair practice is when we look through a piece away from the instrument and imagine how we would play it.

So many of us are frustrated that we can’t always get our focus in gear for the first play-through or performance of something and yet that’s what is often required of us. It’s easy to just go for it and hope for the best which can be hit or miss. A piano student had exactly this issue last week. She had played first time and hadn’t felt focused, so her nerves kicked in. When she stopped, looked at the music silently away from the instrument and then played, her focus was hugely improved, and her nerves disappeared.

Cartoon of man playing trumpet

Performance anxiety as a result of trauma I see many musicians for whom performance nerves relate to something that I would call a trauma, perhaps a negative experience that has happened at some point in the past. For example, a sudden, unexpected fit of nerves in a performance when they had never been there before or feeling humiliated or ashamed for whatever reason. These experiences can be devastating for a musician. At worst, people give up playing and at best, they play but with next to no enjoyment.

But there is a lot that can be done. If the trauma pops up on a regular basis, then the healing response also needs to pop up on a regular basis to counteract it. These are some things I would suggest:

  • Breathe and reassure: When panic comes up in practice, stop at that point, breathe and reassure yourself. Forget about your desire to play well for a moment, take the pressure right off and don’t start again until you feel better. Inch your way through the piece in this way. It’s more important initially to start building in this reassurance than it is to get the notes right; the notes are more likely to be right when you’re feeling better anyway.

  • Managing mistakes: When you make mistakes, include them and welcome them. They are teaching you what you don’t know yet, so they are a valuable resource. Beating yourself up over mistakes even in practice builds in a terror of not getting things right in a performance which can bring on nerves. It might sound counter-intuitive, but when you allow mistakes to occur in practice, they very often don’t happen at all!

  • Take time and don’t feel pressurised: When adrenalin kicks in, our perception of time changes and time can appear to speed up or slow down. One way to manage this is to deliberately take time at stress points in the music. This is not only emotionally reassuring but also stops the rushing that can often happen with nerves. Building in those moments in advance means they’re more likely to be there in the performance.

Royal Marines Band of Scotland

Royal Marines of Scotland

Along with normal teaching, coaching, writing, and a holiday thrown in, I went to Scotland this month to work with the Royal Marines. I have never worked with a military organisation, so this was a first. The response to the talk-masterclass was very positive and the courageous violinist who played in front of her colleagues in the masterclass, totally terrified, improved to such a degree in such a short time that there was spontaneous applause from everyone in the room. Wonderful for her and I hope she now can carry this forward knowing how many people are on her side.


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