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Interview Part 2: Symptoms of performance anxiety in musicians

A year ago, I was interviewed by Serena Paese, a Music Psychology PhD candidate at University of York, who will be using some of the material from he interview as research for her PhD, presentation in academic journals and conferences and also as a podcast. I posted the first part in the January newsletter. Here's Part 2.

SP: What is your first approach to musicians who ask for help with managing performance anxiety? CT: I don’t have a standardised approach because every single human being is different. For example, a principal player in a national orchestra came to me and told me he had been playing at a very high level professionally for 30 years and wanted to have another 10 years of playing without feeling so stressed out every time he played. There was nothing obvious in his playing that would make him feel as bad as he felt, so I started by asking questions to find out what his symptoms are and how he experiences performing. I always work intuitively, supported by knowledge and experience. SP: Which are the most effective techniques that you use? CT: I have got a whole bank of techniques. When I hear musicians berating themselves and telling me what terrible players they are, I talk to them about the Inner Critic. I explain that the Inner Critic is the part of them that is judgemental and emotional in its reaction and help them change their mental view of themselves to being more straight forward, more observational. I call this part the Objective Observer. It’s so important to cultivate that non-judgmental, pragmatic part when we’re practising and performing. We live in a culture in which you are ‘bad’ if you make mistakes and music education (and the profession) is sadly full of this approach. So, instead of saying ‘This is interesting! I made a mistake, I wonder why I did that,’ people say, ‘I’m so stupid, I can’t even play that passage without making a mistake.’ This bullying, critical culture has really got its teeth into classical musicians and the Inner Critic can have a devastating impact on someone’s musical and performing life. It’s particularly disastrous for performance nerves because if you walk on stage and think ‘I am a really bad player and I can’t play this piece very well,’ you project this on the audience. You assume the audience is going to be critical of you and then you get very scared. It’s like walking on stage naked – it’s horrible and very exposing. It’s a tall order to judge yourself so harshly, go on stage and play well.

Cellist dealing with the Inner Critic

CT: It’s so important for musicians to feel emotionally safe on stage. One way I support them with this – and I do it a lot in masterclasses - is to help them with breathing, especially string players and pianists. Pianists almost always hold their breath when they play! When you breathe deeply and slowly, from a physiological perspective you are telling your body you are safe. You are reassuring the very primal part of yourself - the fight-flight-freeze response. It’s surprisingly powerful in calming you.

Musician feeling emotionally safe on stage

When I work on breathing for singers, woodwind and brass players I work in a slightly different way. Their breath tends to tighten and become shallow. I will often get their feet very connected to the ground so that they feel solid and grounded. If someone is standing up to play, an oboe player for example, I make sure their knees are unlocked and will then help them free their shoulders and neck. The key, along with the physical instructions, is to let them know that they are free to make mistakes. It’s fascinating that when someone is given permission to make mistakes, they feel emotionally free and this in turn affects their physical freedom. They start to relax, let go of their shoulders which impacts their breathing. The result is that they play or sing with a new level of all round freedom. It can be transformational, magical even. To be continued...

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