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Interview Part 3: 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 the interview as research for her PhD, presentation in academic journals and conferences and also as a podcast. Here's part 3.

Shaking as a tool to help nerves

Shaking to help nerves

S. I have read that you use shaking to support people with performance anxiety. How do you use it - in combination with breathing or alone?

C. No, I avoid doing many things at the same time. I encourage musicians to shake physically in situations of panic or when there is too much adrenaline pumping around their system, when they feel overwhelmed. I actually used it for myself some time ago. Generally, I feel very comfortable when I give masterclasses or talk in public.I don’t have performance anxiety as such, just a little bit of adrenaline that enhances everything.

There was one occasion when something happened in my personal life, nothing to do with the talk I was going to be giving. It really impacted me emotionally and I had to work really hard to support myself. The talk was at 2.30 pm and I spent the entire morning using a few of these tools in rotation and then repeating them. I would lie down, breathe long, slow deep breaths and then stand up and shake. It was hard because I knew I had to perform in the afternoon, but those tools really helped me. The talk itself wasn’t one of the best experiences I have had, but I was pleased that I could get myself to the point where I could manage a very challenging situation.

I also tried the shaking method out when I had a minor car accident. I was in shock and because I’d been in a car accident previously, I knew what that rather weird feeling of shock felt like. When I could still feel it the day after, I knew I needed to do something. Shock can get stuck in the body and cause all sorts of problems at a later date. I’d just found out the shaking method, so I tried it out. I only did two minutes and after about ten minutes, I felt the shock dissipate. It was wonderful to know how valuable a tool it can be. Animals do this when they have just been running for their life and find themselves safe again. You will actually see them shake all the excess adrenaline out of their bodies. If we used these kinds of simple techniques more often as musicians, I wonder whether it would reduce the need for betablockers or post-concert alcohol!


Meditation to help nerves

S. What do you feel about meditation?

C. There are times in which I bring meditation in my work. A student recently had a very busy mind – as we all do! – and I encouraged him to stop and simply observe his thoughts. It’s quite hard to observe your thoughts and I find it much easier to use something like a candle, a flower, some kind of object and then focus your attention on them. I believe that if you can learn to focus in this way, it can be transferred into focusing on music during the performance.

What we’re aiming for is a kind of meditative focus on stage. When people are involved in what they are doing without this horrible barrier of fear and anxiety, when they are prepared and feel emotionally safe, they are not thinking cognitively, they are feeling. Their senses are aware, there is a little light activity on a cognitive level, but overall, it’s a very different space, much more of a meditative state. It would be fascinating to measure their brainwaves!

I worked with a wonderful violinist in Verbier on exactly this. She was really anxious and getting her to do just a few minutes of meditation that wasn’t related to the music she was playing, helped her feel calm and not be distracted.

There is no such thing as performance anxiety in Bali, Indonesia!

I want to say the last thing and I think this is really relevant in terms of performance anxiety. I spent about four years going to Bali in Indonesia where they play the gamelan, which is very much a part of their everyday life, part of their ceremonies, their weddings and cremations. They don't practise individually, always together and it's very sociable. I got to know a Balinese family very well and I went to a lot of their ceremonies. One of them asked me what I did to earn a living. I replied that I work with western classical musicians particularly on the topic of performance anxiety. He looked blank. He had no idea what I was talking about. He had never experienced it. They're not worried about things going wrong in a performance. It doesn’t mean anything to them. Nobody sits and listens to them as they would in a classical concert in the West. They just play. Kids run around, people chat and answer their phones. It’s just a normal part of their lives. It really makes me think that performance nerves are just a result of the rather precious view on performances and our Western musical education system. Check out my interview with Gwilym Simcock who changed his focus from classical to jazz music for this very reason.


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