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Performance Anxiety: a negative association with one piece of music

I was working recently on an International Piano Academy in Germany, giving daily master classes to a group of committed and advanced pianists. I was also there in the capacity of Performance Coach.

One of the students asked me whether I could talk to her friend, who was due to give a concert performance of the Brahms-Handel variations and was almost paralysed with nerves. I asked the student, who I will call Elsa, in the subsequent session we had, to play me some of the Brahms variations. She braced herself visibly and played. It was beautiful: exquisitely crafted, well phrased and a performance that most pianists would be proud of. But when I stopped her to start a conversation about her anxiety around performing, she became distressed, her eyes welling up with tears.

Elsa told me that her teacher at her conservatoire was always critical of her playing and that she rarely heard anything positive from him. We discussed this at length and she started to wake up to what his negative input was doing to her.She had assumed that she would have to put up with his snipes and aggressively critical teaching, but started to realise this wasn’t necessary. It was quite a step for her to become aware that she didn’t even have to continue learning with him.

A grand piano in a concert hall

Then she told me about the Brahms variations. She had learnt it too quickly for an exam and her teacher was constantly harping on about this, highlighting her ‘faults’ and criticising her for anything and everything to do with the piece. Elsa played it in the exam and said the piece fell apart. She came out devastated and there began a profoundly negative association with that one piece of music. What I discovered was that Elsa wasn’t normally very nervous when she was performing. She had what I would consider normal and healthy butterflies before performing. It was this one piece that was reducing her to tears and it was this one piece that had become the focal point for all her distress.

The public concert in which she was expected to play the Brahms-Handel variations was looming and this was heightening the pressure. It was so obvious what the next step was for her. I asked her how she would feel if she didn’t have to play the Brahms-Handel variations in the concert. Her whole face relaxed in front of me. She smiled and looked relieved just at the thought.

She was lucky. The concert organiser was very understanding, and Elsa was put down to play a Beethoven sonata she felt totally comfortable and which she had recently performed. She didn’t have to play the variations and no awkward questions were asked.

There was something transformational about those next few days for Elsa. It was as if she had let go of a weight from her shoulders. By seeing where her out-of-control nerves had stemmed from and realising that she didn’t need to play the piece that had so many negative memories for her, was liberating. She started engaging with her fellow students in a more positive and energetic way, and she even started to walk differently! There was more freedom and confidence about her somehow. Her playing in the concert itself was extraordinary: beautiful and even more expressive that I’d heard from her before. Knowing a bit about her journey, and hearing the beauty of her playing, was enough to bring tears to my eyes.


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