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Performance Anxiety: are there cultural differences?

Yale Summer School of Music, Norfolk, Connecticut

I was brought over to work as a Performance Coach at the the Yale Summer School of Music, more commonly known as Norfolk Chamber Music Festival by the director, Paul Hawkshaw, a professor at Yale School of Music. He was keen to bring back a more holistic way of working into the American musical community. Paul was very involved in International Society for the Study of Tension in Performance (ISSTP) in the early 80’s. He also knew Eloise Ristad, the author of A Soprano on her Head a book about musician’s mental blocks and performance anxiety, which was very popular amongst music students in the 80’s. My work reminded him of Eloise and that was the connection.

Yale Summer School of Music, USA

Working in the beautiful hills of Connecticut, on the Battell-Stoeckel estate and with exceptionally talented, skilled students was incredibly stimulating. The students were mostly in their early twenties, on Masters courses, at places like Yale School of Music, Juilliard and some of the other prestigious music courses.

My whole approach was new to them and introducing myself as a coach dealing primarily with Performance Anxiety didn’t work. I had to clarify all the different aspects of my work and then they were interested: practising techniques, memorising, focus, concert etiquette, learning how to introduce pieces to an audience, dealing with your Inner Critic, and being on top form in an audition as well as nerves and tension. And for the ensembles, it included learning excellent listening & ensemble playing and rehearsal technique.

I had some amazing sessions with the students. The ones that stand out are working with a string quartet on how to manage their emotions when rehearsing, and how to ‘criticise’ each other’s playing from a positive, supportive perspective; exploring what was at the bottom of ‘freezing’ on stage with strategies to deal with that; keeping focus in practice and performance and much, much more.

Hong Kong My work at both the HK Academy for Fine Arts and to some of the English Schools Foundation schools a few months earlier was fascinating. I had been concerned about how the Chinese would handle the whole issue of performance anxiety, especially around the issue of ‘loss of face.’ It was different from what I had expected. I had thought that the four students in the master class would find it particularly awkward and exposing, but they didn’t appear to. The students performing (particularly obvious in the conservatoires) sat on the front row, away from their fellow students. They were clearly singled out as the performers. In my understanding of the situation, this preferential treatment balanced out anything that could be considered exposing or vulnerable. But when all the students were given an opportunity to book individual sessions with me later, unlike their British counterparts who fight to grab a slot, there was not one single booking from the Chinese students. I imagine that booking an individual session around the topic of nerves would have been very exposing. It was clearly where the loss of face might have kicked in.

Charlotte Tomlinson with Chinese students in Hong Kong

I wasn’t at all surprised by the degree to which some of the Chinese students were hard on themselves. This was particularly evident at the schools. Three out of four students who performed were paralysed by nerves, hating the whole experience. They simply couldn’t see that there was anything good about their performance, and were highly self-critical. Just this on it’s own would have been enough to send their performance anxiety levels through the roof.

I came across an abstract for some research undertaken for the Centre of Arts Research in Education which compares performance anxiety in American music undergraduates compared with their Chinese counterparts. The results show that “Hong Kong Chinese music students reported higher levels of performance anxiety compared to American music students.”

Here’s the full abstract if you’re interested:


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