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Performance anxiety: permission to be fallible

Performance anxiety: permission to be fallible

My performance coaching work at different schools, universities and conservatoires along with my own private practice - currently almost entirely online - is constantly teaching me how musicians of all ages can have a number of triggers that contribute towards anxiety around performing. I have seen the influence of bullying teaching under the guise of high standards impact sensitive young musicians in a way that they are terrified of not being perfect enough. Most often, this shows in a reluctance to play or a heightened anxiety when playing in front of people who they think might judge them.

Critical teaching

No nit-picking

I’ve written about this a fair amount over the years, but it never fails to amaze me how musicians play so differently when we give ourselves permission to be fallible. We all make mistakes in music, as in life, and what is so important is not to beat ourselves up over our imperfections. The difference that shows in our playing is usually a greater freedom and ability to express ourselves through the music when we let go of the need to be perfect.

I remember giving a masterclass at one of the music colleges. I could see one piano student desperate to play the beginning of Chopin’s fourth Ballade perfectly. The stress was heightened because she had to play in front of the whole piano faculty. She struggled, she was trying too hard and I could see her becoming more and more physically tense and that was suffocating her musical expression. We discussed it, and I gave her permission in front of the class, (while encouraging the same from her fellow students) to be fallible, to make mistakes if that’s what happened. I encouraged her to focus on breathing, freeing up and letting go when she played. The result was that the music took flight and her natural ability showed itself. As the person giving the masterclass, it would be only too easy to focus on the details from the start, to nit-pick over dots and dashes, how the music should be played, what Chopin meant by a certain phrase, but this student, in this instance, desperately needed to establish her physical and mental freedom first. Once she felt this freedom, it was so much easier and more natural to deal with the musical details.

Lucky charms

I have seen other young musicians find their own form of lucky charm as a form of survival mechanism. In the case of one student, this showed itself in an insistence on warming up for three hours before any performance - quite a tall order! This was her way of coping, of externalising an inner anxiety, so that when the performance wasn’t as good as she had wanted it to be, she could blame it on the lack of warmup. Equally, if she couldn’t warmup at all or could only warm up for a shorter period of time, she would panic. It was a horrible position for her to be in and we worked together to wean her off her dependence. She found it very challenging but over time, she began to use her warmups in a more balanced and healthy way.

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