Written by & under performance, Program Development.

When most people think of performance anxiety, they may imagine someone about to go on stage to perform in a recital, or play, or to speak in front of an audience. They have spent hours, weeks, and most likely months getting ready to show the world what they have to offer with all their hard work, and expectations of themselves are high. I’m sure we’re all aware of the possible symptoms of performance anxiety, and have likely experienced some of them to a small or large degree ourselves – dry mouth, pounding heart, shaking hands, cold sweats, and upset stomachs. But what do we do when a student experiences this anxiety each and every week? And not through having a busy performing schedule, but in their lesson? Originally, I was just going to answer that question in this blog, but I’ve decided to make this a little more personal and share why this topic is so important to me.

I would like to discuss with you my own experiences with performance anxiety as a student through my early adult years (not that long ago – maybe 8-10 years ago) and share a few thoughts that would go through my mind each lesson. It’s quite a personal journey, but I have had a few adult students lately with the same sort of thought patterns and having been there, I know what they are going through. Most people don’t suffer anxiety to such a high level, so I thought I would give an insight into how much it can disrupt thought patterns and emotions tied into performing, and different ways of empathising and helping students to overcome it. I have managed to help shift my students’ (with performance anxiety) focus and their understanding of what their lesson is actually for, and I would also like to share that shift with you.

Performance anxiety for me was a totally debilitating phobia that had me in tears before each lesson and after each lesson (and I was only just able to hold it together through my lessons too). I was so traumatised after a lesson at university that I wasn’t concentrating properly on the way home as I was stressing and rehashing in my mind about all that I had to do and what wasn’t good enough. It resulted in a car crash that was completely my fault. I was always a diligent piano student, practiced ten hours a week, and was at an advanced level. On the way to my lesson each week I would be worrying about my teacher’s opinions about how I would play. “Have I really done enough? There’s that passage I’m still not comfortable with. I know I’ve nailed it a couple of times, I hope I get it right for him so he knows I can do it. I really want to impress him. I want to hear him tell me I’m doing well and that he can see my progress. What if I play terribly? I know I’m getting better but what if it doesn’t show? What if he doesn’t think I’m anything special?” And so on.

By the time I get to my lesson, I’m tense and feeling miserable and quite honestly, totally scared of the next hour. I sit at the piano and start to play. My hands are shaking, as is my foot on the pedal. I try with all my might to make them stop, but they just shake more. My thoughts as I play are something like “Great, now I’ve started, I’ve got to keep going. Why did I start? I just want it to be over. I really wish I wasn’t here. Here comes that insecure part. Damn, I missed it. I hope he knows I could do it at home. Concentrate, stop shaking, breathe, I hate this so much!” I might just say, these were in my early days with a new teacher who I was really scared of because I admired his playing so much. He was a lovely guy, but I had put him on a pedestal and given him the ability to make or break me. How I viewed myself was dependent on how he viewed me. And I really wanted to be proud of myself!

It actually took having a couple of years off playing and a change in teacher for me to start shifting how I felt. In the meantime I had read a lot of books on performance anxiety, including The Perfect Wrong Note by William Wesney (best book I have ever read! I did a blog on it a few of years ago) and gone through some self development to shake my perfectionist demands on myself (that I always thought came from other people). The lessons I had with my new teacher (who is still my mentor now) took on a very different approach to my old lessons and these changed my expectations of what was going to take place within them. In my old lessons, I would perform a piece of music, and my teacher would tell what to correct and how he wanted me to interpret it. Then I would play another piece and the same thing would happen etc. I was focussed on trying to be perfect for him and treated every lesson as a performance and a time to be judged. My new teacher approaches lessons from a technical, musical, interpretive way. We will discuss the musical intentions, how to be true to them at the piano, and experiment with different touches and techniques.

A lot of her questions to me are “how did that feel? What sort of conversation is there in the music? What do you want to say here? Can you feel more free? Have you thought about trying it this way, or that way? What do you prefer? Move with the direction of the music. Can you build in feelings of effortlessness?” etc. The focus is on my connection to the score and the instrument and the tactile and emotional feelings it involves. My lessons are not performances, they are journeys of discovery. They are an extension to my practice sessions at home, and are supportive and warm. If I then “perform” a piece for my teacher, my focus is not on being perfect, or even my teacher’s opinion, but it is on each of the feelings, techniques and conversations that we have been working on building into the piece. It has gone beyond the notes on the page to expressing the story.

I know my personal journey is a musical one, but I can imagine the feelings and internal conversations are very much the same for the performing arts in any medium – drama, poetry, dance – even visual artists, if being watched while in the act of creating. A visual artist teacher I know often talks of how to hold a pencil loosely and move freely through each stroke. If he is watching a student, they can often become heavy-handed and stilted in their strokes, concentrating so heavily on creating perfect lines while they are being watched. Mind blanks in reciting lines, executing dance steps, and playing a piece of music may also be partially down to anxiety and an internal dialogue that is disruptive to the task at hand.

So, I’ve outlined the problem, and some of the solution, but here’s some tips and steps to help students (and possibly yourself) overcome their anxiety:

1) Change what the lesson means in the eyes of the student. Rather than a lesson being a performance opportunity, it is one of discovery, journey, and learning. I take away the performing aspect by asking just to hear certain sections, or start hands separately, or basically anything that stops a student feeling they have to play beginning to end perfectly.

2) Talk about what mistakes mean. Mistakes are an integral part of learning, as long as you take something from them and learn from them. It could just be a lack of focus, but mistakes are also a chance to understand something at a deeper level. Once a new understanding is reached, the mistake will disappear. Just trying to avoid it will most likely cause it to occur over and over.

3) Have the student allow themselves to make mistakes. Once the mistake is made, it can be worked on and fixed.

4) Have the student give themselves permission to have the symptoms of anxiety. This is extremely hard, and I haven’t quite mastered this myself yet, but by saying “It’s fine that my hands are shaking, they can shake as much as they like”, you will stop stressing about them shaking and they will stop. The more you try to control the situation and the symptoms, the worst they will be. (As a pianist, my hands get really sweaty and I slip on the keys. Instead of reverting to allowing myself to sweat, which I just can’t seem to do yet, I put anti-perspirent deodorant on my hands. It works for me!) Building moments of relaxation or release of tension into what you are doing does help with shakes.

5) While playing, avoid self-judging and try to stay in the moment, completely intent on the task at hand. Once a mistake has been made, there is no point dwelling on it. This takes time to become used to doing, as a wandering mind becomes a habit.

6) Change the focus from worrying about who is listening (and thinking of negative energy coming in), to focusing on the emotion/mood/story/character etc of what you would like to share (positive energy out).

7) Remind the student that you as a teacher are there to support, share, and progress their learning and artistic journey, not to criticize, judge and berate them. I often tell my students that I am in the moment with them, if they worry that I may get frustrated with them. Students are often a lot more impatient with themselves than I could ever get with them.

In a way, I am glad of my personal struggles and journey. I feel that it has made me a much more empathetic teacher than I could have been otherwise. I am also proud that I have had the perseverance and desire to overcome it. Unrealistic expectations of oneself is a reason that contributes to students giving up on their art. If we teachers can help our students to change their focus, become immersed in their craft and be in the moment, we can help them to truly feel like confident artists, regardless of their level or craft.

I would love to hear any other anecdotes about performance anxiety in lessons and ways to overcome this obstacle.