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Listening as a way to manage stage fright

It is as important for music teachers to listen to what music students and performers say as to the music they play. The incident I am about to describe further opened my eyes and ears.

I always was interested in how to get help for my performance anxiety which, unfortunately, was not available when I was a music student at Juilliard. No one talked about it. It was too shameful to admit you were nervous, and typical advice was to practice more, believe in yourself, and/or don’t worry.

I taught piano for many years and performed professionally after my Juilliard graduation. I also struggled with stage fright since my first memory slip occurred at six years old. I loved performing but the emotional cost was steep. After a cancelled two piano performance with my husband due to a historic blizzard in Northern Michigan, and while sitting around reading magazines to pass time as roads were cleared, I found an article about a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who was conducting research in test anxiety. Upon returning home, I called him and asked if we could discuss musicians and stage fright. I assumed there were similarities and treatments for stage fright and test taking.

He was happy to meet with me and invited me to help in his lab that was conducting an experiment on test anxiety. After some training, I was assigned an anxious Subject who agreed to participate in the data collection. The protocol consisted of using progressive relaxation, cognitive copying (i.e., relabeling negative statements into positive self-talk), and biofeedback.

“I realized vividly that I could not assume what a person needed. It was more important to find out what the other person thought to understand their account of what in their past created anxiety that may be manifest in performance fears.”

After linking biofeedback sensors to my Subject’s finger tips (warmer fingers would indicate lower anxiety), we began the full protocol. Her level of anxiety did not become lower over time although she agreeably complied with my instructions. When we reached the part where I had been instructed to use an image of relaxing on a beach, wind gently blowing, waves lapping, sun warmly shining to help her relax, I noted that the biofeedback indicator was rising rapidly. She was becoming increasingly anxious. This was neither the hypothesis predicted, nor did it feel comfortable for me to watch her anxiety climb toward a panic level. While knowing that altering the protocol would interfere with data collection, I made the decision to pause and talk with her. I did not follow instructions! Commenting on her high level of anxiety, I inquired about what was going on in her mind. She looked at me and forcefully told me, “I HATE beaches.”

If there was a defining moment that contributed to my return to a graduate program to broaden my interest in stage fright and to gain a psychological and psychoanalytic perspective, it was this one. More importantly, I realized vividly that I could not assume what a person needed or advise them what to think or what to do. It was more important to find out what the other person thought, to inquire, to ask questions, to hear what they liked and did not like, and to understand better their account of what in their past created anxiety that may be manifest in performance fears. In short, to LISTEN and to let the other person—or patient, student, test taker, doctor, executive, musician—talk. My professional role was to help that person feel understood and to use “theory” to address them as it applied to their experience of anxiety rather than a predetermined script. 

I present various styles and theories of psychological management for anxiety and do not take a stance on which one is right for each person. There is no “one size fits all”—there is no “beach.” Rather, I try to inform performers and their teachers (when I have the opportunity) about options with pros and cons evenly presented and discussed. I found for myself, after gaining experience, that my own personal and evolving clinical orientation felt more comfortable working in a style that promotes self-exploration, self-discovery, and increases self-esteem. I ask questions, inquire about details, invite clarifications, and gradually my patients and I create a new way of thinking about old debilitating problems. I am also aware that patients perform in treatment as outside it to try to be agreeable, as did my Subject, or to look smart, or not to reveal their perceived flaws. We examine this performance before our eyes and ears when together in session. It really helps!

“While realizing that teaching music is inherently more didactic than therapy, I maintain that listening to more than the music is an important tool for a teacher’s and performer’s mental toolbox.”

I also ask myself questions about what is resonating in my mind with the awareness I do not want to suggest that what is “right” for me is “right” for another person. This listening “technique” helps me become a better and more empathetic helper. While realizing that teaching music is inherently more didactic than therapy, I maintain that listening to more than the music is an important tool for a teacher’s and performer’s mental toolbox. It is a skill that can be used appropriately in the teaching studio and taken on stage internally by performers.

Some of my performance anxious patients know of my musical background (everyone reads the web now). Some do not or avoid letting themselves know about me (which is something we talk about either way). I have had some people tell me that they want me to tell them what to do because I know what it is like to be anxious and perform. Others are afraid I will tell them what to do and not help them to figure out what is bothering them.

Music teachers teach a whole person who brings a lifetime of experiences and feelings—a unique life history—to lessons. Of course, music teachers give specific didactic instructions and should not try to be therapists. They, too, bring their personal histories to their studios, of which they also need to be aware. Sensitivity to what the students say and how the teacher responds influences both the relationship and the way this instruction is perceived, internalized by the student, and carried onto the stage. Music teachers (all teachers) can join their students in co-creating the best possible environment psychologically and pedagogically for learning and enhancing self-confidence. It is these attributes that can provide internal confidence that helps individuals better manage stage fright.

Feature image by Oscar Keys via Unsplash

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