I wrote an essay for a course and the subject, while something I’m really interested in, could fill several books. I had to keep the thing around 3000 words, so I barely got to touch on some of the things that I think are most important. That being said, I’m sorta proud of the thing. Warning: I wrote this one as an assignment, so it’s gonna be thick because my teachers told me to be “formal”. Yay…
If you’re brave, maybe you’ll get through it! Best of luck!
Artistic Survival: Dealing with Stress in Performance
There are a lot of downsides to being a musician. Low pay, long hours of practice, constant criticism internally, from peers, and from teachers can all take its toll, but the worst by far is the judgement that comes when a musician stands in front of an audience. In many ways, a performance strips the performer right to the core. (Westney, 2003, 142) It lays bare all of the preparation, all of the insecurities, and all of the anxieties. And yet, across the board, musicians somehow continue to perform well. They rise to the challenge and create something infinitely magical with sound.
How do they do it?
To understand the question, it is first important to examine the ideal performance. Every musician that continues to study their music has had a taste of what is possible. With an ideal performance, there is a state of connection or rapture that a musician can slip into. This state is known as Flow; a name give to it in 1990 by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, former chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago.
Without referring to it directly, Westney describes this feeling well in his book, The Perfect Wrong Note. During a concerto performance he “sensed something different; the collective awareness, the attentive mind of the audience, was a tangible, mutual bond of energy linking me, the soloist, with two thousand listeners… It was a sense of effortless collective power – not my own power at all.” (Westney, 2003, 142) In his book, Csíkszentmihályi details the criteria that are crucial to creating a sense of Flow.
- Absolute concentration on the present.
- The union of action and awareness.
- Loss of self-consciousness reflection.
- A feeling of personal control over the performance.
- A subjective lengthening of time.
- The experience that the activity itself is rewarding. (Csíkszentmihályi, 2008, 73-76)
According to Csíkszentmihályi, this state can be achieved on an everyday basis and does not have to be limited to performance. Every practice session and rehearsal has the potential for Flow, but it is rare that a performer falls into it unconsciously. (Csíkszentmihályi, 2008, 73-76)
Once a musician knows that Flow is the goal of a performance, it seems that it would be a simple matter to can practice going into the Flow state every day, then do the same in performances.
Unfortunately, life is rarely this straightforward. Stress is a major block that keeps musicians from living in a constant Flow state. Fear and anxiety represent the opposite end of the Flow experience spectrum. Every musician has had a performance where nerves overrode their practice. They walk onstage and the physical symptoms of stress hit them. Cold, sweating, shaky hands and fingers make bows tremor. Uneven and shallow breath makes singing a challenge. These factor distract from the present moment and merging action and awareness becomes impossible. Self-critical thoughts invade the musician’s mind, suddenly making them question basic technique. Often performers experience a sudden feeling that they have lost control. As errors pile up and the performer becomes more introspective, misery is the result.
The truth is, great performance begins well before a musician walks onstage. Great performers know how to handle pressure and they prepare for it with more than just obsessive practice of their instrument.
Before delving into solutions and preparations, it is crucial to define the anatomy of stress. There are two definitions of pressure that will be used. The first is long term pressure created by expectations and criticism known as chronic stress. The immediate type of pressure experienced in performance situations is known as state anxiety or nerves. (Watson, 2009, 332) Both stress and nerves have symptoms that are defined under three key categories.
- Physiological – physical symptoms including sweating, shaking hands, cold fingers, etc.
- Cognitive – The psychological symptoms of fear including negative self talk, an inability to think clearly, short-term memory loss, etc.
- Behavioural – The inability to do things naturally, for example breathing and walking. (Jones, 2000, 9)
Performers are all very familiar with the physical aspects of acute stress. The key to understanding the body’s reaction is to realize that this reaction is motivated by fear and this reaction has been honed for thousands of years to help humans escape dangerous situations. Reason does not play a part here. The fear response takes precedence over every thought process. (Clark, 2011, 24) In the evolutionary perspective this makes sense. The immediate and drastic physiological changes in response to fear stimulus are intended to keep the body alive. Clark describes this fascinating reaction well in his book Nerve, “Adrenaline surges through the body, charging the muscles with energy for emergency action. Surface-level blood vessels constrict and leave the akin pale and slightly numb, providing a temporary layer of armour that is less likely to bleed. The pupils dilate for heightened vision. Nonessential processes like digestion cease – and worse, the body sometimes decides to jettison all extra weight, which accounts for the unfortunate sudden loss of bowel and bladder control that can strike… Breathing and heart rate speed up, funnelling more oxygen into the muscles.” (Clark, 2011, 26)
As incredible as it is to be able to transform into a battle-ready speed machine in milliseconds, for the musician, these effects can be highly detrimental. What is most destructive about this process is that it completely bypasses rational thought. This intense response originates in the amygdala, the portion of the brain responsible for emotional memory especially fear. The amygdala can influence the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that plans future actions causing an intense feeling of dread before the performance even happens. (Watson, 2009, 335)
When the performer walks onstage, the reaction is much stronger. The hypothalamus (the portion of the brain that regulates metabolic processes of the body) is the real culprit in this scenario. The hypothalamus activates the pituitary gland (to be specific, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal cortical system) which secretes adrenaline and cortisol blood with adrenaline and a potent cocktail of other biochemicals that prepares the body for action. (Watson, 2009, 335-336) To the body it is far better to be too ready than not ready enough. For this reason, the body prepares itself at the earliest hint of danger for drastic action, completely bypassing rational thought.
All of this means that fear and anxiety are forces largely out of conscious control. This is the first key point to handling stress. During a big performance, musicians will always feel afraid and nervous to a greater or lesser degree. It is how performers handle the fear that separates the greats from everyone else. On May 15, 1963, the astronaut Gordon Cooper was faced one of the most intense high-stress situations imaginable. He experienced a complete power failure which knocked out every instrument at his disposal while in orbit. He had to reenter Earth’s atmosphere manually, in a cockpit that was 130 degrees Fahrenheit and with air that was already dangerously low on oxygen. Interestingly, the onboard physiological monitoring equipment was online and showed that despite his calm demeanour, he was terrified. For fifteen minutes, he managed to fly a dead aircraft from space through the atmosphere, then land only five miles from his intended target. (Clark, 2011, 270-271) Cooper’s performance was legendary, but his first step was accepting the fear and working through it. “[Astronauts] have dealt with it so many times, they actually come to expect moments where the natural inclination is going to be to panic and they have trained themselves … to feel fear, even embrace it.” (Clark, 2011, 270-271)
For this reason, acceptance is the first step to managing stress and nerves both. Once a performer recognizes the body’s physiological symptoms as a natural reaction that is impossible to fight, they can apply the energy that was once spent fighting their nerves to the task at hand.
Dealing with long-term stress requires another shift in perception. Stress affects the body differently and over a much longer span. Symptoms can include somatization, the “appearance of symptoms that , while perfectly real to the sufferer, may have no organic basis.” (Watson, 2009, 334) The problem is that is an internally created factor and effects different people with varying rates of severity. Dealing with long-term stress requires a shift in thinking, one that Carol Dweck details in her book, Mindset.
According to Dweck, there are two key mindsets that most people adopt; fixed and growth. These mindsets are defined by the way that they address obstacles and how they view effort. Those with a growth mindset believe that traits are fixed and that talent is an inborn trait. As they develop skills, they begin to create an image of themselves based on the feedback they receive from parents and teachers. Because these internal judgements must be validated externally, these people often create an “I am” mentality that breeds self-criticism and insecurity. When a person with a fixed mindset is offered a challenging opportunity, they often refuse because “Why would [they] risk turning from a success into a failure? From a winner into a loser?” (Dweck, 2012, 33)
The fixed mindset causes another form of paralysis when it comes to effort. Because performers with a fixed mindset see their talent as an inborn trait, they believe that improvement should be largely effortless. For some time, they might be right, but when challenges mount, they begin to stall out. A prime example is Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg early career. When she first arrived at Julliard, she was called a prodigy, but her technique was awkward and flawed. She refused to take the advice of her teacher, Dorothy DeLay, she found that many of the other students had begun to surpass her. She shut down. After some time, she even stopped bringing her violin to lessons. “The idea of trying and still failing— of leaving yourself without excuses— is the worst fear within the fixed mindset, and it haunted and paralysed her.” (Dweck, 2012, 42)
Growth mindset allows for more flexibility. “Even in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.” (Dweck, p. 33) Adopting a growth mindset helps alleviate stress by changing a performer’s point of view. When a big audition is viewed as a challenge instead of a crises, a large portion of the stress is taken out of the situation. Dr. Wesley Baldwin, a previous teacher once said, “A perfect performance is impossible. Practice so that your mistakes are so small that you are the only one that can hear them.” If a perfect performance is an impossibility, the most useful approach is to treasure the failure as a sign of improvement.
Growth mindset is the biggest mental shift necessary to handle stress. Once a growth mindset is adopted, the challenges of performing in high pressure situations can be addressed without interference from the ego.
The next step is to spread the growth mindset and create a net of like-minded people that can support and encourage improvement. The best performances take place after years of preparation and often, the demands placed upon pupils is astounding. This overwhelming pressure is custom designed to prepare these students for the stress of the stage. The military makes no secret of the fact. “The point of such remarkable exercises in self- flagellation is to introduce the combat leader to an intense degree of stress and thereby inoculate him against psychological trauma.” (Grossman, 2014, Kindle Locations 1377-1378)
These daunting bouts of training are designed to bond the individuals into groups that are able to take far more stress than the individual, but once these groups are formed, they do more than take punishment. They work together as a team. “A tremendous volume of research indicates that the primary factor that motivates a soldier to do the things that no sane man wants to do in combat (that is, killing and dying) is not the force of self-preservation but a powerful sense of accountability to his comrades on the battlefield.” (Grossman, 2014, Kindle Locations 2489-2491)
Having the support of a group of like-minded peers is crucial to attaining difficult goals and providing support in the face of adversity. It was found that when a unit sustains casualties in conflict, that a single individual will often be of no use when added to another unit, but “a pair of soldiers or the remnants of a squad or platoon can generally be counted upon to fight well.” (Grossman, 2014, Kindle Location 2504) Knowing that he is not alone allows a performer to rely on his peer’s strength as well as his own. This mutual reliance is an effective way to handle the sometimes overpowering pressure of an environment that pushes performers to succeed.
The next quality needed to effectively deal with stress does not immediately come to mind as an important trait. Lawrence Gonzales reveals this necessary trait in his fascinating book about the psychology of survivors. In it, he tells the story of his father whose B-17 bomber was shot down over Germany at 27,000 feet. His father fell to earth without a parachute and came to consciousness in a field, broken amid the wreckage of his plane only to see a German farmer point a pistol at his face. The gun jammed and “he watched the German farmer with a sort of dim, swooning amusement as the man tried to get the firing mechanism sorted out. Then my father began laughing, which infuriated the [man]… It was all a bit much: to get blown out of the sky and fall 27,000 feet without a parachute— and survive— only to land in the exact spot where there’s a pissed-off farmer with a gun. He couldn’t stop laughing. It was the beginning of his salvation, not the end. Humour was the key.” (2004, Kindle Location 3681)
Humour allows the survivor to focus on the task at hand without looking Death directly in the face. Joking about dangerous situations seems foolish, but according to Gonzales, it is a vital ritual, especially to professionals like fighter pilots whose jobs endanger their lives on a daily basis. (2004, Kindle Location 309)
The effect levity has on the brain is more powerful than it seems. “Laughter stimulates the left prefrontal cortex, an area in the brain that helps us to feel good and to be motivated. That stimulation alleviates anxiety and frustration. There is evidence that laughter can send chemical signals to actively inhibit the firing of nerves in the amygdala, thereby dampening fear. Laughter, then, can help to temper negative emotions.” (Gonzales, 2004, Kindle Location 525) It may not seem important, but looking for an opportunity to laugh right before walking onstage can short-circuiting anxiety while keeping the performer focused on the task at hand.
Now that the internal and external forces of stress are held at bay, the next step is to gain control during the performance. From earlier descriptions, it is obvious that the perform must accept that they will endure the physical symptoms of stress, but the psychological aspects can be just as daunting. Performers find that sometimes the memory goes blank and it takes all their focus to remember how to hold their instrument.
This phenomenon, where a performer suddenly reverts to the skill of a amateur under pressure, is known in sports as choking. What happens when a performer chokes has, up until recently, seemed an almost mystical anomaly. It appears to effect performers at random moments in spite of thousands of hours of repetition and preparation. To solve the mystery, it is important to look back at what exactly is happening in the mind during the learning process.
When the musician first tackles a passage, the brain must be completely involved in getting the line correct. Each tiny factor of vibrato speed, intonation, and bowing must be accounted for. As the practice goes on, these factors start to become unconscious. By the day of the performance, the goal is to make every facet of the work a coordinated part of the whole that no longer requires conscious thought. Neurologically, the brain is creating a path that allows for the most efficiency. When the musician first begins their piece of music, the brain has to fire along a specific branch of neurons, that allow the musician to play correctly. As they practice, the brain insulates the correct pathways with myelin, a substance that acts as an insulator, making the connections faster and more efficient. Eventually, the pathway is so throughly insulated that the performer can fire the neurons with the least amount of effort, making the music flow smoothly and subconsciously. (Coyle, 2009, 74-94)
Making a change to the well-insulated path is simple. With a conscious, internal thought about the physical aspects of their playing, they can actively stop the neuron from firing down the practiced path. Instead, it the neuron goes down a new path, one that is not nearly as well insulated as the old one. Suddenly, what was once a familiar passage that required little effort suddenly feels absolutely foreign. When this occurs during performance, how the brain chokes. (Coyle, 2009, 74-94) The sport psychologist Bradley Hatfield says that when examining brain scans of athletes about to choke, their minds look like a “traffic jam” of worry and self-monitoring, whereas the brains of those who do well under stress appear efficient and streamlined, engaging fewer neural regions. (Clark, 2011, Kindle Location 208)
Avoiding the type of self-monitoring that leads to a choking extremely difficult. In a classic study, Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner proved that trying not to think about something is almost as useless as actively thinking about it when he asked participants not to focus on imagining a large white elephant in the corner of the room. (Clark, 2011, Kindle Location 208) Because of this, not thinking about doing something has the same effect as actively thinking about it, which makes choking no less likely.
The solution is the merging of two separate ideas. The first has its roots in the mindfulness meditation practices in line with Buddhist traditions. The goal of mindfulness meditation is to simply relax and be in the moment by staying unattached to the thoughts that enter the mind. While meditating, thoughts will enter the mind of their own accord. The goal is to recognize them and let them float away, while the mind returns to the centre. This Buddhist practice of “noting” was used in a 2007 study by UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman. Lieberman showed thirty volunteers fear-provoking images and then asked them to note their feelings as he monitored their brain activity. Upon seeing the unpleasant images, the subjects’ amygdalae lit up at first, but the labelling process soon sparked activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, damping activity in the amygdala. (Clark, 2011, 81) Using this technique, a musician can catch themselves as they begin to think about their fingers and nudge their mind simple awareness.
Now that the he has overcome the debilitating self-talk, the mind needs something to focus that does not draw the performer’s attention to technique and that improves the overall performance. Once the mind is free of self-examination, often the emotions buried by constantly nagging thoughts are set free. As Madeline Bruser says in her book, The Art of Practicing, “When we practice, the heart is often obscured under multiple layers of mental and emotional preoccupations. We are distracted by countless judgments of ourselves and by random thoughts… These habitual mental and emotional states keep us from noticing the raw, sweet, unbearably tender feeling we have for music.” (2013, 55) By connecting with pure, emotional aspect of the music, the performer can connect with the audience on the most fundamental level and avoid the stress that choking brings.
By accepting fear, adopting a growth mindset, cultivating a supportive culture, deflecting anxiety with humour, using mindfulness meditation to prevent choking, and staying focused on the emotion of the music, a performer can overcome stress and fall into the state of Flow that makes music worth playing.
Bruser, M. (2013) The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Hear. New York: Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 55.
Clark, T. (2011) Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool. New York: Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition. 24-26, 81, 208, 270-272
Coyle, D. (2009) The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. New York: Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 74-94, 97-98.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) New York: HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 73-76.
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 33, 42.
Gonzales, L. (2004) Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. London: W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. Kindle Locations 525-528, 3676-3681.
Grossman, D (2014) On Killing. New York: Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. Kindle Locations 1377-1378, 2489-2491, 2504.
Jones, K. (2000) Keeping Your Nerve! London: Faber Music. 9-19.
Watson, A. (2009) The Biology of Musical Performance and Performance-Related Injury. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. 332-356.
Westney, W. (2003) The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. Cambridge: Amadeus Press. 139-152.