It is Healthy to Talk about Stage Fright!

Stage fright. It’s a topic that often gets pushed aside at weekly lessons. As teachers, we tend to focus on how to play, how to memorize, how to read, how to create, and even how to perform but, we can overlook how to prevent or deal with performance anxiety.

I believe preparing students properly and in advance of a performance can curb anxiety (see The Five P’s of Performing) but, what if students have anxiety about performing regardless of their adequate preparation? When self-doubt and the fear of what others think creeps into our students’ psyche, what are we to do? How can we coach pianists to find the right balance of adrenalin, mental and emotional health to develop successful performance skills?

Answers to all of these questions are addressed in Julie Jaffee Nagel’s new book called Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers. The well-organized, easy-to-read book is packed with sensible advice, insightful tips, and well-researched strategies. It’s a must-have for any music teacher’s library. That’s what sets this book apart–it’s not only for performers, it’s also for teachers of performers!

Each of the 13 chapters opens with a list of “Questions for Thought.” Sprinkled throughout each chapter are summary boxes called “Implications for Teachers.” These two features, along with Julie’s expertise and conversational writing style make it easy to glean the information and help you are looking for.

I just ordered my Kindle edition of Managing Stage Fright. As I read through it, Julie’s careful research has validated a good portion of what I do in my studio (whew!) and has offered significant information on how we as teachers can best approach the unique students AND parents who walk in the studio door. One chapter title that immediately intrigued me: Performance Anxiety Begins in the Nursery!

Check out Julie’s blog post below to get a sense of her writing style.

Personally, I’ve had to overcome significant performance anxiety over the years on my own. I’m so grateful that now there’s research, expertise and open discussion on the topic so teachers can help students who struggle with it. Thank you, Julie for the blog post and the timely book on such an important and often overlooked topic!

-Leila


Once upon a time, many years ago, when I was a piano teacher, I was working with a young student, Maria, who had come to my studio from another teacher in town.  Her mother explained to me that it was felt that  a different approach would be helpful for her daughter.  It was clear that her daughter loved music, and was quite accomplished at the piano, but her interest was waning.  When this was discussed with her music teacher, my name was given to her as a reference.

At one lesson, not long after we began to work together, Maria was having a very difficult time  playing a passage.  As she tried harder and harder, I could sense her frustration.  So I did what I thought was the best thing at that moment, and I asked Maria to stop playing so that we could  talk.  Maria started to cry, but also seemed relieved.  As we spoke about some things that had upset her at school earlier in the day,  Maria calmed down.  We didn’t really solve anything about school, but Maria felt  heard, respected, and understood.

Later that week, I ran into her previous teacher when I was downtown.  She inquired about her former student.  When I replied that when Maria had gotten upset,  had put a great deal of pressure upon herself to get everything “right”,  and that we had spoken about what she was feeling, the former teacher asked incredulously, “why did you let her talk?”

I was taken aback!  How could you not talk with someone in distress?

At that point in my music career, I had no idea of returning to school to change my direction to psychology and focus on the study and treatment of stage fright, but in retrospect, I realize what a powerful turning point that encounter with Maria and her former teacher had been for me.  I could not imagine why any teacher who witnessed a student in distress would not talk with their student.  I could not imagine why any teacher would only emphasize right notes or playing musically.  There was a person at the piano and that person was in distress. I could imagine why Maria got stalled in her previous lessons and stopped making progress.  And I understood why her mother decided for her to change teachers.

Only many years later did I realize that stage fright, from which I suffered since my childhood, was a “no name” problem and was associated with embarrassment and silence.  Practicing harder was not helpful – in fact, no one could practice harder than I did!  I also came to realize that stage fright was not a stigma, although many people,  including myself, thought it was.  It was felt that talented and well-prepared musicians should not have performance anxiety.

Wrong!

As I continued in my music career as a teacher and performer after graduating from Juilliard, I realized that there was virtually nothing written on the topic for musicians.  There was a literature for public speakers and athletes – but NOT about musicians.  It was at this time that I realized that I wanted to make a difference in the emotional lives of musical performers.  I returned to school at The University of Michigan and began what has become an incredibly rewarding venture and adventure.  I have studied, researched, presented, and written about musicians.  I have treated countless numbers of musicians  in my private practice who have become paralyzed with stage fright.  And I have recently written a book on the topic since I felt that I wanted to consolidate material that I have learned over the to describe how I have come to understand this “mental monster” and what causes and fuels performance anxiety.   Performance anxiety is not a musical problem.

In one respect, my  book is somewhat autobiographical. In writing about stage fright, I have tapped into my wind­ing journey .  In Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers I have addressed the music teacher as what I call the “first responder” to their students of all ages and levels of experience.  I have offered several ways to understand the topic theoretically, and offered coping responses on how to manage   NOT eliminate performance anxiety.  To make these  complex ideas simple or quick is not possible, but my overarching goal is to help students and teachers enhance self-confidence and self-esteem.

Thus, the uniqueness of the music teacher– music student rela­tionship is the prism through which Managing Stage Fright unfolds, as some of the mysteries of stage fright are unraveled, and strat­egies are offered for understanding its unwelcome presence and uncomfortable consequences. The music studio and what occurs in the teacher– student relationship provide the ideal situation for understanding performance anxiety. This information is generalizable to others who are not musicians such as public speakers, actors, writers,  business executives, academics and many others whose professional and personal lives are stymied by high anxiety.  It is past time to take the stigma  out of performance anxiety and the fright out of stage fright.

While this is not a “how to” book that offers specific advice (rather, I help other find out what is right for themselves by being well-informed), it is a book that encourages deeper understanding of oneself, and the encouragement to make use of multiple options that are presented that can be helpful in reducing stage fright. The leitmotif throughout the chapters emphasizes that music lessons are life lessons.

In conclusion I offer some implications for music teachers to keep in mind and implement with their students (and themselves) include the following ideas;

*An openness to talk with students and communicate nonjudgmental attitudes when talking about performance anxiety

*Being an attentive listener to student’s words and body language

*Inform students it is not desirable to totally get rid of performance anxiety (nor is it desirable).

* Help students use anxiety as positive energy

* Teach students how to use stage fright feelings a cues to better manage those feelings

*Emphasize the idea of sharing music rather than proving oneself

*Try to help students eliminate the idea of playing “perfectly”

*Develop trust with students so they will feel welcome to share their anxieties with you

*Let students know you do not have all the answers, but that together you will try to develop helpful strategies to cope with feeling uncomfortable.

*Help students realize that experiencing anxiety does not mean they will become overwhelmed by it.

*Emphasize that performance can be enjoyable.

I would enjoy hearing from you about your ideas, questions, and experiences.


Julie Jaffee Nagel is author of  “Melodies of the Mind” (Routledge Press, 2013)  and “Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers” (Oxford University Press).  She is a contributing editor to Clavier Companion.  Visit her blog at www.julienagel.net where she writes about stage fright, career choice, and music lessons as life lessons. She is a graduate of The Juilliard School,  The University of Michigan, and The Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and is in private practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Leila Viss

Creative Pianist, Piano Teacher, Organist, Blogger and Author of The iPad Piano Studio