I remember the moment, when I was thinking over the possibility of returning to playing the piano after nearly forty years, that it occurred to me that this time ’round, I couldn’t be forced to take exams or play in recitals. With a palpable rush of assertion I gleefully vowed that my adult keyboard life would be different than my childhood experience: I would play piano on my own terms, for the pleasure of it.
But I soon discovered that many piano teachers strongly advocate performing for others as part of the learning process. I’ve reluctantly complied for the sake of progress, which has brought to my mind the memory of the out-of-body state I experienced annually when I performed in Miriam Russell Smith’s year-end recital in the auditorium of Manor Road United Church. After months of weekly private lessons in her cozy living room, and a daily solitary practice in the family den, I would find myself facing an audience of strangers, wearing a dress reserved for the most proper occasions, with party shoes to match. That I was required to execute a five-step curtsey—not a bow, which was reserved for boys—added to the weird sense that I wasn’t really me anymore, but a hollowed-out substitute going through a series of motions. And all that was before I even got to the piano bench.
What I was experiencing would be described today as a mild form of dissociation caused by going into the state of fight/flight, which is common to all mammals under a condition of threat. I was left to my own devices to cope with it, with the result that I still don’t have any mature strategies. Fortunately, the field of performance coaching has developed since I was a kid. Originating in the world of sports, performance coaching is now being adapted for musicians and other performers including actors, dancers, public speakers, and others who find themselves in front of an audience.
According to Lisa Chisholm, a Juilliard-trained professional bassoonist who teaches preparation techniques and mental skills to musicians and other performers, the sports education model has a lot to offer to the field of music education: this includes learning about the nature of performance challenges, acquiring techniques to address those challenges, and repeated practise of those skills. As Chisholm told me in an e-interview, “building mental skills training into early musical education is the key—not just how to play the instrument, but also how to prepare for Performance Day.”
Judging from the ample turnout at Chisholm’s presentation, “The Physiology of Fight/Flight” at Toronto Summer Music Festival last week, I am not the only recovering child-recitalist out there. The Boyd Neel Room at the Edward Johnson building was full of formerly rattled children, many of whom are extremely advanced amateurs, as well as many professional musicians. Chisholm, a tall, broad shouldered woman, who describes herself as a “big St. Bernard,” has an open manner, a big smile, and a frank style that puts people at their ease, so they can think about the uncomfortable, embarrassing and disorienting sensations they’ve experienced in performance. As an active orchestral musician who has played with the TSO, the COC, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and several other fine orchestras, she has faced the challenges of auditions and performances time and again, and her approach is drawn from her lived experience plus serious study of current knowledge in the field.
When she asked the audience to write their performance anxiety symptoms on one side of a piece of paper and their strategies for dealing with them on the other side, there was a feeling of shared concentration in the room. For me it was a lot easier to list the symptoms (pounding heart, shallow breath, pulsing gut, slow ideation, insomnia and loss of appetite before the performance) than to articulate strategies (pre-performance reflection on my goals, simulated performance prior to event, extensive preparation, familiarity by means of experience).
Chisholm then took us through the physiology of the common physical symptoms of performance anxiety, offering some practical solutions along the way. For those who suffer from a racing heart, there are breathing techniques that steady the heart using inhales and exhales at various ratios (other ratios can increase the heart rate for the few who experience the reverse). Musicians who experience fatigue part-way through their performance can improve the blood flow to their muscles by means of progressive muscle relaxation, which counteracts the muscle tensing that occurs when a person is nervous. Performers who rely on their vocal and oral apparatus can guard against dry mouth and saliva depletion by adding some lemon juice to water or munching on a green apple. And if that isn’t available, they can try visualising the pucker-inducing agent. To keep hands and fingers warm, musicians can bring a hot rice bag with them, or soak their hands in hot water just before performing. Folks whose hands sweat can carry an ice pack and nibble on ice to bring their core body temperature down.
There are a thousand and one physiological symptoms that can strike a performer and a seemingly infinite number of ingenious solutions. It’s reassuring to know that there are some tried-and-true techniques out there, and to add them to the preparation phase of a performance. It’s also clear that it takes advance practise to have muscle relaxation routines and breathing techniques ready when you need them, and that yet another layer of discipline has to be added to learning music if you want to perform.
Chisholm focussed on the physiological manifestations of performance, which was as much as she could cover in one presentation. But she readily admitted that coping with mental distress requires more understanding and other skills that are part of the training she offers. This is a vast topic that I’ll leave for another feature article. For now I’ll just point out that performance skills, whether as a musician or in some other capacity, are bound to be useful life skills. This is yet another way in which music education is a critical part of developing resilience.
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