Making mistakes in musical performance: should we aim for perfection?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?I worked with a student recently who has been having problems with mistakes onstage, even in music the student knows really well. My student described the mistakes as coming out of nowhere, and creating a sudden loss of focus that resulted in further errors. The student wanted help from me to eliminate the mistakes.

Would you have asked for the same thing? It is an understandable desire: I mean, nobody likes making mistakes while performing, especially when they lead to further loss of focus. Dealing with the mistakes would cause the other problems (loss of focus) to disappear on their own. Surely that seems like a great idea…

But what if the mistakes aren’t really the problem? What if we are really suffering from a completely different problem: a mindset issue?

Musical mistakes and perfectionism

Last month I attended a training day run by BAPAM[1] on anxiety and heard a great talk on perfectionism by psychologist Dr Radha Kothari. One of the markers suggested by Dr Kothari for an unhealthy perfectionism was a performer’s attitude towards mistakes: are they something to learn from, or something to be avoided? If we believe that mistakes are something to avoid, then we are likely to engage in behaviours that are unhelpful: we will get unduly nervous before performing out of fear of the mistakes occurring; we may start avoiding practice sessions; we may notice physical tension building when we are coming up to the passages where we think we are most likely to ‘fall off’.

Mistakes matter when we hold the belief we are aiming for perfection; that is to say, when we believe that it is possible to give a perfect performance. Mistakes are clearly not included in anything perfect, so logically, mistakes take us away from perfection and towards failure.

Except… perfection isn’t really possible. As an example, just think of how many recordings have been made and performances given of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Many of them will have been good; some will have been great; a number will have been excellent. But can we really label any one performance as perfect? Does that even make sense as a concept?!

Perfectionism as a habit of thought

There are lots of different (and helpful) models out there to describe this kind of thinking. Carol Dweck made the idea of ‘mindset’ famous, and even my son’s high school hands out material about the difference between a ‘fixed’ and a ‘growth’ mindset. There are a lot of good posts out on the web about self-limiting beliefs (here’s one from life coach Tim Brownson). Back in 1910 FM Alexander dealt with the topic, and didn’t mince his words. he called this kind of thinking ‘trifling habits of thought’ and said:

the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence. [2]

The implication of his statement is that our beliefs, if they are merely ‘trifling’ and ‘mechanical’, are utterly changeable. They aren’t giant pits or bear traps; they are potholes. If we can fall into them, we can lift ourselves back up out of them and keep walking. We can notice the belief, and then change it.

My student’s attitude towards mistakes was an indicator of a mindset – a belief about perfection – that I suspected was not helpful. So I asked a question that suggested a change of mindset: “Which would you rather: perfection or excellence?” My student’s face lit up instantly. One change of word, and everything changed. My student reported a vastly increased fluency and enjoyment while playing, which was still evident (and increasing) weeks later.

If you strive for excellence, mistakes are expected. They are something to learn from. They are a source of information, and an occasional bump in the road. Nothing more significant than that.

So how will you view your mistakes today?

 

[1] British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. They’re fantastic.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.52.

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Steps to a great performance: constructing a confidence building success staircase

A success staircase builds your confidenceSo you’ve got a performance coming up, or you’ve set yourself a goal or a deadline in your chosen field. But how do you know it’s achievable, and how are you going to ensure that you do as well as you can?

Last week I talked about one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander’s books: “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[1] It’s a quote that’s worth unpacking, because it can teach us a lot about how to organise our activities, goals and performances.

Following on from my favourite quote, FM reminds the reader that confidence isn’t just a fuzzy feeling – it is based on a foundation of what he calls “satisfactory experiences.” And if we want those, we need to plan out not just the ‘scaffolding’ of the satisfactory experiences themselves, but also how we are going to ensure that each experience is satisfactory.

So our task, then, is to construct for ourselves a confidence building success staircase that gets us comfortably from where we are to our chosen goal.

Tip 1: don’t make the success staircase too long

Let’s start off by checking that you have a goal, and that you’ve been realistic about it. Don’t make your goal too scary to begin with. It needs to be a little bit scary, otherwise you’re just working within your comfort zone and not improving. On the other hand, if the goal terrifies you, you’ve gone too far. For example, if I chose to enter myself for a triathlon, I’d be pushing myself too far. I may love running and cycling, but I can’t swim and actually risk panic attacks if I get in the water (it’s a long story…).

Know where to draw the line!

Tip 2: Construct a success staircase with graduated, logical steps

One of the best ways of feeling confident in a performance setting is to have done it many times before. But this isn’t always possible. For example, on Saturday I was fortunate to hear a talk by Dr Terry Clark of the Centre for Performance Science at the Royal College of Music. He remarked that even Conservatoire musicians might only appear in a very few actual concerts over the course of their degree.

Thee likelihood of feeling anxious is greatly increased if you haven’t had much experience in a particular setting. So it makes sense to do your best to prepare yourself by making small interim goals intended to create a confidence-building success staircase. This way, even if you can’t do a trial performance under the full performance conditions, at least you’ll have done everything to make the step up to performance conditions as simple and straightforward as you can.

What might a step on the success staircase look like in practice? It depends on what you feel you need to practice. At the Royal College of Music, for example, students book the virtual reality performance space simulator in order to accustom themselves to the process of events immediately pre-performance; they even show up in evening dress! My recorder quintet have been known to enter the local Eisteddfod in order to play a tricky new piece under performance conditions but with a small and friendly audience. One of my students had his final year recital at 9am, and so worked at changing his practice schedule to accustom himself to performing at his peak earlier in the day.

These are my suggestions for areas to consider when you are constructing your success staircase (I am assuming you have a goal/deadline and have sanity checked it):

  • What are the principal things about your chosen goal that might be tricky? (Time of day; difficulty of piece; playing in heels; feeling nervous before performing…)
  • Can you create a set of steps that will build your confidence to get you to your goal (practice at a different time of day; organise a trial run in front of friends; organise a dry run in someone else’s house/small safe venue; do a dry run in your performance gear; etc)?
  • After each step, evaluate what went well, and decide what aspects you need to address for the next step to be successful. You may even find you need to add in a step or two to address specific issues.

And have fun!

[1]  FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384. The paragraph following the footnote is based on this quote from the same page:

“our processes in education …[must] enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence…”

Photo by Phil_Bird on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Evaluation vs the power of NOW: What I learned from the 21 minute plank.

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Do you find yourself, as you are competing or performing, veering off into a fruitless evaluation of how you are doing? Do you find yourself obsessing about that difficult semi-quaver passage coming up, or worrying about your aching knee or your breathing?

Sometimes the temptation to indulge in an evaluation of how you are doing mid-performance can be almost overwhelming. Believe me, I know this. But I also know that it is utterly useless, and can’t get you to where you want to be. And the other day I had a very tangible physical demonstration of that principle.

For a little while now I’ve been on the email list of personal success coach Ramit Sethi, and when he offered a free course on increasing your potential that he had titled Hell Week, the challenge it threw down was impossible for me to resist. And what was the first challenge in Hell Week? To push past your ideas on your physical limitations by either doing 1000 push-ups or by doing a 21 minute plank. I chose the latter option, thinking (possibly naively) that it sounded like the easier of the two.

Well.

It wasn’t easy. I discovered that planking for long periods uses many more muscles than I initially realised. More importantly, however, I discovered that it wasn’t just a physical challenge. It was just as much a mental challenge, if not more.

When you’re in the middle of the activity, your brain doesn’t stop. Sounds obvious, but think about the implications of that. What are you going to think about as you’re doing the exercise? What are you going to think about as you do the run, or the performance?

What I discovered was this: evaluation mid-exercise doesn’t work. If you congratulate yourself about how well you’re doing, suddenly the exercise gets harder. If you think about the pain, it gets harder. If you think about how much time there is left, it gets harder.

This is the physical equivalent of what musicians have known time immemorial. If you congratulate yourself about the phrase you just played well, you are more likely to make a mistake. If you berate yourself for a mistake just made, you are more likely to go even further wrong. If you worry about what is coming up, you are also likely to go wrong.

The reason is simple. If you are indulging in evaluation, whether good or bad, or if you are anticipating what is to come, you aren’t in the present moment. Your body is in the present, but your mind and your focus are stuck in either the past or the future. And if your focus is not on the present, you can’t influence it.

This is what I learned from doing the 21 minute plank: keeping one’s mind in the present moment is the surest way to success. If you just think of the now, the present moment, it isn’t as hard. The pain isn’t the enemy. The semi-quaver passages and the composer are not the enemy.

You are – potentially – your enemy. You are also potentially your greatest asset.

Where are you going to place your attention? Well, obviously choosing the present moment is a great idea, but how do you achieve that? Many people would want you to focus on the goal. I’m not going to suggest that, because it may do more harm than good. Instead, I’m going to direct you to the work of FM Alexander.

FM Alexander’s suggestion would be to concentrate your thoughts on the means you are going to follow to attain your ends instead of thinking about your goal:

“stress must be laid on the point that it is the means and not the end which must be considered. When the end is held in the mind, instinct or long habit will always seek to attain the end by habitual methods.”(MSI 119)

Alexander would want you to have a goal, absolutely, but in his this passage from his first book he draws a very clear distinction between giving the orders (the mental creation) of the act, and the physical performance (the physical creation) of it. The first you can influence, shape and mould. The second is the outcome of that moulding process.

When I was doing the plank, for example, if I thought about the goal of the exercise (21minutes?!) the enormity of it was so crushing that I experienced an immediate stress reaction that impacted directly upon my stamina and ability to do the work. If I just kept thinking about my breathing and my form, I was able to keep going.

Similarly, my musician students often report the experience that, if they think of what is coming up in the music, they feel anxious; or if they have a big performance, they often feel weighed down by the scale of the task. If they just concentrate on the notes and what they want to convey, the nerves and anxiety vanish: they are too busy to be bothered with them!

My experience, and that of my students, is that staying in the NOW is the key. Not evaluating, not thinking about the goal. Staying in the now.

What will that look like for you today?

 

Image by phasinphoto from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why fear of competition shouldn’t faze performers

Are you afraid of performing? Whether it’s a concert, play, audition or after dinner speech, do you find yourself frozen up by the fear of what is to come?

Many people are afraid of the battle. To them, every performance, audition or job interview is a competition, and one that they are afraid of losing. The audience/panel are the enemy, the competitor that they must fight. And the fear of competition seems almost all consuming. Some of my students have described it this way:

  • Fighting the audience – fight to keep the audience engaged and with you.
  • Fighting the panel – battling to keep them looking at you as a real contender.
  • Fighting the competitor, and fighting oneself –  struggling to retain the self belief to keep competing.

I want to share with you something I’ve been reading that threw a lot of light on the fear of competition issue. I’ve got two main points that I hope will set you thinking anew about it. My fondest wish is that you’ll come the the conclusion that fear of competition is a mental trick that you can escape – if you want to.

 

1. Fear of competition is a state of mind.

I love watching snooker, and especially love watching Ronnie O’Sullivan. I’ve often wondered what goes through a player’s mind, especially at the beginning of a tight match where the scores remain even, and one player does not gain immediate dominance over the other.

Do you think this would be stressful, or do you think it would be fun?

Many people might imagine that a player would find it stressful. But that isn’t what Ronnie O’Sullivan describes in his most recent book, Running.

I went bang! Long red. Eighty. He went bang! Long red. Eighty. I went bang! Long red. One hundred. He went bang! Seventy. And I thought, 2-2, we’re having a row here, this is good! I’m enjoying this.*

What Ronnie is describing is a joy in the heat of battle. If the other player is matching him frame for frame, he relishes it. He describes a joy in being able to hold his own and gradually overcome another player who is also playing at the height of his powers. For Ronnie, when he is at his best, the battle isn’t something to run away from. It is, rather, something to engage in and enjoy.

Fear of competition is a state of mind, a “trifling habit of thought” (FM Alexander’s words there**) that at some point we have taken on. But it is just a state of mind, and states of mind can be changed.

2. It isn’t really a battle.

The second point is that most performances, most presentations, most auditions and job interviews even, are not battles. They are not a competitive sport, and the audience/interview panel are not your competitors. They are not your enemy. You are not fighting them.

The audience, at heart, wants to be entertained.

The business audience, at heart, wants to get out of the room alive. If they enjoy their time, they are thrilled.

The audition panel just wants to cast the role. They want you to be the one.

The interview panel just wants you to be the right candidate.

They aren’t your competitors. Unless you’re in a particularly extreme set of circumstances, they’re on your side. So what is there to stop you just getting on and enjoying being with them?

 

*Ronnie O’Sullivan (with Simon Hattenstone), Running, Orion, 2013, p.71.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT edition, p.52.

Do they really hate you? Misunderstanding audience reaction.

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When you perform, are you concerned about audience reaction? Perhaps you keep half an eye or ear on the audience as you perform. Do you try to gauge how they’re liking your performance? How would you feel if, heaven forbid, someone should frown or even walk out while you’re performing?

It is a fairly common theme when I work with people with performance anxiety that their tension levels increase through fear of negative audience reaction. Bluntly, they are stressed out by the thought of the audience hating them, or at the very least disliking what they’re doing.

But if they’re frowning, do they really hate you? Or are you perhaps misunderstanding the audience reaction?

This was really brought home to me when one of my students auditioned for the full-time acting course at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.* He came out disconsolate, saying that one of the panel had spent the entire audition staring at him, her head resting on her hands. “She looked like she hated me,” he said. “My audition was terrible. I’ll never get the place.”

Luckily, I was also friends with another member of the panel, who told me the story of what happened after my student had left the room. The supposedly grumpy panel member had turned to the other auditioners, fixed them with just as intense a stare as she had the young student, and said, “he’s absolutely marvellous!”

My student looked at the panel member and was convinced she hated him. And it just wasn’t true. So how did my student get it so wrong? How did he so misjudge the audience reaction?

1. You can’t know what’s in their heads.

What a person is thinking is private information. You can’t access it directly. You can make guesses based on available (public) information, like their facial expressions. But your guesses are still just guesses, and while they might often be accurate, under stress your ability to make accurate guesses might be severely compromised. If someone in the front row has a massive frown on their face, you have no evidence that they don’t like you. Maybe they always look like that!

2. The psycho-physical truth

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.**

This is one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander, because it so neatly sums up the human condition. We think and act according to our belief structures, whatever those may be. And so if we come across new information or new experiences that require decoding, we will do it according to what we already believe to be the truth about the way the world works.

I ran across a lovely story that speaks to this. The author recounted how the youthful babysitter he had hired looked in wonderment at his (slightly old-fashioned!) corded kitchen phone. “Mr Hunt, what a wonderful idea,” she said, “to tie up your phone so that people won’t walk away with it. Just like the pens at the bank.”***

The babysitter had only experienced cordless phones, and so created an explanation for what she was seeing based on her beliefs and previous experience. We do this all the time. But just like the babysitter, our explanations may be completely off target!

If we’re in a high pressure situation, our systems are pumped with adrenalin. This makes changes to the way we are thinking. And if we’re accustomed to thinking of performing as unpleasant and we’re already looking on the negative side of things, then we will prioritise anything we see that confirms our negative viewpoint, and discount any contradictory (positive) information.

You can’t know how other people are taking things. And it isn’t your business anyway. Your job is to deliver your content in as truthful, sincere and efficient a way as you can. Watching the audience to see how much they like/hate you just distracts from that. Be convinced of the worth of your content and your process, and keep delivering.

 

* This is a brilliant college. I know I’m biased, but if you live in the UK and are thinking of studying in the fields of music or acting, you simply must investigate Royal Welsh.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.304.
*** Andy Hunt, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, Pragmatic Bookshelf 2008, p.130.
Image by Freddie Pena, Flickr Creative Commons

Are introversion and performing success mutually exclusive?

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Are introversion and performing success mutually exclusive? Can you be a good communicator if you’re an introvert?

I work a lot with people who have stage fright issues, and I get asked this question a lot. I suspect most of the students who attend my presentation courses would class themselves as introverts, and they frequently believe that their quiet nature is fundamental to their not being comfortable in front of an audience.

Can this be true? Can it really be the case that introversion and performing just don’t go together successfully?

I’ve been doing some personal development reading lately. One of the books I’m reading suggested doing some online personality tests, in order to help me discover how I like to learn and what sorts of environments/contexts would be helpful or harmful to me learning most effectively. So I did a spot of googling and found an online MBTI style test. If you don’t know these, they rank you on a continuum in four different areas, the first of which is introversion vs extraversion.

So how did I do? I came out at 89% introverted, and I think I only came out that low because I bent the truth on a couple of questions.
Suffice it to say, if you’re looking for an illustration of introversion for your pictorial dictionary, I’d be a fantastic candidate. When a friend recently told me about how prior commitments meant he wouldn’t be able to attend a party, I felt relief even though it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my invitation, and I had no connection to the event at all. THAT’S how introverted I am.
But do I combine introversion and performing? Can I perform in front of audiences? You bet! So how do I manage this? How is it that I can be very decidedly one of life’s quiet people, and yet spend much of my working life having a lot of fun working with groups, or playing my recorder in front of audiences? I follow these three lessons from FM Alexander, originator of the Alexander Technique:

1. Get lots of practice.

When FM Alexander was trying to solve the mental (and resulting physical) misdirections that caused his vocal problems, he realised that part of the solution was practicing his new directions “very many times”. Bluntly, if you want to do anything decently, you need to do it with some degree of deliberateness and consistency. Here is Susan Cain, author of Quiet, on her preparations for her book launch:

“my job is to be out here … talking about introversion. And that’s a lot harder for me, because as honored as I am to be here with all of you right now, this is not my natural milieu. So I prepared for moments like these as best I could. I spent the last year practicing public speaking every chance I could get. And I call this my “year of speaking dangerously.”  And that actually helped a lot.”

 

2. Speak from your passion.

Why did Susan Cain want to improve her public communication skills? Because she had a subject she was passionate about, and she wanted as many people to know about it as possible: “But I’ll tell you, what helps even more is my sense, my belief, my hope that when it comes to our attitudes to introversion and to quiet and to solitude, we truly are poised on the brink on dramatic change. “

If you have a passion for your topic, you are more prepared to go outside your comfort zone in order to communicate it. In the same way, FM Alexander’s passion for acting meant that he was prepared to do immense amounts of work and suffer innumerable setbacks when trying to fix his vocal problems.

 

3. Communicate in the way that best suits you and your purpose.

I’m going to say something controversial. The audience don’t care about you. (well, maybe they do if they’re your family, or if you’re some kind of celebrity – there’s exceptions to every rule…) Apart from the odd exception, it’s true. The audience only care about you, as such, if you make yourself their issue. Otherwise, they just want to hear what you’ve got to say/play/perform. They care that you do it authentically, but otherwise they primarily want the content.

This is tremendously freeing. It means that you can be authentically nervous. You can be authentically quiet, or authentically loud. How it is said doesn’t matter nearly so much as that it is said truthfully and with integrity. If you want to see this in action, just take a look at Susan Cain, or JK Rowling. They get their message across brilliantly, and both of them are totally their quiet selves.

The key is to do only what you have to do in order to achieve your goals – a key Alexander Technique principle. Pretending to be someone else is unnecessary effort, and does nobody any good.

A quiet person can command respect and attention. A shy person can be a performer. A nervous person can get their point across. An introvert can be a truly great public speaker or performer. All it takes is some attention to principle, and a modicum of consistent, deliberate practice.

 

Image by Salvatore Vuono, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Performance as process, not product

Recorders are where I learn about performance as process

When preparing to perform, do you view the performance as process, or as an end to be gained?

It has struck me recently that it is very tempting to think of an upcoming performance in the following way:

  • The performance is on x date
  • I shall work on the process of learning the music/lines, experimenting with interpretation, and exploring the music… until the date of x.
  • On x date, I will perform the piece.

In other words, I think it’s very easy for actors and musicians to go very happily through the process of rehearsing, learning, experimenting and exploring – until the performance. Then it can be every so tempting to believe that the process that led you to that point is over. ‘I mean, I’m performing now, I don’t have time for all that exploration stuff!’

Speaking for myself, I know that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking of the actual performance as an end point. I have been very happy to go through a process involving thinking and learning about the music/script during rehearsals, but with the view that I am doing so in order to have a completed product to put in front of the audience at opening night.

But what if the performance isn’t an end point or anything to be gained/achieved?

What if it is just another part of the process?

In fact, what if the performance is the same process?

When I teach actors or singers, I am often asked to help out with improving a monologue or a solo; often the performer says they are having trouble with nerves or concentration. For example, if I am helping a young actor, I will watch them perform a scene, and often  proceed as part of my lesson design to ask them some basic questions: Who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Where are you going? Who are you talking to? After answering these questions, frequently the scene improves greatly without the need for any Alexander Technique hands-on work. But why?

Simple. By asking the questions, I have reminded the actor that performance is process. I have reminded them of the work that they did in rehearsal. To answer my questions, the actor has to recall both the content and the quality of thought and concentration that was needed when the answers were first created. The answers are, in effect, recreated. And so when the actor performs the scene, they have placed themselves in the creative process that enables them to work moment by moment, line by line.

This was exactly the problem that FM Alexander discovered when he was trying to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had formulated a new plan for how to use his mechanisms (his body!) in speaking, and had practiced and practiced. But he realised that, at the critical moment of going to speak, he threw it away and reverted to his older manner of use. It was only when FM found a way of continuing to think about the process he had designed up to and through the critical moment of beginning to speak, that he began to experience sustained improvement.*

So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?

  1. Remember that the performance isn’t the end point. It’s just another stage along a journey. If you’re an actor, the likelihood is that you’ll be performing the same words again the following night. If you’re a musician, you’ll have that piece of music in your repertoire for a long time. Play the long game.
  2. To play the long game, set goals for yourself that aren’t related to that particular performance. For example, for my next performance with my group Pink Noise, because we are playing a piece we know fairly well, my goal is to listen more to my colleagues and match intonations more closely.
  3. If you’re an actor, keep working on those basic questions: who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Keep looking at the script. Sometimes it will surprise you, and you’ll find something that you’ve never noticed before!

Most importantly, keep remembering that the performance is no end point. When we view performance as process, we stay in tune with our words and music, we stay in the present moment, and we will be so busy that we’ll have no time for nerves! Try it, and let me know how it turns out.

 

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.428.

 

Conquer stage fright by changing point of view

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Can you conquer stage fright by changing point of view? Or are the physical sensations of nervousness always going to get to you in the end? This is my story of how I came to realise that between physical sensations and thought patterns, thought patterns are the more destructive agent when it comes to performance anxiety.

When I was young, everyone was certain I was going to be a musician. I played flute and recorder. Recorder was my true love of the two instruments (and still is). I played in the school recorder ensembles and bands. I was always off to some rehearsal or another. I was pretty good – in spite of the fact that I never learned how to practice effectively – and was keen to go to a music school in the Netherlands to further my recorder career.*

So why didn’t I go? How did I end up where I am today?

I couldn’t cope with the nerves. Particularly before solos, my heart would race, my hands and knees would shake, my blood would pump so loudly in my ears that I could barely hear. But worse than that were the fears of getting things wrong, of disappointing people. I spent much of my time before every performance in the grip of a forecast of doom. I was convinced that my performance had to be note perfect, and that anything less was a failure.

I quit. There’s only so long that anyone can take that sort of pressure. At that time, in that place, I couldn’t conquer stage fright. It conquered me.

When I say I quit, I need to be more precise. I quit music. I didn’t quit performing. When I went to university, in addition to all the sensible courses, I enrolled in Theatre Studies for a bit of fun. It became my passion.

I loved the academic approach to theatre, but if I’m honest, I loved the acting and directing the most. And I never suffered stage fright. In fact, I didn’t really experience negative nervousness at all. Not once.

Did I feel my heart go faster before I went onstage? Yup. If anything, it went even faster. I can remember waiting backstage before one performance and wondering what the fastest heartrate recorded might be, as I thought mine at that moment probably rivalled it!

Did my hands and my knees shake? Yes. Definitely yes. When I was in Samuel Beckett’s Play, in which the three actors are encased in urns, mine could be seen vibrating!

But it never bothered me. I was having too much fun.

Now I look back and I can see that, logically, there is little difference between standing in front of an audience wearing a fake beard and carrying a sword, to standing in front of an audience with a recorder mouthpiece between my lips. But at the time, the rules and stories I told myself about each activity were very different.

Music = getting it right, being perfect, being in control, trying to block out the audience (who were ‘against’ me and judging me), getting things wrong and beating myself up for failing

Theatre = experimenting, having fun, having a sort of conversation/interplay with the audience, getting stuff wrong and trying to find a nifty way out of trouble

 

Some of the ideas within these categories may have been picked up from other people and places, but I was the one who held them together and believed them. I created paradigms that made one activity (music) a kind of living hell, and the other (theatre) a paradise of playtime. If FM Alexander had been around to see me, he would have said that he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are a major part of [her] difficulties.” **

One of the unexpected joys of studying the Alexander Technique for me was that the “mental rigidity” (FM’s words) that had fossilised my ideas about music was broken up, and my fear of playing or singing in front of audiences conquered.***

So if you want to conquer stage fright, have you considered whether your ideas and attitudes about the activity of performing might be a significant part of your difficulties? Is there a similar activity that causes you no problems at all? What is the rule that makes the difference?

And it isn’t just stage fright that can be helped by looking at hidden rules and preconceptions. Go hunting, and you may be surprised what ideas you have that rule the way you operate/behave in everyday activities.

Yes, we can conquer stage fright. And sometimes looking at how we think is the first step on the path.

* The Netherlands is one of the major centres of recorder teaching, and early music in general.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.294.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.123.
Photo of Jen in a fake beard as Face in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, 1993. Photo by Rex Bunn.

“I’m not used to this” – how careful practice overcomes stage fright

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Is stage fright normal, instinctive, and something you are born with? Or is it a learned, rules-based set of behaviours? And if this is so, can we learn new rules, so that practice overcomes stage fright?

This is an argument that occupies a lot of my working hours, because many of my students would prefer to believe that stage fright is, if not wholly, then certainly almost entirely an instinctive thing that one is born with. I, on the other hand, have come to believe that stage fright is learned. Though some people may be more predisposed than others, stage fright is largely a rules-based set of behaviours.

Why do I believe this? Because I keep encountering evidence that seems to suggest that rules play a determining role in stage fright. This week, for example, while driving through town I was lucky enough to catch a radio broadcast of one of the BBC Proms, in which the Camerata Nordica played a  gorgeous selection of British music by Britten, Tippett, and Walton. The most fascinating section of the concert for me (from a professional perspective) was when a viola player from the Camerata Nordica, Catherine Bullock, came forward to play the solo part in a late Britten work called Lachrymae. She was interviewed by BBC presenter Clemency Burton-Hill prior to performing, and was described as “inching towards the front of the stage.”

This is a portion of the short interview that followed:

Burton-Hill: What’s it like to step out of the orchestra and come to the front of the stage, as it were?
Bullock: Well obviously it’s quite scary. [laughs nervously] I’m an orchestral musician by trade, I’m not used to this.*

I was so astonished I had to stop the car! Ms Bullock is an accomplished, experienced musician. Her performance of the work following the interview was one of great depth and beauty. She has been onstage as a performer many, many times. And yet she was very nervous. Why?

Ms Bullock gives us the answer: she is an orchestral musician by trade. She is accustomed to being part of an ensemble, and so even though it is still performing, because she is used to doing it, it doesn’t bother her unduly. Being a soloist, on the other hand, is not something she is accustomed to, and it therefore is a cause for concern and worry. Put simply, she has a belief (borne of experience) that ensemble playing is normal, but solo playing is not. She has not had sufficient experience to describe herself as a practiced soloist.

I see this frequently with my students when they are faced with performing in a sphere they are not used to. A person used to teaching classes of teenagers is nervous about giving an after-dinner speech. An accomplished speaker is terrified of his first choir performance. An actor who specialises in improv experiences nerves doing a scripted play. I’m sure you have your own version of this.

So how do we deal with it? How do we ensure our nerves and our beliefs about what is normal don’t get the better of us?

  1. Accept that nerves are normal. When we do something out of our comfort zone, nerves are normal. That’s our primitive lizard brain preparing us to fight or flee. Typically, if we just accept that some nerves will happen, the extent and duration of the nerves aren’t as long.
  2. Knowledge is power. Knowing that we are being tripped up because we are doing something a little different is helpful. But knowing that, logically, it isn’t that different a situation to our comfort zone also helps.
  3. Practice overcomes stage fright. How did we end up with a comfort zone, whether it be speaking, teaching, or improv? Typically, by just getting on and doing it! The first time we try anything, we are likely to feel fear. The more familiar we are with an activity, and the more times we have success, the less stressful we are likely to find it.
    So if you are about to do something new, like performing your first solo, find a nice small friendly audience to play to first. They’ll enjoy it, and you’ll get some valuable experience under your belt. FM Alexander advised teachers of his work to set up for students a series of situations or a “a process which ensures that the pupil’s experiences will be, with rare exceptions, satisfactory experiences, which make for confidence.”**

Doing activities outside of our usual sphere is likely to be unsettling, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly frightening. If we take care of ourselves, we can rise to the challenge with enthusiasm, and succeed magnificently.

 

* Taken from http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b039c5f6/Afternoon_on_3_Proms_2013_Repeats_PSM_5_Camerata_Nordica/#programme-info, accessed 5 September 2013. It should remain available to listen to for a few more days, but only for UK residents, I fear…
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.339.
Image by Tina Phillips, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Trust Gap: why we never quite feel performance ready

This is the fifth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Week 3 was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. Last week was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity.
And this week? We stare into the depths of the trust gap!

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I’ve experienced it as a musician. I’ve experienced it as an actor and workshop leader. I certainly experienced it as a newbie runner. I bet you’ve probably experienced it too. The gnawing fear – just as you’re about to start the performance/talk/whatever – that you’re not quite performance ready.

You’ve practiced. Golly, you’ve practiced. You’ve worked hard on what you’re about to do. But at that moment, that critical moment as you move from not doing into doing, you experience a particular kind of fear.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out.

And sometimes that feeling is stronger than at other times. In my own experience, I have felt least worried about being performance ready when I’m doing something I do a lot. When I run Alexander Technique workshops, for example, the uncertainty is only momentary. And it doesn’t bother me much when I go onstage with my recorder quintet.

But when I’m doing something that is new, or when I’m doing something familiar but in a new context, I notice that the uncertainty over being performance ready is much stronger. For example, in the final week before the Bristol 10k, every training run was plagued with recurring thoughts along the lines of ‘Am I ready?’ or ‘Will I be able to make it?’ And I know a lot of people get very concerned when they start having the ‘performance ready’ jitters. They take it as a sign of something bad. I have worked with a lot of young actors, and they almost invariably think it’s a bad sign.

It’s not a bad sign.

It’s normal.

The point is, whenever you are about to go into an activity, whether it is running or acting or playing a musical instrument or hitting a tennis ball or picking up a cup of tea… Ultimately, you never know quite how it is going to turn out. Pretty much all singers will tell you that they can sing the same song, even in the same venue at pretty much the same time of day, and it will be different every time. Same with tennis balls and cups of tea.

You can do the preparation. You can get yourself to a very high standard of performance readiness. But you will never know quite how it will turn out. There will always be a chasm between preparation and performance. Practice can make the chasm smaller, but you will always need to make the jump.

And that’s the fun. That’s where the magic happens!

But it’s also where the fear happens. Because we worry about it going all wrong. We don’t want to feel the pain of failure, so we are tempted to do more than we need to in order to feel good. We are tempted, in short, to move beyond our training and lost the very sense of being performance ready that we fought so hard to attain.

This is the way FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.*

The chasm between ‘performance ready’ and performance is just a trust gap. If we trust in our preparation, we will be fine.

What comfort zones are you preparing to leave? Are you ‘performance ready’? And will you maintain the trust in your hard work and planning?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.427.
Image by federico stevanin, FreeDigitalPhotos.net