In the past week, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to teach students from three different collegiate music programs in two different states. The programs are completely different in terms of size, funding, and facilities, but all three have fantastic teachers and students who work hard and want to become better musicians and educators.
As I talked to the various teachers and students, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them reported that they struggle with performance anxiety. In my own college class this semester, at least 80% of the students deal with some degree of anxiety on a daily basis. Why is this so prevalent? I discussed it with a former undergraduate classmate of mine during a grant proposal writing session, and she said “I don’t remember this being an issue at all back in our day.” (Full disclosure – I’m 46). So why this onslaught of anxious kids?
I have several ideas….
First, students of today have almost instant access to as many high quality recordings of their repertoire as they can stream through Spotify or Apple Music before they blow out the data plan for the month. They seem to expect that they have to perform like the recordings, without considering that many of these recordings are not live performances—sound engineers can do amazing things! There is tremendous value in listening to live performances, warts and all. Things happen—entrances are missed, notes are flubbed, intonation goes out the window, breathing gets discombobulated. So what? What’s the goal of performance? In my opinion, it is to authentically communicate with the audience. Is absolute perfection necessary for this to happen? I don’t think so, but my college students disagree.
Second, music students are and always have been trained in error detection. On the dictation exam in Aural Skills, you don’t get 1 point for each note you get right—you lose points for the ones you get wrong. We are quick to focus on the aspects of our playing that we don’t like and the sections that we played incorrectly. If you’re the teacher, I challenge you to observe your language with your students. How many times to you start off with a negative comment? What would happen if you said something positive before the negative comment? I’m not advocating for tons of positive reinforcement when it’s not appropriate, because that’s a different problem!
Third, many music students are in competitive programs from a very young age. They are auditioning and competing in middle school. There is pressure to win, pressure to successfully audition for the youth orchestra or music camp, and this pressure never lets up.
Fourth, the relationship that many music students have with social media can be harmful. They are afraid to perform badly because somebody might post it to YouTube and then it’s out there in the world forever. Gone are the days when you can make a mistake and the only people who know about it are the ones actually in the room. Now mistakes live on forever through social media. They are constantly on their phones seeing what everybody else is doing, measuring themselves against others without understanding that the social media story is never the whole story! Most people don’t write about daily struggles on Facebook because they don’t want the whole world to know. What students see there is only a fraction of what’s actually going on in the minds of their peers.
How do we help our students with this problem? Perhaps we can approach the whole thing from the perspective of realistic vs. unrealistic expectations. In the age of reality TV, sometimes this distinction is hard to reveal.
Here are some unrealistic expectations that I have heard from my students:
~ They have to get every aspect of the piece correct in order for it to be an effective performance.
~ They have to practice a minimum of xx hours per day.
~ If they fail, it means that they didn’t care enough.
~ If they can’t play “IT” up to tempo, then they’re no good.
~ Real musicians don’t get nervous for performances.
How can these unrealistic expectation be reframed in more realistic terms? Perhaps the answer can be found in considering if the actual goal is even realistic.
Is it realistic to expect absolute perfection in a live performance? Does that ever happen for anyone? What if the goal were to be musically convincing?
What if practice were organized into reachable goals, instead of a required number of hours? How about practicing the things that really need attention and not practicing so much of the stuff that is already well learned? If trouble lies in the big ending, why not start there instead of the beginning? What if these goals were written down so they could be monitored over the course of the week?
What if students were taught that we learn through failure? How much of what we learn do we do absolutely right on the first try? Failure offers a chance to refine and improve.
What if instead of saying “I can’t get it up to tempo”, the student said “I can’t get it up to tempo YET?”
What if students learned that “scared” and “exhilarated” are opposite sides of the same coin? Dana Fonteneau of Whole-Hearted Musician tells a story of zip-lining for the first time where she was screaming because she was scared and then, the next second, she was screaming because she was exhilarated because she was actually doing it!
Teachers aren’t immune from the unrealistic expectation trap. At some point, we have to realize and accept that we cannot reach every student we have. While doing a presentation for a large group of music students this week, I was initially annoyed that I wasn’t reaching the kids in the very back row. Then I remembered the “Rule of Thirds.” I don’t remember where I first heard this, but it states that for every performance (presentation), 1/3 of the audience will love it, 1/3 will not like it, and the final 1/3 will be somewhere in the middle. I realized that my expectation needed to be reframed.
There are physical choices one can make that will help with performance anxiety, but they will not be tremendously effective if the initial expectation and goal are not realistic. The way we can help our students build confidence is to help them set realistic goals which they can then consistently fulfill. Teachers can help students understand that they lose every time they let someone else define their success. What if students looked at this quote every time they came in for a lesson: “There is only one way to avoid criticism – do nothing, say nothing and be nothing” ~ Aristotle. People are going to criticize and if students can learn to be OK with that, then maybe realistic expectations can be more easily created.