Great Expectations

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.

  1. I hadn’t thought about the impact of social media on young musicians. Or even older ones! It’s one thing when we control what is posted, but what if someone else posts it? Many of my groups post their concerts on YouTube with a private setting, so that only those invited to that link can see/hear it. Even so, yes, “infelicities” can occur. Fortunately, for one of my groups, the webmaster is benevolent and skilled and edits out sneezes, odd occurrences, and the occasional “involuntary solo.”

    Nowadays it doesn’t bother me that much to be recorded. I have heard Galway make a mistake. He acknowledged it with a twinkle in his eye as he continued to play with passion and mastery. We are all humans, we all make mistakes. If you are afraid to make a mistake, well, guess what, you ARE going to do it sooner or later, it’s what we do best. Not be perfect. It is important to get this across to students.

    Go out there, well-prepared and with confidence and make beautiful music. Know that you probably will make a mistake, but accept that and make it a beautiful mistake! If you play with fear, you will not do your best, and when the inevitable happens, it will throw you. So plan to keep going, plan to do your very best, and let the chips fall where they may. And try not to fall off the stage. The audience might notice that one. 🙂

  2. Jerry Pritchard

    Kelly, thanks for this clearly written and useful article with such specific advice. It is a very important topic that all performers need to work on, digest, and apply to their daily work. When I was a young university teacher (back in the dark ages), I think, at first, I was much too negative and direct in giving corrections. I wanted to help students change and improve, but probably hurt their confidence and prevented them from doing their best. The advanced students mostly could deal with it, apply my direct instructions, and make progress, but I had a wide range of abilities and levels of achievement .in my studio. The less advanced students did not make as much progress as I expected. Eventually, I realized that I needed to focus on the positive aspects of their playing also.

    One of the things that really impressed me and convinced of the importance of positive reinforcement was having Paula Robison for a master class on our campus. She worked with five students, some very advanced seniors, and some struggling first-year students. I gave her one student who had very obvious embouchure, tone, intonation, technique, and phrasing issues.

    Paula used the Tone Development Through Interpretation approach with relatively simple, less technical melodies. She had them work on short sections that could be focused on easily and improved quickly. She gave few direct instructions and comments about how to play the flute but worked with developing their musical imagination and a clear mental image of how the student wanted the phrase to go. She stressed aspects of what the tone was doing, where it was going, and what the musical goal was.

    And the results were phenomenal! In just 20 minutes with each student, these young flutists made such amazing progress and improvements in every aspect of their playing. The one I thought was the least advanced probably made the most progress. The 16 or so bars she “perfected” sounded like an entirely different person playing. The student was smiling, buoyant, and feeling positive about her playing and her capability. She was able to apply these techniques of musical imagination and focusing on how you wanted to flute to sound prior to putting it to your lips and playing a note. She later made good progress and played an excellent senior recital doing pieces that were within her current skill level. It wasn’t virtuosic, but it sang and communicated with the audience. I was very proud of her.

    Didn’t see her for 15 years or so and then ran into her in a shopping mall in a distant state. She had become a very successful middle school band director, still played the flute in church, a flute choir, and a community band. She loved music and was a confident person who expressed herself through music. A great artist, a star, a competition winner? No, but she played the flute with fluency and meaning. And she conveyed her positive approach to her students.

    Again, thank you for your helpful article. (Now, if I can just apply it to my own playing and turn off that critical little voice in my head that keeps sending those negative messages.)

    • Thanks for your comment, Jerry. I love your Paula Robison story. In my opinion, the greatest teachers are the ones who can find something in any student’s playing that can be addressed and improved quickly. Picking the “best” thing in a masterclass setting is a difficult skill to learn, but it’s so important that the student finds some aspect of success.

  3. Kelly, thank you for writing a well-organized article on performance anxiety that includes issues which most musicians have experienced, as well as specific solutions. While, of course, performance anxiety may be caused by a wider array of reasons than are stated, I rarely see articles that speak to concrete, usable ideas that performers or teachers can use. Your article does so from the point of view of experience, clarity, and openness. Truly excellent!

    I’d like to share that, while all reports point to the fact that children are more anxious than in previous generations, performance anxiety among musicians (including children and teens) did exist 20 and 30 and 40 or more years ago. Back then, the topic was much more “in the closet,” so no one talked about it. While our collective conversation has improved, we’re still doing a poor job of addressing performance nerves in school music programs, universities, and conservatories. Most music students, amateur performers, and professional performers and teachers aren’t familiar with the skills for confident performing. Your article does a fine job of helping teachers think about how to decrease a stressful learning and performing environment. In my experience as a performance anxiety coach for the past 16 years, I believe (without having done a formal study) that your guess that 80% of students having performance anxiety is likely too low. My guess is that about 98% of performing musicians experience nerves, although many aren’t incapacitating.

    I encourage you to write further on this topic! There are articles out there which are empty of real help to those who need it. Perhaps you can offer further assistance.

    With kindest regards,
    Helen Spielman
    Performance Anxiety Coach

    • Kelly Mollnow Wilson

      Thanks, Helen. In my work as a Body Mapping instructor at Oberlin Conservatory, I would agree that 98% of my students have some type of “nervy” experience at times. Just this week, we discussing the difference between excitement-type nerves and debilitating “I can’t possibly walk out there and open my mouth to sing” nerves. They all experience the former and some experience the latter, but not on a full-time basis. Dana Fonteneau from Whole-Hearted Musician talks about fear and exhilaration being opposite sides of the same coin.

  4. Terrific article, Kelly. Thanks for putting these issue so clearly. My suggestion for to help students and all of us get in touch with our inner musicality is to nurture our creative selves on a DAILY BASIS. Which, put simply, means improvising for a few minutes or more — every day.

    The thrust of your article — which I agree with wholeheartedly — is that we play the flute in order to play music, not the other way round. And so I feel it’s important to go directly to the music that’s within us first, and then to work on triangulating that musicality through the vision of a composer.

    • Kelly Mollnow Wilson

      Thank you. I will incorporate your improvisation suggestion into my work with my students. I find this skill is sadly absent in many of the students I work with during the semester. My 10 year electric guitar player loves to improvise and does so with curiosity and no fear.

  5. Cindy, I agree with you. We, as teachers, need to keep stressing that it’s not about being perfect. It’s about creating and sharing a musical experience with the audience. Back in my band director days, one of my fellow directors did indeed fall off the stage and the audience definitely noticed! ~ Kelly W.

  6. Some years back I read a book called Music in the Recorded Era. It pointed out many differences in performance before music could be recorded. For example, lots of symphony orchestras consisted of players who were substitutes, and often last minute subs. In London, for example, a violinist would look for the best paying job and jump on it. So think of what level of “perfection” that would generate! Early recordings were limited by the length of time the equipment could run, often 2 1/2 minutes. The famous Schnabel recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas were made that way. Imagine having that limitation! Now recordings can be edited and re-edited for perfection. I totally agree that recorded music can be both inspirational and intimidating.

    I also forbid parents at my recitals from making videos of anyone but their own family members unless they have permission to do so. There is no telling where those videos could end up. It is also possible for people to make family FB groups and show those videos just to families rather than to their whole list of friends.

    Thanks for writing this and reminding teachers and students alike to learn more about how nervousness affects performance.

  7. A most enjoyable read, Kelly, one of the best I’ve read on this topic. Love the comments from others, too!

    Times have definitely changed since I was a young student and teacher. Your first point about access to recordings on social media is spot on – to the point that not only are young players faced with incredible odds, but I often feel that playing the flute is not as “special” as it was before we saw virtually everyone playing it (but that’s for another article) . While the overwhelming presence of clean performances is more intimidating today, I’m reminded that even in my day, we felt the need to be as perfect as the LPs (those round discs…) of famous flutists. When I studied with Albert Tipton in Aspen, I was THRILLED to hear him admit that a “lick” in the Dutilleux was hard for him, too. My relief was palpable and freeing.

    Your point about negative feedback is so key when working with/affecting another person’s efforts/ego. I was close friends with a composer for many years, often soft premiering his works. His approach usually began with a negative comment, and in one instance when I played a piece in preparation for a recording, even his spouse elbowed him and said, “Honey, why don’t you say something nice first?” One flute choir conductor who commissioned a piece found his “error detection” approach during a rehearsal so off-putting, she told me privately she questioned their efforts to raise the money at all. Clearly words matter, and a bit of encouragement can last a lifetime.

    Thankfully, my approach to teaching (and learning) is constantly evolving. I’m keenly aware that my once rigid views – not only on how to hold, tongue, and blow the flute, but also my teaching/motivation philosophy – have softened. Just look at some of the embouchures and hand positions on the internet; it’s too clear that not one size fits all flute players.

    Excellent article!

  8. Glad you enjoyed the article! The evolution of teaching and learning is a life long process that requires curiosity and a willingness to explore different things and different points of view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.