Mindfulness Strategies to Conquer Music Performance Anxiety
By Haley Shapiro
As an instructor of piano lessons, Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) can affect musicians of all ages and skill levels. While a certain level of adrenaline is necessary for an inspired performance, those with MPA are producing too much adrenaline for any positive outcome to be achieved.
MPA can result in poor performance quality, cause avoidance of performance, and often the musician ultimately ceases to study.
Mindfulness strategies can help combat MPA, while also creating a more positive musical learning experience and deeper musical understanding. A simple definition of mindfulness is to have awareness for and be engaged in the experience of the present moment. It is a practice of controlling the focus of attention and observing thoughts without judgment. These are skills that musicians need for quality of performance. For example, if the observation and acknowledgement of mistakes without judgment is encouraged during rehearsals, it could prevent students from reacting with stress after making a mistake, thus allowing for productive practice to continue and potentially reducing overall MPA.
when I’m teaching piano lessons, I like to employ mindfulness techniques whether or not my student is experiencing MPA. They can assist with memory, attention, creativity, awareness, communication, collaboration, muscle memory/fatigue, listening skills, and enjoyment of playing music. Here are some of the mindfulness strategies I recommend to my students:
- Emotional Intelligence (EI)
Emotional Intelligence (EI) is key for a better understanding of one’s own emotions and the emotions in the music. Playing music calls for a high emotional granularity, or the ability to precisely specify emotions. I believe it is the job of all music teachers to facilitate this understanding in their students for a stronger musical interpretation. How can a musician convey an emotion to an audience when he/she has no understanding of it? Additionally, EI is crucial for optimal enjoyment and performance level (state of flow). This is key for musicians with MPA, because how are they to manage such strong emotions if they have no understanding of them? Having a safe space for emotional openness, where emotions can be acknowledged and discussed is so important in conquering the anxiety. Teachers must also make students aware that emotions come and go; this is true for both humans and music, and we must allow them to come and go without judgment, or we will become consumed by them. As emotions are held in the body, releasing the negative emotions will allow for more openness in the body and less tension.
- Relaxation Breathing Training (RBT)
Studies have shown that Relaxation Breathing Training (RBT), in both children and adult musicians, reduce MPA. RBT involves relaxing the body while breathing deeply in through the nose, and exhaling fully through the mouth. Students are invited to find a comfortable seated position, close their eyes, and release tension from the body one step at a time. These instructions can be accompanied with calm background music. As MPA typically increases more and more as the time of performance approaches, it is best to engage in RBT in the half hour prior to a performance for optimal results.
- 3. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing, is a yogic breathing exercise that is very calming and helps to clear the mind. The Sanskrit name is Nadi (channel/flow) Shodhana (purification). I definitely recommend practicing this prior to performances. This practice involves using fingers of the right hand to close off one nostril, so air can travel in through one side, and then the seal is switched so the air can be released through the other side. The index and middle fingers of the right hand are folded down, and the thumb is placed on the right nostril, while the ring and pinky fingers are placed on the left nostril. Begin by inhaling and exhaling completely through both sides. Next, seal the right nostril and inhale through the left. Then switch the seal and exhale through the right side. Inhale through the right side, switch the seal, and exhale through the left. Inhale through the left, switch the seal, and exhale through the right. Continue this pattern.
Musicians who meditate every day report feeling an increase in relaxation and a decrease in tension. Some people believe that the goal of meditation is to have zero thoughts, and this is not true. Thoughts are going to naturally occur. The goal is to act as an observer of these thoughts, and allow them to pass on by, like clouds moving across the sky. The thoughts should not affect you, or cause a rippling effect of new thoughts. Meditation teaches you to fall into the gaps between thoughts. It teaches that you are not your thoughts, and you are not at the mercy of your thoughts. If you can see through the mind-clutter, all of these thoughts that happen constantly, you will find your center, and this is your true self, which nothing can disturb. Musicians need to stay focused on this pure center, and not become distracted with mind-clutter while playing. Meditation reduces mind-clutter through practicing an attitude of non-judgment and non-attachment towards thoughts that do not positively serve us. Less mind-clutter reduces anxiety, promotes better awareness for the present moment, and stronger reflective skills. Over time, practicing consistent meditation will naturally result in less thoughts occurring. Try combining meditation with one of the breathing techniques from above!
To meditate, find a comfortable seated position, and gently close your eyes. Hands can rest on knees, perhaps with palms facing down to promote grounding energy. Allow yourself to breathe naturally for a few cycles of breath, and then begin to focus on the slight adjustments in your body as you inhale and exhale. If you do not prefer to focus on the breath, maybe focus on the flame of a candle instead. Let your thoughts go, and simply breathe. Meditating for even just a moment can make a world of difference!
- Performance Visualization
We have all had a “what-if” thought in our lives – it is likely we have had many more than just one. “What if I make a mistake?” “What if I am too nervous to play?” “What if they don’t like me?” But sometimes these what-if thoughts can take over, escalate, and become haunting. This can often be the case with MPA. Visualizing a positive performance experience can help to negate the stress of the what-ifs, and eventually replace them. I believe this strategy also helps to manifest that positive experience into existence, as opposed to putting out the chance of a negative experience into the world.