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COMBATTING MUSICAL PERFORMANCE ANXIETY

Combatting musical performance anxiety


Karen O'Connor in conversation with Daniel Moult Imagine the scene; you're a professional organist with manv years' experience of performing at the highest level. You're pacing around in a cramped vestry two minutes before vour recital performance is due to begin. You're dressed in the suit which only comes out for very special occasions, and a few moments from now you will walk out into the nave where an expectant audience will greet you witb warm and enthusiastic applause - you hope. They ^^^^^^^^ have come to listen to Y O U especiallv because you are respected in your field And ha\f a reputation built up over years of radio and TV appearances and award-winning recordings. At this crucial preperformance , feeling rather more clammy than is helpful for total control of the flourish
in the first bar {'Why did I cboose this piece to open my programme?'), you force

a smile on your face and walk out to meet your executioner, also known as the audience! Does this scenario sound far-fetched? Not to Karen O'Connor, an oboist in the City of Birmingham Symphonv Orchestra (CBSO) who has listened to

You take a few breaths and try to think deep, relaxing thoughts to counteract your gremlin's insistence that your performance will selfdestruct any time soon and then suddenly the moment arrives.. .[you] walk out to meet your executioner, also known as the audience!

puzzled, wasn't her playing a reflection of all the hard work she'd put in? Put another way, she felt she'd left her best performance at home. Soon after this, Karen heard a radio programme during which a sports psychologist, then working with OHmpic athletes and a Premiership football club, described the importance of mental preparation and how getting the best out of the mind increases the chances of getting the best out ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ of tbe body. He went on to describe that whilst there is little

tP^>^' ^^i'>or technically separate

moment, however, you become aware of that familiar gremlin which has put in its usual imptxcablv timed appearance somewbere between your ears and is whispering: 'Bet that tricky bit
at the top of page 3 goes wrong again', followed bv: 'And when it does, "x"(?c\\ow

professional in the audience) will notice


and talk about me behind my hack'; and then:' iVhy am I doing this? There must he an easier and more eniovable way of earning d living. In fact why don't I go and do something else right now?' You take a few

breaths and try to think deep, relaxing thoughts to counteract vour gremlin's insistence that your performance will self-destruct any time soon and then suddenly thr moment arrives. With this nieiitai chatter by now in full voice, your heart pounding and your hands

numerous performers recalling similar performance experiences, because when she's not playing the oboe, she works as a Performance Coach with professional and student instrumentalists and singers from around the UK and beyond. Organists are a part of her client group, or as she calls them, her 'performers'. Her role as a Performance Coach is one that has evolved over many years and dates back to a disappointment during 'takes' of the CBSO recording of
Ravel's C major Piano Concerto, when she

found herself struggling to plav technically demanding passages flawlessly time after time (such are the demands of recording sessions) yet she had been able to achieve exactly this whilst practising in her music room. Why, she

the fine specimens of humanitv on the start line of an Olympic fmal, the diOerence between a g(jld and silver medal performance, i.e. ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ - those vital centimetres or seconds which can transform an ordinary performance into an extraordinary one, can generally be traced back to the strength contained \\ ithin the top six inches of the head. With a lifetime's interest and participation in sport, and recalling her recording session frustration, Karen was intrigued by wbat musicians might be able to learn from decades of sport science research, so she contacted tbe psychologist vsho, sharing her enthusiasm, recommended that she study for a degree in psychology. Several years followed with Karen juggling a busy professional performing life with Open Universitv assignments, summer schools and exams, often using coach journeys and long flights to catch up on her reading. Her CBSO colleagues were similarly
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COMBATTING MUSICAL PERFORMANCE ANXIETY

Karen is.. .a University Fellow for Teaching and Learning with her performance workshops and individuallytailored coaching sessions playing an increasingly important part in the lives of the students, including organ students, as they all strive to get the best out of themselves in the testing, competitive environment ofa music conservatoire.
curious and enthusiastic about where her studies were leading and would often volunteer either themselves or their children as participants in her research. George Caird, Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, also became aware that Karen was studying psychology and having long been interested in providing physical and mental support systems for young performers, he invited Karen to work with one of his own oboe students. The student in question didn t have specific playing problems but admitted to rarely feeling satisfied with performances she had yiven. Within a few weeks, however, not only bad she jjone on to win several major scholarships, but she also bad an increased level of satisfaction in that when it mattered, she had performed more consistently and closer to her poti'ntial. From these small beginnings, Birniinabam Conservatoire's innovative ( _ oachinq in Performing Skills programme was born and six years later Karen is now a University Fellow for Teaching and Learning with her perlormancf workshops and indiNiduallvtailored coaching sessions playing an increasingly important part in the lives of the students, including organ students, as they all strive to get the best out of themselves in the testing, competitive environment of a music conservatoire.
66 Organists' Review February 2008

An important stipulation of her Coaching programme, and one of the main reasons that Staff and students have so readily 'bought into' it, is that Karen will never work with a student without the written consent of the Head of tbe relevant Department and most importantly, the student's first study tutor. Having been through the music conservatoire system berself, she appreciates the significance of these pre existing relationships and believes her specialist input should enhance, not impede, the team cfjort. Within this collaborative framework, students are normally allocated up to five one hour sessions with Karen, sufficient time for her to introduce them to wavs of managing the mental element of the performing etjuation. Her immediate task is to find out wbat the student has been exf>eriendng during lessons, recitals, exams, au<litions, competitions, etc. The kind of performance issues which organ students have outlined to her include lack of motivation to practise, a fear of making unexpected (or expected!) mistakes in spite of having prepared thoroughly, feeling on the 'back foot' because of coming to the organ relatively late in their youth, a memory of a poor past performance inhibiting confidence for future ones, physical problems sucb as sweaty or trembling hands, someone

playing competently at the beginning of a piece then going on concentration 'walkabout' resulting in 'eternal musical chaos' - in reality probably only a second or two, but deeply disturbing nonetheless. The training techniques which Karen's performers explore in tbeir quest for a more satisfactory and satisfying musical lile include setting realistic practice and performance goals tougher for some than il sounds, mental rehearsal, breathing and relaxation techniques, ways of improving concentration, detailed performance simulation, pre- and during-performance routines and objective post-performance evaluation. Homework tasks between sessions are a kev component of the coaching process, giving performers tbe opportunity to apply tbeir burgeoning skills to their daily playing ii\es away from the consulting room. Karen's aim is for performers to acquire without delay the mental building blocks and independence to make ber redundant equally as speedily! What do some of these coaching techniques involve? Wben it comes to realistic goal-setting, Karen initially asks
performers: 'HTiat kind of performance / audition, etc., wouldyou like to give?' or ' When you look back on your performance, etc., how wouldyou have liked it to bave fccen?'Typical responses might be: 'perfect', 'flawless', 'My very best playing", or '/In audition tbat won me the job'.

These are all totally understandable responses, yet for a performer who is already looking ahead to the performance witb some trepidation, these kinds of performance aims not only bring additional pressure to avoid making mistakes, but tbey also place the performer's ego, rather than the music, as the most important goal. An approach needs to be found which will help the performer set an imaginative, realistic performance goal without, of course, lowering standards. To do this Karen asks the performer to tell her about the chosen music as if she didn't know it and for the performer to persuade her why she should purchase a ticket to hear the recital programme or piece. This time the answers to tbe questions above migbt be adjectives

COMBATTING MUSICAL PERFORMANCE ANXIETY

such as: 'thrilling', 'dramatic', 'emotional', 'colourful', 'stylish'.. .the list is endless,

and by making the choice to think in this way AND by finding ways of integrating tbis new thinking into daily practice regimes, particularlv in those vital momi'nts before putting fingers on tbe keys and feet on the pedals, the focus shifts and performers often report that they played well after all and with increased performance satisfaction. Are you well-practised at stopping? Karen finds that many performers are unwittingly excellent stoppers! You know the kind of thing - as soon as a mistake is made in practice, vou go back and repeat tbat tricky passage over and over until it feels more secure. Of course, it's an important part of performance preparation to go through ihe hard graft of note-learning but often it can mean that the first true run-through ofa piece is at the public e\ent! Many of you migbt respond with
'that doesn't apply to me becau.se I always run my pieces before the day and wear my

Understandably, Karen is wary of giving general advice to combat destructive performance anxictv, as each individual will benefit from different techniques and strategies. She does emphasise, however, that these techniques need building into regular instrumental practice if they are to become effective. A 'top ten' of strategies (some of which you may wish to adopt) might include:

exercise really does calm performers! Good sleep and some moderate intensity exercise leading up to a potentially stressful situation is excellent preparation.

Be physically prepared
Build in I'.M.R. (progressive muscle relaxation) and Deep Breathing into your pre-performance ritual even if you think vou won't need it!

Be musically prepared
There's no substitute for 100% secure preparation! This will probably include fingering and pedalling markings and an inner sense that, all things being equal, we could deliver a totally secure and musically sensitive performance.

Rehearse the occasion


what potentially scares you? Tbe first few bars of a concertPThe ofTertory hymn? Going from the final hymn into a voluntary? Ensure that VOU'XL' already visited the occasion in vour mind: practise as if you're really in that situation. You should feel the adrenaline if you're practising this successfully, antl you should be in the same room and

Healthy body - healthy mind


Many scientific studies show that

organ shoes'. Excellent, but did you also |)ractise the performance day? Or tbe pre-performance half-hour? As part of performance simulation training, Karen encourages her pertormers to take a (li-E,iik-d look at narrowing the gap betwfi-n practice and the 'real thing', including playing tlirough tbe recital programme at the performance time, planning the hours before performance, the two minutes before, walking in, what to do between pieces or in(vements, planning for memory lapses, expecting tbe unexpected - so that when it comes to the performance day, many aspects about it have a lamiliar feeling. In a recent performance workshop, Karen asked several of her performers what their 'message in a bottle' might be ior others who had no idea about what mental skills training entailed. These are some ol ihe rcspon.ses she received: 'The
\malle}it mental changes can make the biggest perjormance Jifjerenccs'; 'learn how to get the best out of yourself in order to produce a successful performance'; 'It can make vou ibink about yourseljin a new light and be more aware of the potential you can reach'

and one performer summarised it in a


single word: 'Essential!'
Karen O'Connor rehearsing witb the CBSO
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COMBATTING MUSICAL PERFORMANCE ANXIETY

maybe wearing the same outfit too, so that you are really running the performance situation in advance!

Visualise the occasion


Sit somewhere quiet and undisturbed and picture the occasion in exact detail. You're the cameraman! If you revert to [)anic or lose control when you watch your performance, stop, rewind and rerecord! You want an imaginary video of vou in 100% control, on top form. It helps if you can experience the room when you practise this could you do this undisturbed in your venue?

stop point scoring and end up focussing on the music. This should stop the 'vicious circle' eflect of making more mistakes after an initial slip and refocus you on the music and not on your ego!

Experiment...
with these suggestions some may work for vou, some not but never accept defeat!

Practise... Challenge your thinking errors


It's vitally important that we practise 'good psychology' feeling confident wben we practise, letting go of negative thoughts immediately, replacing them with positive thoughts. If you feel negative often when you practise, do you need to change your practice habits? whichever ideas work for you mental training can become an integral part of your routine along with pedal exercises or learning Sundav's hymns! For further reading on tbis fascinating topic, try: ed. Aaron Williamon, Musical Excellence, OUP, 2004; Dr Bob Rotella, Goljis not a Game of'Perfect, Pocket Books, 2004;
Kate Jones, Keeping your Nerve. Faber

Record yourself- regularly!


This is excellent for musical, as well as for psychological, feedback particularly if vou leave at least 24 hours between recording and playback! Don't stop wben vou record yourself on minidisc or cassette etc. Repeat, repeat, repeat tbe process. Are you starting to enjoy tbe music and worry less about your ego if there is a small slip or inconsistencyPThis needs to be done routinely to take eflect! Dantel Moult

Music, 2000.

Use points and/or cards


Give yourself a 95 or 90% score to achieve. Whenever anything is not perfect and frustrates you, say 'minus l%'...you

Daniel Moult bas an active career as a concert organist and ortjan tutor. He performs throughout tbe UK and teaches at the Royal College of Music Junior Department, St Giles' international Organ School and Birmingham Conservatoire. Educated in Manchester, Oxford and Amsterdam and a prizewinner at FRCO, Daniel bas previously beld posts at Chetham's School of Music, Coventry Cathedra! and the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. In addition to workshops and masterclasses tor various ortjan courses, he oxairunes for the RCO and the ABRSM. His articles on perlormance practice and performance related topics have appeared in various organ journals and be broadcasts frequently on the BBC. He is also the Artistic Director of tbe London Ortjan Day. His 2008 itinerary takes bim acToss the UK, Australia and Germany as an organ soloist, accompanist and liroadcaster, as well as directing and tutoring on various national courses and recording a DVD of Mozart's organ music.

LINCOLN
CATHEDRAL

Ill

ORGAN MUSIC 2008


SUNDAYS AT 5.15 PJVI.
Admission Tree - retiring collection Keith Hearnshaw {Droitwich) Colin Walsh (Lincoln) Charles Harrison (Lincoln) Nicholas Grigsby and Max Kenworthy Organ duet (New Zealand)

Clifton Cathedral

2 March 9 March 16 March 29 June

Organ Recitals 2008


May 10 James O'Donnell
Ori;anist & Mastt:r ol tin- Clioristers, Westminster Abbi'y

MONDAYS AT 7.00 P.M. Admission 6


24 March 21 April 5 May 26 May 9 June 23 June 14 July 25 August Philip Rushforth (Chester) fTederic Bianc (Paris) Martin Neary (London) Robertn Marini (Tcramo. Italy) John Wells (Aiiclcland. New Zealand) Hans Hiclscher (Wiesbaden, Oennany) Stephen Tharp (New York. USA) Colin Walsh (Lincoln)

May 17 Stephen Bryant


Organist, Clilton Cathedral

May 24 John Gibbons


Choral Uin-itor, Clitlon Cathedral

ORGAN EXTRAVAGANZA WITH CARLO CURLEY Monday 6 October 7.30 p.m. Admission 8
For details: 01522 561600 www.linrnlnrHthMlrnl.rnni or www.coiinwulsh.rd.iik

Recitals start at 7.30pm Admission: 1 0 / 1 7


(inc. glass of wine)

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Organists' Review February 2008