My husband has this really neat granddaughter, who is currently living nearby while she attends university. I enjoy hanging out with her, and we have the greatest discussions about things. Recently we had a lovely chat about public presentations. This lovely young lady studies theater arts and frequently acts in various productions. She talked about how difficult she finds public speaking, and this surprised me because of how successful she is as an actress.
Nerves are nothing new to a performing musician. As a teacher, I see many students battle the issue of nervousness before and during performances. Recently I heard from a friend who had been successfully working through Toastmasters. She gave a brief presentation to an audience right before her string quartet performance. Normally my friend is not nervous to play quartet recitals, but in this instance my friend was amazed to discover she found herself with a case of nerves after she gave her speech and just in time for the recital performance. I had a similar experience myself. I gave program notes right before one of our quartet performances. Although I am no stranger to public speaking and find it quite easy to do, I was surprised in this instance to find that it took me well into the second page of music before my "nerves" quieted down to normal.
I understand the physical aspects of nervousness. Our body produces adrenaline, which is part of the body's "fight or flight" response. People experience this influx of higher adrenaline levels in various ways: heart pounding, shaky hands, cold hands and fingers, trembling knees, or pounding in the ears. How can one handle this? Many musicians resort to beta blockers, such as inderal or propranolol. Someone who has heart problems and needs to take this medication might use 800 mg per day. A musician or other performing artist may use 10 mg on occasion. The purpose of this medication is to keep the adrenaline flow the same as normal. The medication is available through prescription only because certain people who might need an adrenaline increase should not take this medication, such as asthmatics.
I am fascinated by the subject of how to handle a case of nerves or what causes them in the first place. I have not done any formal research but instead rely on my observations. When a student presents me with a case of nerves, I try to dig down deeper and figure out what the person's self-talk is. What is the person saying to him- or herself? What is the person thinking? The answers provide me with clues of how I can help the student to manage any performance jitters.
Usually the student tells me something along the lines of worrying about playing well and avoiding an embarrassing performance. The student worries about what the audience might think about him or her. The student wants to make a good impression. The student wants the listeners to think well of the student and the performance. The student wants to play better than another performer or wants the audience to think that the student plays better in comparison to someone else. Perhaps the student is highly critical of him-or herself and makes this same critical evaluation of other student's performances.
I would like to point out that in the above suggestions, the student is looking inward. The thought process and subject matter are all about the student. I think this inward train of thought is the root cause of much of a student's performance anxiety. All the ingredients for performance anxiety are available. The student's thoughts have set up the strong possibility of failing. Once the student has a bad experience (or less than a good one), the student is likely to perpetuate the experience with the next performance, a phenomenon I refer to as "looking over your shoulder for the tiger." A psychiatrist friend once told me that someone in India would grow up with the imminent danger of tigers and would frequently check over their shoulder for tigers. Then when the person came to New York, he might still look over his shoulder for tigers because that is what he was accustomed to do. A similar experience happens when a performer experiences performance anxiety. Once the performer experiences the danger of tigers, the performer continues to look over the shoulder for another tiger. The mind is very powerful; the mind will create the tiger vision if you look hard enough for it.
As a young child, I used to read a series of books about a nurse named Cherry Ames. I recall when she did her surgical rotation. Cherry had looked forward to the rotation because she had thought she wanted to be a surgical nurse. However, Cherry found instead that she did not do as good a job as a surgical nurse as she needed to do, and her supervisor discussed with Cherry that she needed to improve her skill at anticipating what the surgeon would need next and being ready. Cherry eventually solved her situation by spending time with the patients before the surgery. Because Cherry got to know the patients personally, she became more invested in the job she did on behalf of the patient as a nurse. She found that she was more involved in the surgical process because she wanted to do the best she could for the benefit of the patient she had come to know.
I would like to suggest that we turn our focus around and look outward. I help my students build a connection with the audience, whether it is to entertain or to lead the listeners into an enjoyable experience. Sometimes it helps my student to go visit the audience a few minutes before a performance so that the student gets "to know" something about the audience members. I teach my students to sense the energy in the air from the listeners. We learn how to "feel" when the audience is listening and not to start playing until the attention is upon us. I teach students how to notice when the audience enjoys the performance and how to encourage the audience to become even more interested.
Recently one of my high school students auditioned at various colleges. I was amused to hear her description of what the various audition panel members did during the audition. My student informed me about which panels paid attention when she played and which ones did not. How did you know? I asked. My student told me that she stood there ready to begin and waited until she felt the panel pay attention ("like you taught me," she said). She said only one professor on this particular panel was listening. She made up her mind that she did not want to attend that school. "They weren't interested in me. Why should I be interested in them?" This is one student who has learned how to look outward and feel the connection with the audience!
One of my other students once told me that she pretends she is the character "Michelle," which was a part she played years ago in a community play. When my student becomes "Michelle," she has no trouble with nerves and performs beautifully.
Back to my husband's granddaughter (such a neat gal!) and our discussion about nervousness and public speaking. When I asked her why she was not nervous when performing as an actress, she told me that she was acting in character. Her purpose was to make a connection between her character and the audience. She was working to make her audience believe her character was real.
It is Monday Morning again. I wonder how many things we do this week have our focus turned inward. Do we have the spotlight trained on us? Can we turn our focus around and shine the spotlight on others?