How many times in your piano teaching career have you sent a perfectly prepared piano student on stage only to see her completely crumble under the pressure? Have you wondered if there is more you can do to help her conquer stage fright?
Today we’re interviewing Dr. Noa Kageyama, a faculty member at Julliard in NYC and at the New World Symphony in Miami where he helps accomplished musicians prepare for the most important auditions and competitions of their lives.
Read on to find out how you can help your piano students to perform to the best of their ability when it really counts.
Overcoming Performance Anxiety and Becoming “Bulletproof”
Okay Noa, tell us a bit about yourself and your musical life.
I started at a pretty early age. My parents tell the story that it was my idea from the start… that I would walk around as a very young child saying to them “Noa likes music”. I had some cousins who had already started playing violin, so they had tiny violins, and I happened to live in Ithaca in New York which, at the time, was starting some Suzuki programs, so I went out there for a summer. I was two and a half at the time and it just kind of grew from there.
When I was 5 years old and in kindergarten, my mom had become an avid reader of Dr. Suzuki. He was already old at the time, but she was really convinced that I should study with him before he became too old to teach. So she cold-called him and wrote letters and made it happen and I was able to go out there for about 6 months and study with him. I had those performance experiences you hear of where hundreds of children are all playing at the same time in a huge hall. It continued to grow from there – competitions, summer festivals, the whole deal and eventually ended up with me as a graduate student at Julliard.
I read in your bio that you first became interested in the psychology of performance after attending a course put on by an Olympic sport psychologist. Can you tell us why that was an “aha” moment for you and how sport psychology has shaped what you are doing now?
Dr. Don Greene was the sports psychologist who started teaching a course at Julliard. He didn’t really know much about music… he loved it… but didn’t play an instrument or anything. He started working with musicians, discovering how both the discipline and the creative aspect related to athletes who were involved in visual sports like diving. All of the skills that he had developed in his sports psychology degree were really relevant to musicians.
To be honest I just took the course out of curiosity and as a way of getting out of more music history and theory classes! But even from the very first day I started hearing these concepts that no one had ever shared with me; practicing more effectively, memorizing more effectively, managing performance anxiety… all these things that were questions that I’d had growing up and that no one had really ever answered for me. And now here was this military guy teaching us things that actually made a significant impact on our performance quality… and even how we prepared.
So let’s talk performance anxiety – on your blog you break it down into 3 Components of Anxiety and 2 Types of Anxiety. Can you share a bit more about this with our readers?
There’s a few different things that happen (during a performance) that we’re all familiar with. For one, when we get on stage, there’s a lot of mental pressure and we start worrying about things…we start thinking of worst case scenarios. We’re not able to think as clearly as we’d like to. We start feeling things emotionally; perhaps a sense of dread or foreboding or sometimes feeling blocked or tired in an emotional way. And then there are physical things; we get tight, sweaty hands, a headache, brows furrowed, shoulders up your ears, a pounding heart, our breathing changes… there are so many things happening that sometimes they snowball into something worse than it started out as.
When you start looking at the research, what’s really fascinating to me is that they’ve been able to break anxiety into two different parts; the physical or somatic part and the mental part. What they find is that even though the physical stuff does matter and can interfere, the mental effects of anxiety tend to be more predictive of performance quality than the somatic or physical things that happens.
I once had a teacher who would say to me “It’s good to be nervous. It keeps you on your toes!” – is there any truth to to this? Is there a good side to performance anxiety?
It’s an interesting thing; my wife is a pianist and so I have a soft spot in my heart for pianists and in talking with her I can see how anxiety affects pianists differently; pianists have more notes to worry about than do string players. She actually, at this point, doesn’t prepare as much as she should, and what she’s found is that if she feels that she’s over-prepared she gets to this place where she’s over confident and takes things for granted and is not as focussed as she needs to be in performance. And it doesn’t mean that she’s not prepared at all, it just means that she doesn’t hammer things over and over to the point of where it feels robotic or that she doesn’t really have to “be there” in performance.
And if you look at the research, this model they have of how anxiety affects performance has changed a bit. The most important thing to know is that anxiety is not perhaps the right word to describe what happens to us. It has a negative connotation. But think of a time when you weren’t quite sure if you were excited or nervous. Because physiologically, the two are very similar: your heart’s beating, you get a bit sweaty, you get tight, your mind’s racing. And so what sports psychologists tend to use is the word arousal or activation to describe the physiological things that are happening.
Anxiety is more the worry, fears and doubts that happen in those situations. And those certainly aren’t helpful to performance, but the activation or arousal… being energized and excited… is often very helpful. It varies from person to person – we all have our optimal zones. You may not enjoy being in your optimal zone of activation, but it means that you might perform your best when you’re at that level.
As teachers our heart goes out to those students who really struggle with stage fright and anxiety and we just want to say something to make them feel better. Sometimes we resort to something like “Relax, it will all be fine, you know your piece so well!”… but I read on your site that telling someone to relax is actually counterproductive. How do you suggest that piano teachers talk to their young students about performance anxiety? What is the best approach, and why should we not be telling students to relax?
Sometimes when you tell someone to do something, it becomes harder to do it. For example, if you tell someone to go to sleep, trying to go to sleep gets even harder. “Relax” is one of those words… if someone is trying to relax, it actually makes them more tense as they’re trying so hard to do the opposite. The better option is to really talk through the experience with your students. Use wording like “What might you hear before you get on stage?… What kinds of things will you see when you get on stage?” and walk through the performance for that particular student. Generally speaking, avoid micromanaging.. and instead think big-picture…focus on something sensory and avoid having them be too focussed on the small aspects of their performance. Micromanaging the details is not helpful when performing at a high level.
Let’s get into the nitty gritty. What are some strategies and tips that piano teachers can teach their students who are struggling with performance anxiety?
One of the cool things about sports psychology is that it provides a lot of input in terms of how to prepare for performances well in advance, so that when you get to the performance it’s not all that different than what you’ve done to prepare for it.
As an example, learn to divide your practice into 3rds:
1) One third is spent conceptualizing what you want the piece to sound like.
2) The second third is spent on the mechanics… once we know what we want it to sound like, how do we actually get it to sound that way… basically how do we manipulate the instrument to produce what we have in our mind.
3) The last 3rd has to do with performance practice… actually playing the piece through as we would in performance, from the very first note to the very end. We tend not to do very much of that and when we do get around to doing it, it’s usually too late. So there is a lot of value in performance practice, even before the piece is necessarily ready for public listening.
Performance practice involves practicing walking out on stage, sitting down at the keyboard, imagining what you are going to think about in the last 15-20 seconds before you start playing, and imagining what you are going to think about while you’re playing. We work a lot on the physical scripts, which is to say the mechanics of what we need to do to make the music, but we spend very little time planning out and practicing the mental scripts… things like “What should I be thinking about as I play this phrase or this difficult passage?” Those are the things that we tend to ignore, but in a performance setting our mind tends to wander to things that aren’t particularly helpful if we haven’t planned out what we’re going to think about.
Can you talk about what centering is?
Centering is probably the easiest thing to grasp at first. It’s about taking that small moment before you begin a performance. Centering involves the following steps:
- Find a focal point so your eyes don’t wander and get distracted
- Have a clear intention of what you will do (ie. “Nail that first note!”)
- Calm your physical self, deep breathing etc.
- Take a deliberate moment to get rid of muscle tension
- Find your centre – feel as though you have a solid base on your bench
- Remember what it feels like to “nail the opening” – how does your body feel?
- Don’t be hesitant in the opening – cautious playing causes mistakes. Learn to trust yourself and really go for it.
At the end of the day, when you practice centering it’s very organic and easy to learn.
One of the many really interesting articles I read on your site was about mental practice. Can you share what this is and how piano teachers can implement this strategy with their students?
Mental practice is something my mom had me doing from an early age (4 or 5 years old). She would have me listen to a recording of my piece. She’d put the recording on and say “Imagine this is you. See yourself and hear yourself performing exactly as the recording sounds. Visualize the audience clapping, see yourself bowing…”
She had me go through every little detail. I just thought this was a weird thing my mom invented, but as it turns out lots of musicians and athletes have been doing this for a long time, even before sports psychology was studied.
Technically there are two different kinds of mental practice: one where we go through all the different parts; taking a phrase, taking it apart and figuring it out in our heads. And then there is mental rehearsal… which is more like a performance run-through that we do in our heads.
Athletes call this visualization… I just read that Andre Agassi would see matches in his head before they even happened; his father would imagine tennis matches on the ceiling above his head before he went to sleep.
This is something that is quite common even if people don’t know what to call it or what they’re doing. We even do this in other situations – we pre-rehearse conversations ahead of time to figure out the best way of saying things without knowing we’re doing mental rehearsal or practice.
Mental practice doesn’t have to be a highly structured thing… students can simply take a couple of minutes where their teacher guides them along, helping them imagine what’s going to happen in a performance (especially if it’s their first or a particularly pressure-filled performance). The teacher can walk them through imagining warming-up back stage, walking on stage, hearing the applause, seeing the lights, sitting down… all those little details. This can really help students when they actually get to the situation, they feel like they’ve done it all before so it’s not quite as distracting as it can be.
A Final Note From Andrea
This is a fascinating subject and something that I believe is very important to share with our piano students. One of the joys of being a musician is our ability to share the instrument that we love with others… however, this joy can also be a major source of stress for some. But it doesn’t have to be so. The “nervous to perform” kids don’t need to always feel that way.
Dr. Kageyama’s website is an absolute must-read for piano teachers. He writes on performance anxiety and practice strategies, and he also offers an online course for musicians who are wanting to overcome stage fright and performance anxiety, and he even does on-on-one coaching. Be sure to check it all out at bulletproofmusician.com