Nurturing the Whole Musician

I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie. The experiences that exhilarate me the most include speed, heights, falling, snakes, performing music or speaking in front of a large crowd. And while it is not difficult to find kindred spirits who would be first in line for a roller coaster or zip line, I am certainly in the minority when it comes to a love of public performance. In fact, an unsettling number of Americans are likely to rank their fear of public speaking higher than their fear of death.

When I tell people that I teach piano, I am struck by how many of them are quick to share their stories about quitting music lessons as a child. Even strangers are eager to offer memories of the negative experiences that ultimately led them to seek out other youth activities that excluded solo performance. While it’s true that some people quit piano lessons to avoid the sting of Mrs. Snodgrass’ knuckle-rapping, more often the event in question is related to a bad performance experience. Audition catastrophes, traumatic recitals or the dread of performance itself can easily prompt a person to give up music study altogether. I can’t help but think that if the teachers of these students had been trained in anxiety management and performance preparation techniques, many more people would have remained in music lessons into adulthood.

Stage fright is not limited to students or amateurs. Famously nervous musicians have included Pablo Casals, Vladimir Horowitz, Carly Simon, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. In his autobiography, legendary cellist Casals described every performance as “sheer torment.” We can no longer ignore the emotional stress of performance, or tell our young musicians that it will only get better with time and experience. The same is certainly true at the college level, where we train young adults to be professional musicians. The stage can be a comfortable place, a nightmare, or anything in between, because how we think about it affects our entire performance experience. In the words of Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

The natural anxiety associated with public performance can wreak havoc on the mental and physical health of anyone in the performing arts. For many, the desire to perform music with passion and freedom is often tempered by fears, self-doubts and distracting physical symptoms. Yet the study of performance stress has not yet made its way into the mainstream of educational programs in music, theater or dance. What is lacking at the present time is an understanding and appreciation of the importance of the psychological health of creative artists in general. Is it possible that our pedagogy could change so rapidly as to alter the experiences of today’s performing arts student? This question is what motivates me to get up and come to work in the morning.

When I arrived at the University of St. Thomas in 2007, I had worked as a licensed hypnotherapist for a couple of years and was particularly interested in the role of the subconscious mind and the use of hypnotherapy as a tool for performance anxiety management for musicians. It has been my experience that hypnotherapy, creative visualization and other imagery techniques are powerfully effective tools for artists and public speakers. The more I explored the research in that area, the more I realized that I needed to expand my focus to include an understanding of human consciousness, including altered states and “flow” states of consciousness. This interest in the psychology of musical experience inspired me to collaborate with psychologists and neuroscientists to study more about music and the brain. The more I traveled and met with groups of teachers and students around and beyond the United States, the more I became aware that my studies were mostly limited to Western practices in medicine, sport psychology and cognitive psychology. Most recently I have turned my attention to contemplative traditions such as mindfulness meditation, and the potential benefits of these practices for performing musicians. I had practiced meditation for years, but two years ago I became a certified meditation instructor in order to consider various concepts of mindfulness from the viewpoint of an educator.

In many ways, mindfulness and music performance go hand in hand. Each helps cultivate awareness of the present moment; in meditation, this may include observing the thoughts as they come and go, and music only exists in the present moment as an aural event. Both encourage concentration, observation, trust, patience and letting go. The greatest challenge to most performing artists (and other humans) is the importance of non-judging. In mindfulness practice, we experience an awarenessof moment-to-moment experiences, releasing thoughts and emotions without judgment.

The music student, however, has been trained to practice for hours a day, working to identify and correct mistakes over and over again. In her music lessons, her performance is assessed by her teacher, and in studio performance classes, she is critiqued by her peers. In fact, intense daily criticism is essential for any artist in training. But when this self-analysis accompanies a performer on stage, negative thoughts and self-doubts can overwhelm an otherwise well-prepared musician. When the inner judges are allowed to roam free, unsupervised, the mind becomes a performer’s nemesis. Studies have suggested that contemplative practices can help manage anxiety and improve performance quality for amateur and professional musicians alike. I have been surprised and pleased with the number of students, particularly St. Thomas students, who are eager to learn more about mindfulness practice.

The most fascinating aspect of my research has been my travels to 10 different countries and 16 states within the United States, working with other students, teachers, and professional musicians, learning from their stories, and sharing my experiences. I have learned that performance anxiety, like music, is a universal issue which transcends differences in culture and language. In Taiwan, the music teachers I worked with tended to avoid the topic of performance anxiety, but the students seemed eager and interested to talk about it. In Serbia, a culture rooted in the old Russian school of music training, teachers were particularly interested to learn about the neuroscience of anxiety and new discoveries in neuroplasticity. In Ireland, a group of college professors has joined forces to study spirituality in education, including the effects of contemplative practices on the emotional well-being of students. Many American music teachers seem especially interested in the idea of holistic teaching, such as injury-preventive technique and mental wellness for performers. An unusually high percentage of instructors affiliated with the Minnesota Music Teachers Association have written to request mindfulness training workshops for them or for their students.

My own students at St. Thomas are a colorful group and represent the diversity of personalities that one might find in any music school. Some of them bound up the steps to the stage, excited to perform for feedback, validation or the sound of applause. These students are in the minority, though, since the vast majority struggle with the physical or emotional symptoms of stage fright. Some of my students sit quietly, waiting with dread for their turn to perform. Others engage in breathing exercises or creative visualization to slow their pulse rate or steady their shaky hands. Some keep a journal, which helps them identify and dispute unhealthy thought patterns that interfere with their enjoyment of performing. Some express their fears openly, pacing back and forth, seeking reassurance from friends, or speculating dramatically about sensational worst-case scenarios. Every musician approaches performance differently, and I have learned to be flexible in my approach to teaching performance preparation. My students are the driving force behind everything I do. They offer perspectives and insights for further research, they serve as occasional guinea pigs for anxiety management techniques, and they benefit directly from the most current research in the field. Of the many techniques I have tried with students and professional musicians, mindfulness practice tends to be the most accessible, effective and long-lasting.

In using contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation, performers learn to join the outer world of physical technique and the personality with the inner world of the silent observer. Or, perhaps they are uniting the modern world of competition and achievement (“doing”) with traditional philosophies of awareness and acceptance (“being”). It is my desire that this sort of integrated teaching become the very essence of music pedagogy in the new millennium.

Vanessa Cornett-Murtada is associate professor of music and director of keyboard studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.