I was talking to an acquaintance of mine, Graham, recently about the anxiety that is often felt before and during a performance of any kind, be it a musical one, a dramatic one or a public speaking engagement. He told me that he started learning the piano as a seven year old, and a year later, began singing lessons. The main difference between the two teachers was that the piano instructor carefully pointed out all the things that he was doing incorrectly, while the vocal teacher emphasized all the things that he was doing correctly.
As Graham progressed in his music studies, he became increasingly uncomfortable with his piano playing with constant negative criticism, while his singing lessons were a continuing source of satisfaction and pleasure. During his vocal lessons, each challenge was met with encouragement and enthusiasm, while his piano teacher continued to pick holes in everything that he did, both in his lessons and in his performances, which he grew to dread. He became extremely anxious prior to and during his piano recitals and was at a loss as to how to overcome stage fright that was present each and every time he performed on the piano. On the other hand, his song recitals, though not quite as advanced, were met by Graham with excitement and eager anticipation.
Encouragement of Talent
Children are born with certain talents and obviously should be free to develop those talents and abilities without negativity of any kind. Too often, children are made to feel inadequate and small by adults who constantly pick on all the negatives, and do not realize that by doing so the talented children will not develop those talents or worse may just give up altogether. When a teacher, who is after all a major influencer, constantly puts negative thoughts into children's brains, that is a surefire way of launching full scale stage fright later on.
The performer can only visualize all the errors that the teacher has pointed out and unfortunately, this is inevitably going to lead to a poor performance. A feeling of confidence, which is the foundation of good stage performing, can easily be blocked by focusing on negativity. A child’s confidence needs to be continually nurtured in every way possible, and this was the bedrock of my own teaching over the years. I taught many students of varying musical capabilities but my encouragement never altered regardless of student ability. In fact, the less able the students were, the more encouragement they were given.
Positivity and Negativity
To further illustrate the dangers of being negative to students who are trying to develop their talents, I would like to point out that students often do better with a teacher who actually cares. And if that teacher seems to really enjoy the accomplishments, however small, of those students, then the self-esteem and self-confidence seeds are planted. The opposite is also true. Students who are constantly criticized and belittled whatever they try, will eventually start to feel that they are somehow inadequate, and will not take the initiative for fear of making themselves look foolish.
Self esteem, in fact, is a lifetime challenge. If there is someone in your life who takes a consistent interest in whatever challenge or project you are involved in, and constantly offers words of advice and encouragement, then completing the project will be that much easier, and you will begin to feel good about yourself and what you are doing. If, on the other hand, there is a person in your life who always finds areas of criticism, and overall disdain for what you are trying to achieve, then you will face an uphill battle, and eventually get to complete self-doubt.
Some folks say that you should never heed what anyone says or writes about you or what you are doing, and that you should just get on with it regardless. In an ideal world that would be fine, but in reality, one is almost always affected by other peoples’ comments, especially in difficult times. At the very least, you could be a little upset at negative comments and consequently, the rate and outcome of your progress could suffer.
Perfection Or Not
The word ‘perfection is defined: ‘The quality or state of being perfect or complete, so that nothing requisite is wanting; entire development; consummate culture, skill, or moral excellence; the highest attainable state or degree of excellence’. Daunting isn’t it? As human beings, perfection is often sought but rarely attained. There is nothing wrong with aiming high whatever you are trying to accomplish in any field of endeavor.
However, in music, for example, a note perfect rendition of say, a Chopin Waltz or a Bach Prelude and Fugue, does not necessarily mean that the performance was good. Ask any professional concert pianist, and they will confirm that in all their years of playing, they have never rendered a note perfect performance. Why, because that is not the main goal. Any musician worth his/her salt is always trying to interpret what the composer intended, and the odd note error is supplementary to that goal. In fact, some pianists have been known to actually miss out notes in a piece so as not to spoil the overall effect!
If a teacher requires perfection, then the student will have great difficulty in building self-esteem and confidence, because he/she knows that the teacher will never be satisfied. And without that confidence, there can be none of the relaxation required to perform well. You need to have a certain amount of self trust in order to relax sufficiently, so that the right brain can facilitate the playing, and the left brain won’t interfere with the process through anxiety and worry. If that self trust is absent, then you are not going to perform well, thus further decreasing your self-esteem and self-confidence.
If your self-confidence continues to evaporate, then you are leaving yourself open to the onset of stage fright. Everyone has a mental image of how he or she would like the performance to go, and also a picture of what is actually possible. It’s worth remembering that the degree of stage fright is directly proportional to the discrepancy between the student’s realistic performance goals and the idealized performance goals. In other words, if the performers realistic goals are close to the idealistic ones, then he or she will gain massive confidence from that performance and go from strength to strength. If, however, there is a considerable gap between the two, then we are looking at a performer who will inevitably lose confidence, and possess some degree of stage fright.
Added to this, is the audience factor. If the performer knows that the audience has major expectations of him or her, this can lead to a form of stage fright or at the very least pre concert nerves. Once this happens, it takes awhile before it can be reversed, as the performer, who feels like a failure, will have a jaundiced view of any comments made, even helpful and positive ones.
Antidotes and Rebirth
Much patience is needed both by the mentor and the performer, to reverse this frustrating and inhibiting ailment. It’s a time of rebuilding the performer’s self-confidence and self-esteem and must be facilitated with sensitivity, understanding and support. Aim for smaller recital venues, smaller goals overall, and as the performer overcomes minor frustrations and disappointments but still continues, he/she will start to believe again.
There will be an increased belief that they can overcome adversity and survive, that adversity will make them stronger and more resilient.Everyone has some inner strength – it’s just a matter of finding it and nurturing it, so that all former negatives, however damning they may have seemed, are turned triumphantly into amazing and rewarding positives. Now, instead of trying to play or sing the music, the performer is relaxing and allowing the music to speak. After all, as performers, we are simply the messenger for the composer’s musical efforts not the originator.
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