Talking About Performance Anxiety

anxietyHaving started the cello much later to most other musicians, I found myself battling the fear of performing at the same time as facing an insecure self-image that often comes with being a 12 year old. I believe this made the issue far greater than it would’ve been, had I been performing at an earlier age. It has, nonetheless, forced me to address the way I deal with my anxiety on and off stage and encouraged me to read much more into the subject.

What is performance anxiety for you?

Performance anxiety for me is waking up on the day of a performance and being so terrified that you are unable to move. It is going over and over in your head all the possible worst-case scenarios and the consequences of performing badly. It’s being desperate to impress people and to receive reassurance that you’re doing OK. It’s trying to calm your breathing but you end up making it more rapid. Then it’s playing as though you have no connection between your mind and your arms and even less connection between your mind and your instrument. Performing feels like a mad free-for-all. Every man is for himself as I push through this Bach suite movement, making a hundred mistakes a minute working to the end. And then there’s after; the beating yourself up for being so anxious and losing security and control, feeling as though it was never all worth it and will never be again. But what is important to remember, though difficult to believe, is that these are all just thoughts.

We are not doomed. We deserve to play the way we dream about and share music with people on the the highest level that we a capable. We can hold ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time and we can find the benefits to this alongside. The philosopher Kierkegaard had an existentialist theory which I think can help us understand the way we perceive music in performance. His idea was that people need a deep satisfaction and relationship with themselves, the energy of the universe (God etc.) and the core of their being. It is only after that that they can enjoy the materials (aesthetic) and relationships on earth without depending on them. We are all guilty about having a huge desire to impress people, but the issue is that we make this the center of our thoughts around a performance and become greedy for praise and recognition. If we think about Kierkegaard’s theory, connect with ourselves through being mindful and agree that whether or not our performance goes well, we will still feel at one with ourselves (and music!), we suddenly see a performance completely differently. It’s purpose isn’t to satisfy our needs as individuals for recognition, it is for us to connect with the power music has and our ability to give this power to our audience as a gift. It is much less diabolical to hold this at the centre of our thinking. Then, be it praise, opportunity or reward, we can enjoy these parts to a performance without relying on them.

This theory is not so difficult to explain or understand, but how can it be applied? Many books have helped me shape a rusty but improving bank of coping strategies alongside experience and talking to different people about their opinions and experiences. The most important way to start is to talk about it. Just like any mental health issue (people dislike the terminology but it is what it is!) performance anxiety can be improved by talking to people. One of many reasons for this is it can make you feel much less alone- almost all musicians experience performance anxiety to some degree and certainly have a lot to say about it. Another reason for this is it can increase awareness of the issue of performance anxiety in the arts industry and encourage more people to talk about it. Certainly raising the issue with your teacher can hold enormous benefits, but anyone you trust can be a worthy listener.

But even once you’ve altered your mindset towards performing and you are happy that everything will be OK, how do you manage the sometimes inevitable symptoms that we experience before a performance? The most important thing to remember here is that we can still perform well when we are nervous. There is nothing stopping us even when feeling sick and shaky- we can concentrate and there is no reason the physical emotions should overpower us. It is easy to develop a ‘fear of the fear’ because we associate the physical sensations with a bad performance, but there’s no reason for us to. We are still in control. People often talk about being prepared as being a very important part of combating anxiety but I contrary this and say that practicing performing when you’re under-prepared is incredibly beneficial. Of course, the anxiety involved in this is great but it is likely that you will emerge feeling much better about the situation. The reason is that your confidence increases as your mind believes ‘well if I did that when I was so unprepared, I can do anything!’

The final part to thinking and discovering more about performance anxiety is forgiving yourself for failure. You are on an incredible road, learning at every part of it and finding ways to manage anxiety is just a part of the bigger picture. It cannot be solved overnight, but you  will find that you become more and more aware of yourself and your purpose as a musician. These ideas I have shared are not an exhaustive list and I will collect many resources below for you to explore. What works for me may not work for you and I am a long way from an answer. I still can get cripplingly nervous but I try to distance myself from my thoughts and turn the focus for the music. I think to take any of this on board you must first ask yourself why. Why music and why love and why faith? The answer is purpose and if music gives you an enormous sense of purpose, you are not destined to sabotage your communication and expression and you will, in time, find a solution.

“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming” Soren Kierkegaard

Resources:

This is an amazing, short book complied by many famous classical musicians- great short term relief!  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Keeping-Your-Nerve-Confidence-Strategies/dp/0571519229/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490095038&sr=8-1&keywords=keeping+your+nerve

For changing your perception:Life Is Not A Journey  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSSzYIqQsdw

A classic, but it really helped me to start thinking: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inner-Game-Music-Timothy-Gallwey/dp/1447291727/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490095345&sr=8-1&keywords=the+inner+game+of+music

How do we feel inspired in the world at the moment? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tSBkT9AFWA

Fantastic book for liberally exploring faith https://www.amazon.co.uk/Simple-Faith-Margaret-Silf/dp/0232527946/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490095497&sr=8-1&keywords=faith+margaret+silf

 

21/03/2017 Hattie Butterworth

 

 

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Music, Philosophy and Jeanette Winterson

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For Christamas this year, I bought Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiography, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, for my pianist friend, Jasmin. I thought I would interest Jasmin because of Jeanette’s inspirational story and her connections with Oxford, (Jasmin is awaiting a response from her Hartford interview!) and so it did. So much so in fact that Jasmin forced me down and said, “Hattie, read the introduction to this book, it will change you”. I read the introduction and it was certainly enough to feed inspiration for a blog post!

I’m not going to provide a very in depth discussion around one of Jeanette’s many philosophy’s, only talk about one thing she said that has stayed with me. Jeanette talked about how she doesn’t want to call Oranges an autobiography because she used her own life only as the base for a story. A story, she said, which she hopes can turn her own life into something which has meaning for other people whose experience is ‘Nothing like your own’. What struck me the most was the idea that ‘Memory is not a reconstruction or a filing system, memory is a recreation’. She talks about how we remember the same things differently each time and how the past is not fixed and as we develop and change, so do our memories.

It suddenly stuck me that this idea is vital in understanding and performing a piece of music. Our ultimate goal in performance is to perform as we can imagine the composer would have designed it. Every cellist who puts their heart into the Elgar concerto will get very different responses back. We need to remember that these great works are memories. For example, many people see the cello concerto as a memory of the war or tribute to his wife, Alice. So often musicians get tied down in looking for an ultimate perfection in performance. We need to remember that each and every one of us has something to give back and every musician has the beautiful chance to retell and sell a memory. Perhaps the more successful performers aren’t necessarily the ones who have the natural talent, but the ones who have imagined a memory and found the most exciting, expressive way to communicate it. Just as we cannot remember a memory perfectly and constantly unchanged, why should we be expected to perform a memory in this way?

Jeanette, we love you and thank you dearly for bringing us back to life!

Keep on creating everyone, never shy away!

Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Hattie

 

Always choose the better life- mental health and musicians

  Sometimes our thoughts can be far more destructive than the events surrounding us. Of course these two things are often interlinked, but not exclusively. If we have a specific worry plaguing our minds, no matter how laid back our life may seem, often the internal anguish can be far more warring and destructive. On the other hand, we may look back on a seemingly stressful week and feel calm, balanced and relaxed.

The way we choose to react to the events in our lives can determine the amount of stress they infer. This is far easier said than done. Often we are forced to enter a different mindset in order to get through the day, sacrificing the calm, balance and joy in our lives. We are forced to become self obsessed and one-track minded towards our goals and work and choose to sacrifice the relationships with our friends and the inner calm. Although this mindset may do the job, it forces us to crash out, emotionally drained and find ourselves running on sugar, caffeine and very little sleep. What if there were a way to get everything done and maintain a love and peace?

It all begins with simplifying our lives. This often requires erasing guilt, pressure, stress and other negative emotions that take over and over complicate our lives. This may include thinking completely rationally about what it is you, personally, are able to sustain as simply and joyfully as possible. If something is causing you immense stress and guilt, such as a subject or commitment, it may require you to either leave it for a while or lose it altogether in order for complex, eating emotions to diminish. It is at this balanced, freed state that our mind and body functions at its best and we begin to excel at what we love.

It is always necessary to take time to care for yourself. It is important to remember that it is not a weakness to respond to stressful situations negatively. Different people have differing stress thresholds and this shouldn’t cause comparison or guilt. It is a strength to know what you find difficult and learn to cope with it.

In order to discover how much you can cope with it is necessary to confront yourself by taking time for reflection, meditation or prayer. These states often leave you vulnerable and more responsive to factors that cause strain on your body.

Perhaps what I’m suggesting sounds time consuming and impossible at the moment. If this is the case, it is a tell tale fact that your life is very complicated. It may be that you only need 10 minutes when you wake up to be aware of the space around you and practice allowing emotions and sensations to come to you, but this time is invaluable to your mental health and sound is paramount you attempt to find space for it.

I value nothing more highly than time spent with yourself in any situation, shifting the strain to the side and breaking down your negative thoughts into breathing and trust in the world. It is at this point that your body will tell you just how much it is prepared to deal with.

I am searching to find this center of awareness in my practice but until I feel I’m able to sustain this, I know I need time with my thoughts, however scary or difficult it may be in order to cope with the pressure of being a musician and 17 year old.

One factor I find beautifully reassuring is my art form. Music is love and community, space and prayer. When we breakthrough the inevitable stress of auditions and pressured performance, we will discover the true beauty of what we love and associate it with the emotions that we thrive on, and not those that restrain us.

We have such a beautiful life to live, why not start now?

Love Hattie x

Help me someone! Where’s the guilt gone?

I am currently preparing for conservatoire auditions, applying to Royal Northern, Royal Scottish, Royal Academy, Royal College and Guildhall. For this I need to play Haydn C major (no surprises there) and Prokofiev sonata 1st mvt. At the moment my life consists of a lot of sleep, procrastination and cookery and very little meticulous Haydn work. 

I suppose this blog is an attempt for me to express my ‘lack’ of motivation guilt but I can’t find any guilt to express. For some reason I want to hate myself, criticise and push harder but at last my body is resisting and knows better. If I practice 4 hours a day in my holiday, who knows what fatigue I’ll encounter when auditions come.

I thoroughly learnt both pieces in the summer. The next few weeks are for me to let them shine. How do the composers want these pieces to sound? Am i stylish, fluent and composed? This work is fun, simple and just requires some planning, then a lot of imagination and fun. I’m going to prepare for these auditions by playing a game of ‘how much better can I possibly make it’ as well as sleeping lots, eating lots and catching up on Downton. If I practice and do other fun stuff along side, surely the practice will come easier, go quicker and create a fresher sound. 

We can all get through the ‘hell’ by doing everything we love. You have always got enough time and you are always well prepared. These final weeks are for fun emotions only!

If I fail miserably, I apologise, but at least I’ll be happy and I’d give anything to stay in a happy place forever.

Prioritising

I am writing this blog today because today is a ‘fuck tonne of shit to do’ type day. 

I think the majority of us had it hammered into us at an early age that it is impossible to please everyone. No matter how hard you try, there will be someone in your life that you may have to let down or upset or offend without even realising. For some reason, this acceptable trait of human nature is far from acceptable in an institutional context.

Boarding school. Not only that but a MUSIC boarding school. The hell of A levels combined with the pressures of performance, improvement and success. Letting someone down simply isn’t an option so you find yourself busting a gut in order to please, only to find that in the end your efforts aren’t usually rewarded. You’re pushed harder, simply to see an ‘A’ for a piece of prep or ‘distinction’ in an assessment. The institution leads you to believe that you’re working for them and very rarely for yourself.

This emotion is one I am all too aware of but one I am also trying to manage. Is it so bad simply to prioritise? I want to be a cellist. I have a performance tomorrow but also have a music essay and a German vocabulary test. My German teacher may be hell on earth but the consequences of failing my vocab really aren’t going to kill me. Ok, so I’ll practice for an hour this evening, go to the gym for half an hour, maybe do some silent practice then if I feel up to it I might make a colourful poster of the vocab words. 

It’s amazing to think what you can put your mind to when you don’t have enough time. It’s simply a question of knowing your priorities, having a plan and making everything as fun as possible- for me this usually involves making a poster or writing a poem.

Realise that there is more time than you think and that so long as you’re balanced and relaxed, the tough days will get easier.

Sometimes we all get in the way of ourselves

http://youtu.be/GNc6qTwC7OY  I’ve never experienced a relaxed performing experience. It’s always been a matter of hoping and praying that practice will have been enough and that my performance will be a quarter as fluent as it was in practice. This has really frustrated me. How is it fair that I become a completely different musician when I’m under pressure or on show? It isn’t! I was determined to find a peace of mind in order to perform with a clear head and free body. I wanted the opportunity to trust my abilities and express all the love and emotion in the music whilst leaving all my anxiety behind.

I’m sure every musician can relate that this is far easier said than done! However often we vow to trust ourselves or ‘let go’,it becomes more and more difficult as we focus on ourselves. The past few weeks have taught me many valuable lessons about my anxieties and how to control them and I thought my findings could prove useful to others.

I think it was made clear to me by my mother at first that my performance anxiety was a result of an obsession I had with myself! This was a huge wake up call and scared me quite a bit… I realized that the performance hadn’t ever truly been about my love of the cello or beauty of the music. I’d always had myself at the center of the performance and played to impress rather than to enjoy. I’d imagine the reaction of the audience if I’d played well and focused on what success I could enjoy. Of course, even if I’d played well, I never felt truly satisfied with myself. My mum reminded me that “I shouldn’t be about you in that moment, your thoughts and feelings don’t matter. You aren’t the most important part- the composers’ music is what you’re communicating, not your anxieties or fears”. This message was a huge wake-up call. Nonetheless, I was certain to convert these thoughts and realizations into a mindful performance technique.  I firstly vowed to play for the composer and not for myself or my mother. In my performance at the end of my music course last week, I was performing the Prokofiev cello sonata. I felt nervous at the back of my mind but knew I had all my ideas together about the piece and wanted to express my specific interpretation. I said to myself “you’re playing for Prokofiev- you’re lucky enough to be the messenger of this fabulous piece from the composer to the audience. You’re taking them on this journey of different emotions. YOU DO NOT MATTER!” I had completely removed my anxious emotions out of the equation, realizing they would do nothing for the music, only tear my playing apart.

I walked out into the concert hall and felt very little fear. I was pleasantly surprised at my calm and genuinely felt as though I was in my practice. I didn’t experience bow shake or jamming fingers, as I have many times before. Instead I felt able to listen to my music and really enjoy my role as messenger. I didn’t feel the need to judge my performance. I knew for the first time I had played as well as I could have done. Of course some things still went wrong but these small things I had never quite perfected in the practice room so this didn’t bother me. I knew that ultimately, it certainly didn’t bother the audience!

(If you want to watch my performance its on YouTube at http://youtu.be/GNc6qTwC7OY )

I don’t know whether the audience sensed my peace of mind but I do hope they felt the music as much as I did. I know it will take further practice and faith to maintain this mindfulness and performance calm, but I feel as though for the first time I know it is possible. Why should an audience of music lovers (usually!) cause me to play with such little love and trust? It’s not logical.

I hope I’ve been able to offer a different perspective for some other musicians and performers and wish you all well on your journey to calm and mindfulness. I hope my story can at least give you faith that this peace of mind is possible. You all have the power to perform how you want to, perhaps sometimes we all just get in the way of the music!

I’ve written a short poem about my image of the performers’ role. I will post it as a separate post.

Much love and best wishes,

Hattie

The Performance Mind

Hope you’re enjoying my crazy little poems- I write them as an attempt to iron out the anxieties and thoughts in my head and hope they may provide a different perspective for other artists/ musicians.

I’m aware how many people suffer from performance anxiety or stage fright and how often the remedies we are given don’t work. The picture attached caught my attention when at the Tate Britain on Saturday. I feel the different sections represent the different minds you can adopt when anxious and how everything seems disconnected and alien.

    

Trying not to care is the beginning of the end
Be aware that you do care, but that caring will make you spend

Every thought and feeling and mood on caring alone

The energy and love for the art withered and cold to the bone.

Perhaps caring wasn’t worth it-Those who give no shits

Often give the best performance And avoid all panic and fits. 

But why do those who love suffer for their art the most?

Performing is running naked, like confronting a ghost

Every part of you is on show, every ounce of what you love

And you pray the music will be there, that your preparation is enough

But nothing’s ever good enough for those who suffer from art

Things I ignored in practice suddenly tear up my heart

I worry I wasn’t true to myself and that the music wasn’t divine

I ask for reassurance from the audience, for any little sign

That I proved myself to them even if it wasn’t how my dreams play

And they tell me it was fabulous, that my playing made their day 

And sometimes they see through me and tell me it was tense

And I’ll cry and try once again to relax and make it less dense. 

When will I be able to state that playing in my room

Is just the same as a recital, an audition, my heart would go boom

But when you get up to perform you’re always torn away 

Of what calm what joy and what love you experienced yesterday

The energy is no longer focused on the love and the sound

But now on proving yourself to yourself and trying to the world

It’s only when other people watch that I dissolve to this state

Because I know they could love me too, but I’m surrounded by this hate

A hatred for exposing myself incase it goes tits up

But a hatred for not trying, even though trusting brings me luck.

Be truthful on what you love and hate and explore exactly why

The petty judgments from other people make you cry and sigh

So stop trying to stay true to your music, your art, your love

Stop caring about not caring, it’ll be easy and pleasantly pure as a dove.

  

Should I practice or should I just be?

  I am much more relaxed about my practice now a days. I have enough time to do everything and can wip out some constructive practice when needs be. But the rest of the time I’ve found to be a struggle. I understand that the time you spend mindlessly repeating a certain phrase can translate into excess tension and strain but this is a comfortable solution. Being constantly ‘constructive’ and ‘alert’ is a difficult mindset which is easy to wander off from.

I think I’ve discovered that just like when you’re leaning to meditate, it’s important to set an intention but not criticise your mind for wandering off. Conversely, bringing the attention back to your intentions whilst having a heightened awareness. 

Perhaps it’s better to only practice when you feel like it, but often I’m convinced we aren’t to sure what we feel like. I’ve decided that if I’ve taken out my cello, began to practice for ten minutes and still have no desire, then I can resign my attempts and return later with a fresher mind. Simply having this trust and agreement means that I actually find myself doing that very little and that time seems to pass very quickly.

I hope you all enjoy the work you do and don’t feel discouraged if your mind wanders- it’s what it’s designed to do.

Happy being!

Hattie 😘