Helping pupils to deal with Performance Anxiety

Sweaty palms, butterflies in the tummy, a feeling that you would rather be anywhere but sitting at the piano ready to play your piece to the audience.
If you recognise this scenario you’re not alone as most pianists, performers, actors, sports people and public speakers are affected by performance anxiety at some point.

Helping pupils with performance anxiety

This week in The Curiosity Lounge (the closed Facebook group of The Curious Piano Teachers) a teacher put out a plea for help with a teenage student. An attack of nerves had set in just before her first ever piano exam. Despite the complexity of the issue useful suggestions flooded in.

#1 PERSPECTIVE

First of all, help your student get the exam or performance in perspective by making sure the broad picture of lessons is on playing the piano and making music. If the focus is narrowed too intently on the preparation for a performance or exam pressure to do well in that one situation builds quickly.

As Janette pointed out:

‘the exam is just a snapshot of one particular performance’.

Pupils also need help to see the examiner as another teacher, there to give helpful feedback on the performance. The same applies to audiences; rather than sitting in judgment they are there to support performers with positive energy and intentions.

#2 CONTROL

Then, make sure your pupil feels in control of the situation. We all know how powerless we feel when we sense that everything is beyond our own control. The first step here is the preparation – the pupil should be quite confident about the level of preparation up to the exam. Notes, rhythms, fingerings, tempo, dynamics all need to be securely in place and firmly understood.

Once the notes have all been practised it’s time to move onto the performances.

All exam/recital preparation should include several, graduated performance opportunities. For example, several weeks before the exam pieces could be played to the next pupil. Or, if several pupils are taking exams you host a performance workshop where they all play and give positive feedback to each other.

Closer to the exam/performance you could record each piece. Just recording pieces however secures nothing. Carol suggested that the teacher should:

‘Discuss the mark scheme with them and get them to self assess’.

Using the exam marking criteria is a very important step in letting the pupil feel in control. They are usually very good at doing this and are able to pinpoint with some accuracy which criteria apply to them.

#3 ATTITUDE

Pupils are able to pick up all sorts of signals from you, whether you are aware of them or not! The student needs to know that you trust them, believe in them and value them. Pauline highlighted the need to:

‘be as assuring and positive as possible and show your belief in your pupil’.

The counter-transference of both positive and negative emotions was also mentioned. If you remain calm and put the performing situation into context, that it is only part of the journey, then this is more likely to transfer to the pupil.

#4 MINDFULNESS

One curious piano teacher in particular highlighted the usefulness of mindfulness in a piano lesson with a story from her own teaching. She suggested getting the pupil to:

‘sit very quiet and still with you at the piano – talk calmly and instruct her to focus on resting her hands on her knees, or her breathing, on the sounds in the broader environment. It can act like an instant tranquilliser’.

Breathing and being centred before we start to play is so essential to framing a performance. This applies as much to ourselves as it does to our pupils.

So if you have a pupil who suffers from performance anxiety think about how you can help them. Can you work with them to change their perspective of the forthcoming exam or recital? Be aware of your own reactions – perhaps they aren’t as positive as you thought they were? Maybe the student doesn’t feel in control of the situation or possibly they just need to be more connected to playing the music rather than passing the exam!

These suggestions only touch the surface of this topic. For more information and other sources have a look at these books and articles:

  • Tuning In by our curious expert, Lucinda Mackworth-Young. Now available as an ebook CLICK HERE
  • An article by another curious expert, Graham Fitch about visualisation CLICK HERE
  • The Mindful Pianist, a fairly new publication from EPTA (UK) and Faber. CLICK HERE
  • The Bulletproof Musician, a blog written by Dr Noa¬†Kageyama. CLICK HERE

This post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart, with the help of members of the Community of The Curious Piano Teachers.

3 thoughts on “Helping pupils to deal with Performance Anxiety

  1. Angelus

    I liked reading these ideas Sally. Thank you!

    Using the marking scheme in combination with recordings sounds like a great idea. I think I’ll try that (along with the other ideas!).

    I remember a few years ago, at an ABRSM conference, two presenters did an informative and humorous role play of an exam. Seeing an adult expert pretending to hide under the piano and watching him respond to the examiner’s instructions helped me to empathise more with my students and was also highly memorable.

    Reply
  2. Cross-Eyed Pianist

    I feel it’s important to remind students that being nervous is normal, that the symptoms of anxiety are largely a physical “flight or fight” response and that top performers feel nervous too

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. The Name, Email and Comment fields are required

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.