Mental practice: Can it really help my performance anxiety?
* Do you want to understand a system that can benefit ALL musicians, regardless of their level or ability?
* Do you want to accomplish more in your practice sessions?
* Do you want to practice but you’re physically too tired?
* Do you want to practice but you can’t access a piano or musical instrument?
* Do you only have a short period of time to practice?
* You don’t want to practice because you’ve had a flare up of tendonitis and don't want to 'over-do it'?
Then this system could benefit YOU.
It is time for us to take a leaf out of Horowitz or Rubinstein’s approach and implement some MENTAL and VISUALISATION practice strategies; they both believed mental practice was the most beneficial system to prepare before a performance.
“I’m so frustrated at myself; I played it perfectly beforehand when I was at home! I got so nervous my hands got all sweaty".
Sound familiar? If only everything we practiced in our practice room would translate as perfectly as we’d hoped in a performance scenario…
I had just taken on a new student in London who had just performed her grade 7 ABRSM examination and I asked her how it went. Can you relate to this musician’s frustration? After probing for feedback about HOW she prepared for her exam, I realised this particular element of preparation that I am about to explain, is overlooked in many musicians practice routines. I always stress to my students when we are discussing practice strategies that, a lot can be done AWAY from your musical instrument! When I tell them this, they’re facial expressions are priceless! This might be music to your ears if you sit for multiple hours a day practicing, and wonder why your progress is slower than it should be.
Horowitz once stated that if you are doing more than 4 hours, than you could be slipping into a category of ‘mindlessness practicing’. We can fall into ‘autopilot’ if the brain is tired and just end up repeating the piece over and over again with no positive outcome and we are at the risk of a repetitive strain injury. I always stress to my students, QUALITY over quantity.
MENTAL PRACTICE: DON’T OVERLOOK IT AS PART OF YOUR PREPARATION!
Practice and performance are two vastly different components, as when we perform, unforeseen factors come into play (this could be as little as an old lady coughing which throws you off track in a silent passage! Or a more common one, being unfamiliar with the piano and having to adapt many of your passages to suit the unfamiliar instrument..... pianists; we've all been there, oui?
It goes without saying that performance anxiety is a problem among many musicians. This could be memory loss, or uncontrollable physical symptoms such as shaking, sweating of the hands, or stiff fingers. The main crux of performance anxiety is FEAR- we must remember that control starts in the mind and we can use a variety of tools to reduce this emotion. A secure performance is often prevented by a mental or emotional/physical barrier and our ability to ENJOY performing can be affected by our mental, emotional or physical state. SO,
I now want you to ask yourself:
~ When do you learn most easily?
~ Are you even aware and mindful of when you learn most easily?
The majority of you will respond with, when I am relaxed or at ease; in the comfort of an environment where I can concentrate; am I right? I know this won’t cater for everyone as we all learn completely differently; but in terms of performance anxiety, this is the most common answer.
SO, this means we need to practice when are NOT relaxed, experiencing outside environmental factors tilt us off balance. This will ensure we have thoroughly practiced a wide array of performance scenarios and outcomes, so when it comes down to your actual performance day; you will feel more prepped for the outcome.
HERE IS YOUR SOLUTION:
My ethos of regarding ourselves as Professional Athletes in our own field comes into play here. Similar to an Athlete, the mental, physiological and neurological aspect of performance is very similar. From thorough research and studies of Athletes, individuals tend to engage in more systematic or mental rehearsals than less successful individuals. Research from the BulletProof Musician article shows that "mental practice activates the same brain regions as physical practice, and may even lead to the same changes in neural structure and synaptic connectivity." Are you convinced yet?
I think ALL musicians would benefit from implementing mental practice into their routines. I’m not talking about just going through the sound of the piece in your head; I’m talking about a real visual performance, using all of your senses- vision, smell, touch, taste, hearing (noise disturbances that may put you off), and most importantly, kinaesthesia.
But, It has to be done properly!
Here are my tips for a mental, visualisation practice session. It takes a lot of focus and concentration, so don’t expect it to be a breeze first time round, it has to be practiced.
1. Get comfortable:
Sit on a chair, or you can lie in the Alexander Technique ‘semi-supine position’ (pictured above). If you choose the first method, make sure you are mindful of how you sit and stand (pictured below). If you choose the latter choice, make sure you go through the points of ‘back to lengthen and widen’ ,think of it melting into the floor, ‘feet sinking through the mud’, ‘knees shooting upwards’ and a ‘piece of string’ gently elongating your neutral spine and releasing all tension. Place your hands above your hip bones on your stomach.
2. Expand your focus:
Implement a moment of ‘inhibition’, have a moment to think about your means 'where-by' instead of focusing purely on the outcome. Enjoy this process of learning and create peripheral vision, widen your focus- ‘tunnel vision’ is so common for us as musicians, we must be more aware of our surroundings and how we respond to different stimulus.
Alexander Technique 'Standing Sequence'
3. Now I want you to imagine you are behind the curtains and about to perform. Try and ingrain yourself into this scenario. How are you feeling? Are you excited, positive, or nervous and anxious? Tune into and become aware of your body reactions; are you feeling grounded and secure or are you fidgeting, biting your nails or breathing faster?
4. Imagine filling the room with your presence. Smile. Feel the warm stage lights on your face. Have the feeling that the audience are there because they want to hear you play. Be calm and collected. Now release your shoulders (I bet without realising your shoulders have crept upwards); imagine a piece of string on your head gently pulling you upwards towards the ceiling. YOU are the performer, look confident and bring a presence to the stage.
5. Now pick up your instrument, or sit at the piano, breathe, and be PRESENT in the moment. Hear the silence and anticipation from the audience waiting to hear you play. Take it all in and embrace the feeling, ENJOY the power and space of silence, you have the audience in the palm of your hands and have all the time you want. -------
6. If you feel nervous, allow it to wash over you or pass through you. Don’t let it absorb you, think of it as an emotion, as a feeling. Enjoy the waves of emotions as they pass through you.
I now want you to visualise playing the first few bars of your piece using your kinaesthetic awareness. Can you physically visualise the notes you are playing? Can you imagine enjoying this experience and shutting out any mind chatter and focusing on the music?
------- Did you take a precious moment of inhibition before composing yourself, or did you rush straight into it? How did you feel, were you positive or nervous? Was there a particular thought that kept re-occurring? Were you worried about where to start or forgetting the notes?
To conclude, I want to stress the importance of changing up your practice routine. Even if you are not convinced, TRY IT, I’m sure you will be astonished at how you can visualise your performance scenario and become aware of yourself as an individual. You will accomplish more out of your sessions even if you implement this once a week in different environments and venues. It will enable you to become more familiar with performance scenarios. I have implemented this into my teaching and my students have given me fantastic feedback with how it has helped them.
I hope this can be of use to YOU. I’d love to hear your feedback and how you have got on with this strategy. Enjoy!
Mindfulness for Musicians
“Don’t just react to stress, deal with it constructively”- The Chimp Paradox
Stress is a factor that is often overlooked in a musician’s complex lifestyle demands. It can manifest itself in many different ways, commonly making us irritable, aggressive, impatient, anxious, and depressed. Many of us experience disjointed sleeping patterns affecting our memory capacity, making us fatigued with little or no energy, and most of all; stress can halt us from being able to perform to the best of our ability which can be incredibly distressing for a musician (and the stress cycle begins its vicious circle).
As an individual, recognising your symptoms of stress is the first step to leading a more relaxed, happier lifestyle; leaving us to be able to cope and deal with objects and tasks that throw us off balance; an extremely common aspect that comes with being a professional musician. Stress is nature’s way of alerting us that something is wrong, and that we need to act to put it right. This is the psychological side, thinking about our ‘means-whereby’ (Alexander Technique principal of how we ‘use’ ourselves).
During a stressful period, the body releases chemicals to alert us, with adrenaline and cortisol being two of the most important factors. When we are stressed, our human nature gets thrown off balance and we go into ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode; everyone reacts differently. Some people get aggressive and ‘fight’ off their responses, others will try ‘fight’ and avoid the problem, and people who ‘freeze’ just deny that stress exists and hopes it goes away!
So how shall we deal with stress as a Musician?
I realise that as humans, inherently, most individuals don’t want to change grounded habits; we tend to seek homeostasis and balance. However, with all the hype of changing our ‘health and fitness’ in our current society, and deal with training ourselves physically in the gym, then we can surely deal with our inner selves and improve our stress responses, right?
Undeniably, musicians are put under an incredible amount of stress on a daily basis, which can halt our progress significantly. From starting in the early hours of the morning (having been up all evening practicing), preparing for concerts, tours, rushing to rehearsals or exams, to memorising a concerto, hoping and praying that we remember all of those intricacies when we are in the spotlight about to perform- we only get once chance! Performance anxiety kicks in, sweaty hands, memory loss; our ‘fight, fight or freeze’ mode- however, how do we react and deal with this body response?
I believe that we need to develop a well-rehearsed reaction, similar to preparing a piece of music. We need to ensure we stop our stress responses from kicking in and having a few logical steps to calmly go through and stop, before we act:
How do you manage your stress?
“Don’t wade through treacle!”
A few ideas of how to manage our stress could be:
REMIND YOURSELF: YOU ARE NOT YOUR FEELINGS!
We are strong individuals with waves of emotions that pass through us, all the time. This is natural, but we must stop, think, and realise; that we are not our feelings in times of distress. YOU stay the same, but your feelings can change.
The moral of this blog post is that, as a Musician, we need to be strong, not only physically, but mentally. Emotions and mental psychological outlook can facilitate healing, stress, or even a musician injury, which is why I am so passionate about encompassing relaxation into my AthElite Musician program for Musicians.
How are you going to reduce your stress levels this week? :)
Musicians injuries almost always develop from a somatic origin. Western Europe has developed a culturally adopted obsession with ‘end-gaining’, the need to achieve results quickly, and by any means possible. Especially for musicians, we constantly have deadlines to meet, rehearsals to attend, pieces to learn and memorise, exams to prepare for; and we tend to develop 'tunnel-vision' in order to thrive. A shocking statistic from a recent article I read on 'The Injured Musician- A Taboo Subject?' is that “up to 87% of musicians report injury or pain. Many others are experiencing hearing loss or distortion.” This just goes to show how injury in the music field is still problematic, something which I am incredibly passionate about eliminating.
“An astounding 50 to 60 per cent of orchestra players have suffered from RSI in their arms and/or hands, causing significant pain or disability.”
“Musculoskeletal injuries are reported by 50% to 76% of professional musicians, the problem is substantial.”
In my recent AthElite proprietary survey, a significant 91% of musicians from Music Colleges in London reported that they had experienced pain from injury, or knew a musician who had.
Imagine a violinist playing one of Handel’s Messiah movements; the violinist is expected to bow “740 times in 2 minutes”. In Ravel’s Bolero, a snare drummer is expected to continuously “repeat a 24- note pattern for the entire 14-minute piece”, performing a total of 5,144 arm strokes. For pianists, it is said that the hourly rate of repetition for sixteenth notes at a metronome setting of a quarter note= 120, is 28,800! All these examples would certainly cause perplexity to a Health Inspector and I am determined to spread awareness of the importance health and well-being for musicians. We must prepare the anatomy of the body for the arduous physical patterns we are asking it to perform otherwise we cannot expect to attain a sustainable career. The sad realisation was stated in a book I read recently, 'the musician sitting on either side of your practice room is probably suffering in silence with the very same pain and career anxiety as you'.
I want to fill the gap for the lack of preparation and strength education available to musicians and I need YOUR feedback to make this happen. I need to do something about this in the classical music industry, It distresses me to see articles saying 'take aspirin' to avoid tendonitis, or, 'take anti-inflammatory drugs' or 'have surgery' to cure your injury (!) I want to provide a specialised PREVENTION service, bringing awareness, education, and support for musicians in training by integrating the focal keystones of health into musicians complex lifestyle demands, so we don't have to face the problem of injury. We cannot let injury get in the way of our art.
Would you be interested in a service that specifically tailors workouts for YOU to achieve your goals as a musician? Here are just a handful of benefits that AthElite Musician can provide:
Please do express your interest in my concept, or any feedback and questions by emailing me on:
I'm very excited to start launching workshops on my unique business concept soon, so watch this space!
For me, setting small goals are a perfect way of achieving one big goal, which will make a significant difference for me as a Musician in the long run. Whether this involves adding one strength training session a week to your usual routine, creating a personalised warm-up routine, or including a cool-down phase to protect your ligaments and tendons - it's important that you do whatever will enhance YOUR body. We are all built differently and require different things, but the way to find out what your body thrives on the most is all down to trial and error.
In order to do this, I would recommend implementing the following 6 steps:
1. Work out what time of day is best for YOU to workout. This could be in the morning, evening, or even as a break from work in the afternoon! Remember that the body naturally resists change - this is a survival mechanism called 'homeostasis', so you may have to push the boundaries in order to reveal future benefits! A little change is the first step towards realising a big one.
2. If you are inexperienced with weights or strength training, start with some basic body-weight exercises, for example, try some push ups or light weights. It's important that you seek someone to guide you through the CORRECT technique, otherwise this could be counter productive and detrimental to your body - something that we can't risk as Musicians; our bodies are part of our instruments. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
If strength training is a future goal for yourself, try swimming - it is soft on the joints and develops the 'humero scapular' rhythm of the arm joints (a vital concept for musicians).
3. Work out your performance goals for 2016. This may be performing a concerto, or you may have a final recital coming up at the end of the year; try to determine whether you require SPEED or STRENGTH for your program.
Work out what your body requires and build a program around it to enhance your preparation. For speed and fast finger dexterity, I would strengthen the larger muscles around the trunk instead of isolating smaller ones, as this will take some of the load off the smaller tendons and ligaments.
4. Develop a warm-up and cool-down routine for yourself and integrate it into your practice sessions. Write down how you felt before you started and how you felt afterwards; did it energise you, make you more focused, make you more aware of your body in your session?
5. Try and integrate a brisk walk or a short run per week. Studies have shown that increased oxygen to the brain can enable musicians to think more clearly, be more focused and more creative. Aerobic exercise benefits the lungs and opens up more alveoli (the air sacs where gas is exchanged with the blood) - enabling musicians who require arduous hours of lung work to be more efficient. As well as this, increased oxygen can lighten up the spots in and around the prefrontal cortex, which governs all executive functions: complex thinking, reasoning and multitasking (all components required when being a musician.) So, what more could persuade you to put those trainers on?!
6. Do something you ENJOY during the week! Emotions and mental psychological outlook can facilitate healing; the relationship between the mind and body is so powerful- we tend to forget that the two components work harmoniously and can have a profound effect on learning and progress. Make sure you take time for yourself during the week, even if this is as little as 10 minutes of quiet; our bodies need re-charging otherwise they will run out of fuel both mentally and physically.
Please check out my video on TRX for Musicians if you haven't already done so:
Hope you all have a very successful 2016!
For me, warming up before a practice session is now a must. I never realised the importance of it all until I developed tendonitis in my forearms a few years ago. For this reason, I have attached a couple of warm up exercises for the forearms above, especially for the extensor and flexor tendons.
During my time at the RCM, one would hear pianists warming up with scales, short excerpts of pieces or a technical etude (sometimes at break neck speed); this is certainly one way of practically 'warming up' the fingers (!) I am not writing this to say there is a right or wrong with what you do before you practice, everyone's body responds differently; but I merely want to express my interest in the various approaches. Without a doubt there is much controversy as to whether 'warming up' is required for musicians. In the Piano Pedagogy Research Lab at the University of Ottawa, Dr.Comeau produced convincing proof that warming up by performing scales and arpeggios can actually be detrimental to our hands. Warming up by playing a Chopin Etude at its fastest tempo was compared to having a high jumper, jumping his highest PB without any warm up and the consequences one will face.
For me, a psychological and physical warm up away from the piano is beneficial to prepare both the mind and body for the session ahead. It allows me to start my session in a relaxed, controlled and focused mind-set with clear goals to achieve. Similar to my last post, I will stress again, the importance of regarding the body as a Professional Athlete. As we are using complex coordinated movements of our whole bodies when practicing, we simply must warm up those required muscles to avoid injury. A dynamic warm up increases blood circulation and oxygen flow to the muscles preparing them for the motor patterns they will perform. I vary my warm ups but my preferred exercises are usually:
1. Dynamic Pectoral Stretch (opening and closing the arms like an exaggerated clapping motion)
2. Shoulder Rolls (loosing up shoulder mobility permitting freer movement of the arms) you can make this more dynamic by incorporating the whole arm creating circular motions.
3. Vinyasa Yogic Flow Sequence with deep breathing to loosen and create flow in my muscles and tendons.
I make sure I meticulously drill this into my students from a young age so it becomes a habitual process of learning the piano, making sure they understand the holistic well-being approach for the body and the importance of why we do it. Again, in my opinion similar to athletes, we must take it slow at the beginning of a practice session and be careful not to shock the muscles and tendons by suddenly creating awkward strenuous positions or fast dexterous passages. I truly believe that the elimination of musician's injuries in the future will come down to re-education of movement, a sound thought process and strengthening of the anatomy.
What is your method of warming up? Make a change to your pre-practice session in 2016, try a change and do something different next time you sit at the piano- you never know, it might drastically improve the quality of your practice! For me, 2016 is all about trial and error.
Please feel free to email me on email@example.com if you are interested in viewing my extensive warm-up card for Pianists. It includes pre practice stretches, dynamic stretches, tension release exercises and a post practice session stretch to promote muscular relaxation from the piano.
As I have recently been featured in one of the world's leading Classical Music Blogs written by Dr.Chris Foley, (for which I am incredibly honoured); I thought I would start 'blogging' to try and inspire Musicians alike about my passion to halt injuries in the Music Field. In the fast paced world we currently live in, for me, setting goals for myself is a must, in order to succeed, be satisfied, and have a clear mind as an individual. As humans, our brains are constantly on 'auto-pilot', as the minds natural state is to be alert at all times. For Musicians, our minds are even more frivolous, as most of the time, hundreds of thousands of notes and passages are running through our heads! (especially in the lead up before a big performance.) My blog will be mainly about promoting Health and Wellness for Musicians with the focal topic of a Musician's Body. I will be posting my own Warm Up Program for Pianists, Practice Tips, Stress-Relief Tips, Performance Nerves, Musician Yoga Exercises, a Pianist's BodyMap, Musician Meditation Scenarios and many more topics for you to enhance yourself as a Musician in 2016. Lets set some goals and be the best we can be for the new year ahead!
I thought I would start my first blog telling my story as a Pianist who suffered tendonitis for three years, and how I have got to where I am now. For a year I had treatments, massage and ultrasound and they were just ‘quick fixes’ as my injury slowly crept back each time. I sadly couldn't stop and let my injury heal as I was in the middle of performing Chopin's Piano Concerto no.2 and preparing for my final exams at the Royal College of Music. I decided to find out the real crux of the problem and to understand why my pain kept occurring. It was never stressed to me the importance of well-being or how physically fit we had to be if we wanted to become a Professional Pianist. 'You just play the piano with your fingers, right? Can't be that hard?' - this sentence has stuck with me ever since my first year in London. There is a lot of misconception about playing the piano, we use complex coordinated movements of our entire body; by saying we just play the piano with our fingers is like saying we run with just our feet......
I wasn’t physically prepared for the hours of work I was putting my body through at Music College and consequently I suffered as a result. The crux of my RSI problem purely came down to lack of strength in my body as I simply didn’t realise the importance of well-being during my studies; I just expected my body to repeat strenuous patterns for up to 8 hours a day sometimes (that's normal for the body, right?!...) After graduating with a First Class (Hons), I decided to train myself up and re-educate my whole anatomy and movement to enhance my playing. I became a qualified TRX Suspension Trainer in London and I am currently completing a Personal Training Diploma, lifted weights twice a week and took a completely different approach to my practice which was short 20 minute sessions, frequently, interspersed with breaks of the Alexander Technique (more on this subject later). Miraculously my injury has disappeared and it made me really passionate about halting injury in the music industry; I became to realise that almost all Musician's injuries start from a somatic origin. So many musicians fail to acknowledge the fact that we are in fact Professional Athletes in our own field. We should look after our well-being to live a healthy, happy lifestyle, in order to achieve our musical goals!
We need to prepare our bodies similarly to those of a marathon runner, if we want to attain a sustainable career. In the famous TRX words, ‘Make Your Body Your Machine’, or in our case:
'Make Your Body Your Instrument'.