If you’ve ever taught middle school students, you know what a truly unique challenge they can be. Opinionated, smelly, a little wild in the eyes . . . shockingly similar to my two Australian Shepherds, Cooper and Pip. And the similarities certainly don’t end there.
In a previous blog post, I shared how errorless learning (a positive reinforcement technique in dog training) can be applied to form better practice habits in the music classroom. This time around, we’ll take a look at how you can use dog-tested techniques like counter-conditioning and positive association as music performance tips to help minimize stage fright in young musicians.
From the day I adopted my first Aussie, Cooper, at seven months old, he had quite a few opinions of his own. At the start, he wasn’t overly fond of men in hats, cookie sheets, children, the mailwoman, or the vacuum cleaner. He especially disliked being left alone and panicked whenever he heard fireworks or thunder.
Though most of those things don’t affect his ability to function at home, they prove both distracting and troublesome when I need his full attention in more public places. Until Cooper’s totally comfortable around toddlers or fireworks, they preclude him from doing things as simple as walking on a loose leash or staying in one spot simply because he’s too distracted to focus.
Armed with lots of spray cheese and positive reinforcement, we are slowly turning those negative associations around. Still, it will take time to build the confidence necessary for Cooper to perform confidently under pressure.
Conversely, Cooper’s younger brother, Pip, doesn’t seem to know fear at all. Ever since he came home at 10 weeks old, Pip has perceived every situation he’s encountered as a new, exciting adventure.
In an effort to prevent him from forming negative associations on his own like Cooper did, I exposed him to every situation I could think of from the start: loud noises, large crowds, animals, machines, alone time, everything. He quickly learned that new people, places, and things came with abundant treats and praise.
Because of those early associations, Pip has always greeted the world with tail wagging, and enthusiastically shows off his favorite tricks anytime (and anywhere) he’s asked because he is able to focus on the task at hand and perform confidently.
The Stress of the Stage
Now, though fireworks and cookie sheets may not be a real concern for your human students during their orchestra concerts, I’ll bet stage fright is. In one survey of 48 ICSOM orchestras, 1 out of every 4 musicians said that stage fright was a problem for them. If 25% of professional musicians struggle with stage fright, why aren’t we addressing it more with our students?
When we teach young musicians, we teach pitches and rhythms and even musicality. But frequently, we don’t start to talk about the actual performance until a concert is upon us. Suddenly, musicians who have played beautifully every day in class are sitting under blinding lights on an unfamiliar stage, dressed in tuxedos, squeaking out the wrong notes because they’re worried about the panel of strangers who they are certain will give them a terrible score. Why does this happen?
The Biopsychosocial Stress Model
This biopsychosocial stress model explains it best: “anxiety is the product of a complex and dynamic cognitive appraisal process which actively balances an individual’s perceptions of resources, situational demands, and internal and external sources of feedback prior to, during, and following performances.” Put simply, performers’ brains are frantically trying to calculate the probability that they will fail, causing them to lose focus and make mistakes.
Some musicians eventually learn how to cope with stage fright on their own in time, but for many, that performance anxiety never really goes away.
What Causes Stage Fright?
Let’s take a look at four specific factors that typically prompt stage fright:
- Task Difficulty
- Consequences of Failure
- Others’ High Expectations
- Perceived Importance of the Outcome
In the same way that Cooper cannot roll over during a fireworks show because he is too distracted by the loud booms, performers with stage fright suffer during concerts because they are too distracted by one (or a combination) of the factors listed above.
So how do we create musicians who look forward to concerts from the start? We expose them to performance early and often in low-stress situations that form positive associations. That way, we can shape the belief that performance is both rewarding and enjoyable.
We should be teaching kids to practice performance every chance they get! The more frequently they perform the less unusual and foreign the experience will be. As a result they spend less time stressing about the four anxiety factors above. It helps to get creative with performance venues so students become comfortable in new environments.
To start, try hosting regular concerts in class where students perform songs of their choice for their peers. Invite everyone to share what they enjoyed about one another’s performances at the end, too. By allowing students to choose what they’re performing, task difficulty becomes less of a concern and they begin to anticipate positive feedback and take pride in their selections. With no panel of judges to appease, the consequences of failure diminish and students will start to focus more on the music than they do on the audience.
In time, you’ll be able to raise the stakes higher and higher. Consider encouraging participation in school talent shows or even arranging lunchtime cafeteria concerts. Offer extra credit to those who perform at parks, senior centers, and farmers markets to encourage them to stretch themselves outside school hours.
Busking in areas with high foot traffic (with parents nearby, of course) can provide a great experience for young musicians, too; the audience isn’t laser-focused on the performer and tips make for an exciting reward!
Harnessing the Energy
Though some performers are happy to steal the show right away, other musicians may always experience some level of stage fright. That is okay. It is a powerful energy, and can be harnessed for the forces of good. Learn more in this great Bulletproof Musician post.
You can also help anxious performers be more successful by teaching them to over-prepare, manage nervous energy, play courageously, and recover from their mistakes. They’ll eventually learn to channel would-be stage fright into positive energy for a dynamic performance.
In time, those performances will give students the confidence needed to perform both consistently and beautifully on stage without fear of judges (or cookie sheets).