At some point during his 15 years as a solo pianist, Kris Becker stopped enjoying his live performances. A fear of mistakes had eclipsed the joy he previously felt when making music and sharing it with others.
"I felt that the way I played was a reflection of me as a person," says Becker, an up-and-coming concert pianist. "Mistakes humiliated me."
Performance anxiety like Becker's threatens the careers of many musicians, says Jon Skidmore, PsyD, a Utah psychologist in private practice and an adjunct professor at the Brigham Young University School of Music. As a musician and a specialist in anxiety treatments, Skidmore is pioneering coaching techniques-many of them borrowed from sports psychology-to help performers like Becker. But unlike sports psychology, the field of music-performance psychology is undeveloped, and few psychologists specialize in working with musicians, Skidmore says.
"The music world is dominated by the theme: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," says Skidmore. "Many performers rise to the occasion, but a lot get burned."
In the hopes of fireproofing young musicians, Skidmore teaches a class in the university's music department, where he helps students make the jump from the practice room to the stage. Outside of his academic work, the psychologist also runs fee-based workshops for early-career musicians, imparting his philosophy of performance and helping students build anxiety- and attention-control techniques into their daily practice sessions. In fact, Skidmore first met Becker in one of his workshops.
"The amount of time most performing artists spend developing the mental skills of performing is miniscule compared to the amount of time they spend developing their musical craft," notes Skidmore.
The power of play
Becker certainly fit this description, he says. Though he spends upwards of six hours a day in the practice room, the pianist never considered the mental work involved in performing-until he participated in Skidmore's workshop.
Prior to attending the workshop, Becker won the 2004 Yamaha Young Performing Artist Competition. Becker says performance anxiety threatened to derail his performance, but he managed to push through. Along with the nine other winners, the pianist traveled to Normal, Ill., that summer to participate in a three-day training program that included three sessions with Skidmore.
The training program-which culminates in a public recital-aims to assist the young musicians as they become professional recording and performing artists. During their time in the program, the contest winners glean wisdom from other musicians, learn about the music business and work with Skidmore to explore the psychological aspects of performing.
During his workshops, Skidmore explains to young musicians that performing takes skills above and beyond musical ability. One skill that Skidmore emphasizes is the ability to focus completely on a performance and enter a state called "flow"-an idea he borrows from the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, a psychology and management professor at California's Claremont Graduate University. During a flow state, concerns about everyday life and making mistakes drop away, allowing the performer to become one with the music, says Csikszentmihalyi.
"There are many reasons one may not have flow while playing: being bored, playing something too familiar, playing something way too difficult, being too self-conscious and so on," says Csikszentmihalyi. "A knowledgeable coach who understands music and flow can be of great help in removing such obstacles."
To help young musicians attain flow-an enjoyable experience in itself, as well as a pathway to great performances-Skidmore teaches the following skills:
Relaxation on demand. Stepping in front of an audience excites most people, says Skidmore, but musicians can keep their heart rate from skyrocketing by breathing deeply while tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups. The psychologist advises performers to master this technique in their practice room-perhaps while taking a needed break from playing. However, other musicians may experience the opposite problem-not being excited enough about a performance-says Skidmore.
Preperformance preparation. Skidmore recommends that musicians take five minutes before stepping onto the stage, using the minutes to relax and focus on their performance goals. During workshops, the psychologist helps musicians discover their own trigger words-words that capture how they want to perform. Becker, for instance, uses the words "outrageous" and "bold." As he breathes out, the pianist says those words to himself and then steps onto the stage.
Attention control. Good performances happen when the musician can let go of all thoughts unrelated to the music itself, says Skidmore. To that end, performers can practice tuning out mental noise-thoughts about dinner, about one's family and even about particularly difficult passages-and focus completely on what is happening in the moment.
Performance enjoyment. Letting go of anxiety and outside concerns frees up a musician to have fun, and that really comes out in the performance, says Skidmore. "It's not called 'playing' for nothing," he notes.
During his workshop, the psychologist attempts to redefine the stage as a place for fun, perhaps by asking performers to act like animals or make up impromptu performances with noisemakers. These unusual performances help performers identify and conquer what Skidmore calls their "imaginary rattlesnakes"-concerns that are making their stage a dangerous place to play.
Constructive criticism. All too often, musicians mentally rehash every mistake they made, Skidmore says. Instead, he teaches performers to take a few minutes and debrief themselves about their performance. During this time, the musicians look at their recital as objectively as possible, congratulating themselves on successes as well as noting what they would like to have done differently. Skidmore guides musicians to think about what might have contributed to mistakes and then brainstorm ways to overcome those obstacles in the future.
Learning from mistakes
After just one weekend with Skidmore, Becker reports that he completely redefined the way he approached live performances. Instead of seeing the audience as a group of people passing harsh judgment, he began to view them as playmates, says Becker.
"It is essential for me to keep in mind that I am here to provide enjoyment for others and they want to see me having a good time," he says.
Despite this change in attitude, Becker was less than pleased with his performance at the end of the Yamaha Young Performing Artist weekend. He chose some very difficult pieces-including a Rachmaninov piano concerto-and stumbled over a few passages.
"I was pretty distraught…I was almost to the point of tears," he says.
However, with guidance from Skidmore, Becker was able to pinpoint what went wrong: He lost his focus and didn't trust that he had practiced enough.
"Jon said: Are you going to let this be a stepping stone to something better, or are you going to beat yourself up and keep living the way you have?" Becker recalls. "I decided to learn from the experience."