Earlier this spring, after years of research and personal practice, I decided to finally put my thoughts together and offer a mindfulness-based class on teaching and wellness. The class is modeled after the popular 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed at the Massachusetts General Hospital, with readings, practices, and discussions designed specifically for teachers. If you’re interested in learning more about how these types of classes work, there are hundreds of online resources you can find through a basic Google search. There are even MBSR classes available for free, although I have not yet found a free one designed specifically for teachers.
For those of you unfamiliar with MBSR type programs, I think it would be helpful to describe some of the basics of this class. First, the students are exposed to videos, articles, and other media relating to the science and practice of mindfulness. Each week’s content is tied to a specific topic and practice in the 8-week MBSR sequence. Each weekly unit also introduces a foundational formal practice, such as sitting meditation, body scans, and yoga, paired with what are called “informal practices”. The informal practices are mostly about applications of mindfulness in teaching and learning. Finally, the class meets once a week to debrief and discuss each unit’s content and practices.
The overall sequence of the course starts with practices designed to increase awareness and attention, followed by strategies for dealing with reactivity, stress, and negative emotions, and concludes with methods for improving interpersonal relationships. We are currently a little over half way through the course, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of my impressions so far.
Heightened awareness can be therapeutic
It is interesting to see what happens when we refine our awareness and come face-to-face with our often reactive and unfocused habits of mind. Many teachers in the class were simply shocked at the amount of time they spend mindlessly reacting to situations, engaging in negative self-talk, and “going through the motions”. While this realization was uncomfortable at first, some teachers have started to comment on the value of just being open to their experience in a more direct and less judgmental way. Many have noted that allowing thoughts to surface, rather than suppressing them, has helped them shift to a more curious rather than reactive disposition. This has allowed them to be more present for others, as they are not overly involved in their internal dialogues and reactions.
Learning what we can and can’t control is difficult
I’ve written before about the pitfalls of well-intended perfectionism. While there is certainly nothing wrong with having high standards, having impossible standards and then beating ourselves up when we don’t reach these standards can lead to tremendous and often unnecessary suffering. In mindfulness, we learn to see the world the way it is rather than how we think it should be. It’s not that we don’t strive to make things better for ourselves and others, it’s that we decouple our intentions from our expectations. We can strive for better while knowing that there is very little in the world that is completely under our control. For some students in the class, it has been difficult to let go of expectations about what they think they should be getting from these practices. Some have expressed feelings of failure when things haven’t gone exactly how they imagined. Of course, real changes take time, and there is no way to “get ahead” in mindfulness. In a world in which we are used to instant gratification and the illusion of control, grappling with our own limitations can be both difficult and immensely liberating.
The space to choose is powerful
We should be grateful for those habits that we have cultivated purposefully, especially when they benefit ourselves as well as others. However, many of our mental habits, including unchecked reactions, anxieties, and fears, often lead to unnecessary suffering and delusions about reality. The practice of mindfulness is all about giving yourself the mental space to notice these reactions as they arise, examine their triggers, and over time, increase your capacity to choose your actions. This begins with the simple act of being present and allowing some space between your internal reactions and what follows. One teacher remarked that after a few weeks of practice, he began to notice the swell of physiological activity that would occur during difficult teaching situations, and how the simple act of noticing gave him space to choose wiser and more compassionate actions. This mental “gap”, which is actively cultivated during mindfulness, is perhaps one of the most powerful outcomes of the practice.
Group discussions are tremendously therapeutic
It has been incredibly inspiring to witness the therapeutic effect of providing teachers with the space to come together and discuss their difficulties, insights, and triumphs in a safe and nurturing environment. There is something powerful about knowing that we are not alone in our suffering and insecurity, and conversely, that there is joy to be found in the success of others.
Every little bit helps
As expected, many teachers have been unable to consistently complete all of the readings and practices required for the class. Despite this, it appears that even small amounts of practice have been beneficial. This makes me hopeful for the efficacy of these types of programs, as we all know how difficult it can be for teachers to find enough time in their schedule for regular practice. In the coming weeks, I hope you’ll come back and learn about some of the teaching related practices we are exploring in the class. Over time, it is my hope to develop a specific set and sequence of practices that might be beneficial for teachers on a limited schedule, or for those who simply want to explore these practices on a more ad-hoc basis. While there is of course, no substitute for regular practice, even limited practice might be beneficial for those interested.
At the last National Association for Music Education (NAfME) research conference, I gave a short presentation on the need for teacher training programs to include strategies for helping educators deal with their internal ecology. I like the term “internal ecology” because it puts the locus of control on what goes on inside our own minds, rather than on what happens in our environment. To be clear, I am not advocating that teachers stop working for or advocating for improved working conditions. We all know that the profession is besieged by problems ranging from inadequate compensation to poorly designed and often invalid measures of learning and success. I do suggest however, that while we continue to work toward better working conditions, that we should be careful not ignore the very real internal emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal dynamics that govern much of how we relate to our external environment, and in turn, our propensity to function ethically and skillfully for our students as well as our own benefit.
To frame the presentation, I began by summarizing key findings from research on teacher stress and burnout, both in music and in the education field in general. As you can imagine, there is a substantial amount of information on this topic. In general, teachers report that they are stressed by overly needy students, lack of autonomy, large class sizes, and pressures from testing and “accountability” measures among other issues (Richards, 2012). There were also several studies mentioning that teachers felt disconnected from the wider community (Krueger, 2000), and that their relationships with other music teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders were unhealthy.
Stress of course, is subjective. All teachers do not react to demanding conditions in the same way, and some do not find it as difficult to operate effectively in these types of environments. In a paper by Roeser et al. (2013), the authors propose that part of the reason some teachers may experience stress is that their cognitive and emotional resources are insufficient to meet the demands required for effective teaching. For example, teachers need to demonstrate attentional flexibility, switching their focus between several demanding and often consequential tasks in rapid succession. While this is happening, they also need to make appropriate decisions, often with little to time to think or consider the consequences of their actions. Additionally, they must be aware of and maintain control over their emotions, as well as manage interpersonal relationships in a positive manner. If teachers are exerting too much effort to accomplish any of these tasks, they may begin to appraise their situation as overwhelming, and thus experience stress.
While some stress is expected and even useful, it is well documented that too much stress can be detrimental to both our physical and psychological wellbeing. Jennings and Greenberg (2009) propose that training in social-emotional competence may protect teachers from some of the burnout and emotional exhaustion that can result from excessive stress. In my view, this type of competence is in line with recent guidelines from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which suggests that teachers should have dispositional traits that allow them to manage interpersonal situations with a high degree of competency. Unfortunately, in my attempts to find some evidence of dispositional training among teacher training programs, I was unable to find even one program that required or provided formal training in this area.
Fortunately, there is mounting evidence that teachers who engage in mindfulness-based training programs are acquiring dispositions that may allow them to deal more effectively with feelings of being overwhelmed, and may improve both their wellbeing and performance in the classroom. These skills and dispositions include better cognitive and emotional self-regulation, and improved interpersonal relationships. Programs such as Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE) and Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques (SMART) have been the subject of recent studies, and the results seem promising. Also, in a recent study by Flook et al (2013), mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) was effective in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotional states among urban teachers. Most importantly, the majority of teachers reported that the programs were both useful and feasible in light of their already hectic schedules.
Improvements made from participation in these programs can be attributed to fundamental changes in brain function, and although the specific psychological and neurological effects of mindfulness are still under investigation, researchers suggest that mindfulness leads to heightened activity in regions of the brain that affect self-regulation of attention, as well as positive affective states (Davidson et al., 2003; Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008).
With mounting evidence of the tremendous benefits that MBSR can provide for teachers, why aren’t more training programs addressing these types of competencies in their curriculum? In my presentation, I suggested that we need to seriously examine how we might be able to train faculty to develop programs, and perhaps propose some pilot studies and a formal research agenda that can move us closer to developing strategies that are both useful and feasible for pre and inservice teachers. For those interested, I’ve included a PDF of the Prezi from my presentation. I’ve also included links that provide more information about the programs listed above.
To conclude, I believe that it is time for our profession to consider that as important as content and pedagogical training are to the development of effective teachers, these skills do not address the dynamic and often complex interpersonal world of dealing with students, parents, and most importantly – ourselves. We owe it to our teachers, our children, and our education system to do better, and perhaps, through being open to new strategies and ways of thinking, we might be able to do just that.
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., … & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
Flook, L., Goldberg, S. B., Pinger, L., Bonus, K., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Mindfulness for teachers: A pilot study to assess effects on stress, burnout, and teaching efficacy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(3), 182-195.
Jennings, P. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). The prosocial classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to student and classroom outcomes. Review of educational research, 79(1), 491-525.
Krueger, P. J. (2000). Beginning Music Teachers: Will They Leave the Profession?. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 19(1), 22-26.
Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(4), 163-169.Richards, J. (2012, July). Teacher stress and coping strategies: A national snapshot. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 299-316). Taylor & Francis Group.
Richards, J. (2012, July). Teacher stress and coping strategies: A national snapshot. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 299-316). Taylor & Francis Group.
Roeser, R. W., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Jha, A., Cullen, M., Wallace, L., Wilensky, R., … & Harrison, J. (2013). Mindfulness training and reductions in teacher stress and burnout: Results from two randomized, waitlist-control field trials. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(3), 787
A few weeks ago, my colleague Sharon Paul shared an experience with me that I think demonstrates how powerful even a simple mindfulness-based technique can be in changing the dynamics of a practice session or rehearsal. Sharon is the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Oregon, and is in my opinion, one of the finest conductors and pedagogues in the field. I mention this because musicians like Sharon, who are experts and have a lot of effective strategies at their disposal, are not often surprised at the effectiveness of a new or novel technique. I asked Sharon’s permission to mention her story on the blog, which involved the use of a technique that I call “three breaths”.
The “three breaths” technique is an especially useful strategy during moments when we are tired, frustrated, or no longer have the ability to successfully maintain focus. Using “three breaths”, we can “reset” our attention in a gentle yet skillful manner. This is an important distinction, because when we are feeling less than optimal, any forced attempts at paying attention are likely to result in the exact opposite of what we desire.
The technique is actually rather simple. During “three breaths”, we ask our students – or ourselves if we are the ones dealing with a wandering attention – to inhale and exhale slowly and deliberately for three full cycles. We do this while maintaining a relaxed and balanced posture, and while keeping our focus on the physical sensations of our breath. After we have completed the cycles, we allow ourselves a couple of minutes of just attending to the breath, without changing or otherwise deliberately interfering with its natural ebb and flow. Like many mindfulness activities, we also gently remind ourselves to reengage with the object of our attention anytime that we feel our minds are beginning to wander. These self-reminders should be gentle, non-punitive, and free of judgment.
In Sharon’s case, she was working with a talented honor choir of high school musicians. Although the students had been working hard and were attentive, the rehearsals were long and she could sense that she was starting to lose them. After the exercise, the students were not only re-engaged, but the atmosphere in the room also seemed to change. As Sharon describes it, there was an almost palpable feeling of focused and meditative calmness afterwards that permeated the room.
As a conductor and studio teacher, I’ve used different versions of this exercise in both large ensemble rehearsals as well as individual lessons. I’ve tried it with middle and high school-aged musicians, and with college students as well. In all cases, I can confirm what Sharon observed – a sense of calm and focused re-engagement from the musicians, and all without having to force the issue of paying attention.
Based on current scientific findings, it is difficult to determine exactly why something like the “three breaths” exercise works as well as it does. We know from research that long-term meditation training, or even a disposition towards mindfulness, seems to improve how the prefrontal cortex moderates activity in the amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex of the brain (Creswell, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2008).
To clarify, the prefrontal cortex is associated with attention and emotional regulation, and areas such as the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate are linked to emotional processing. When we speak about self-regulation as a desirable and necessary quality for successful learning, we are essentially talking about an effective relationship between these two areas of the brain. In many imaging studies, long-term meditators seem to demonstrate improved function in the prefrontal cortex, an indicator of effective self-regulation.
When compared to long-term meditation practice, the “three breaths” exercise is rather limited, and would in all likelihood have a negligible or minimal effect on these areas of the brain. Yet, despite a lack of extensive research on short, mindfulness-based induction strategies, there are at least two studies that seem to indicate some type of measurable effect based on limited practice.
In a study by Arch and Craske (2006), a group of students who engaged in a 15-minute mindfulness induction, compared to students who were prompted to actively worry or who were not prompted at all, reported decreased reactivity to emotionally aversive images. Also, in one of my own studies (Diaz, 2013), musicians who participated in a 15-minute mindfulness induction before listening to an excerpt of La bohème attributed heightened engagement as well as an increased sense of novelty to engaging in the induction.
Although neither of these studies are conclusive, they do suggest at least the possibility of a moderate effect based on engaging in some kind of attenuated mindfulness-based induction. Besides, even if the science is not quite there yet, at the very least, taking a moment to breathe, reset, and re-engage – even as a basic practice or intention – is likely to help and at the very least, unlikely to hurt the rehearsal process.
Creswell, J. D., Eisenberger, N., & Lieberman, M. (2008). Neural correlates of mindfulness during social exclusion. Unpublished manuscript, University of California, Los Angeles.
Arch, J. J., & Craske, M. G. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness: Emotion regulation following a focused breathing induction. Behavior Research and Therapy, 44, 1849–1858.
Diaz, F. M. (2013). Mindfulness, attention, and flow during music listening: An empirical investigation. Psychology of Music, 41(1), 42-58.
I am a recovering musical perfectionist. I wasn’t always like this, but somewhere along the way, play became rigor and the standards on which I judged myself became harder and harder to achieve. Originally, I thought my striving for perfection was a performance thing. In other words – outside of playing trombone, I thought I was ok. I didn’t need to be the best at math, writing, cooking, whatever. At the time, I also thought that I would dedicate myself full time to being a performer, so of course, being a perfectionist in that domain would make sense, at least if I wanted to make a living.
Unfortunately, and even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, perfectionism wasn’t only a performance thing. I began to notice a nagging feeling, perhaps even an internal voice, that told me everything I did needed to be at the highest level, or else … Or else what? I’m still not sure, but there was also an “or else” when I began to teach. It emerged when I began to write – not just papers, but e-mails, notes, even Facebook posts. I also felt it when I spoke – what if I said something grammatically incorrect? What if people could hear an accent?
As I made the transition to a life of teaching, in which performance was still an integral yet secondary pursuit for me, these feelings remained. They continued throughout my development as a conductor, and even now in my work as a researcher and teacher at the university, they emerge at times, reminding me that there is always something better to achieve. Or else …
Dealing with perfectionism has not been easy, nor do I think I’ve conquered this particular challenge. This is why I say I am a recovering perfectionist rather than a cured one. Also, I think that in our culture, many people have an issue understanding the difference between being a perfectionist and having high standards or expectations for your self and others.
First, I think the term “perfectionist” should be clarified. In the psychological literature, a perfectionist is some one who sets goals that are nearly impossible to accomplish. These individuals are also extremely self-critical as well overly concerned with what others think of them. There are studies that link perfectionism to poor self-esteem (Ashby & Rice, 2002), depression and anxiety (Halmi et al., 2000), poor self-regulation (Rudolph et al., 2007), and the inability to maintain positive relationships (Dunkley et al., 2003). Unfortunately, none of these outcomes are particularly conducive to making progress in any line of work, or more importantly, to being happy. So, if the goal is achieving at the highest level, which is indeed what a perfectionists seeks, then perhaps a different approach might be worth considering.
As you might imagine, one of the things that has helped me tremendously in my own struggle with perfectionism has been mindfulness. I think this is because mindfulness encourages us to ground our attention in the present moment. It helps us to deal with what we can control right now rather than what we think might happen in the future. Mindfulness also encourages us to examine the reality of our thoughts and feelings, probing us to question why we believe what we believe, how our beliefs came to be, and if they serve us any useful purpose. Finally, mindfulness encourages choice and acceptance. Out of the many thoughts and feelings spinning in our heads at any given time, why do we choose some over others? Who is in control over what we focus on?
While there are many situations in which perfectionism has been a powerful motivator for me, there are few in which I felt it played a positive role. In one example, I remember hearing from some of my teachers that all great brass players had “perfect” articulations. I wanted so badly to be a great player that I remember spending hours upon hours listening to and trying to imitate how great players started notes. I would then compare myself to them, and being a perfectionist, never quite achieved what I was looking for. Instead of asking myself if I had improved, or if I could try a different approach, or even if there was such a thing as a “perfect” articulation, I continued to strive and strive and strive.
I never reached my goal because of course, the perfect articulation, much like the perfect phrase, tone, etc., does not actually exist outside of our perceptions of what “perfect” might be. Just get three good musicians in a room and ask them to agree on the perfect “anything”, then imagine how things might go. Instead of examining the fallacy of my own notions, or even why I adopted perfection as a goal in the first place, I beat myself up. I tried harder and harder. I obsessed, lost sleep, lost heart, and at certain points, became so frustrated that I became depressed, angry, and even mean to other people. All over articulations! Or, to be more precise, over my delusional approach towards reality.
Years later, after a lot mindfulness meditation and after a long break from performing, I had the chance to reengage professionally as a player. Upon preparing for a concert, I remember many of the old notions coming back. This time though, it was different. Although I could still feel some internal pressure to be perfect, I asked myself where this was coming from? Is this something I valued, or something that had become a part of me because I somehow associated it with success, or at the very least, with what someone else considered an effective method of improvement? I wondered what “perfect” was, or if it was worth pursuing at the expense of authenticity (maybe there was more than one way to articulate well) or expressivity (maybe there was more than one way to play something artistically).
I then wondered why I was so focused on the future – on what would happen at the concert, or what would happen when my colleagues listened to me, or what would happen when my wife would hear me from the other room? I wondered – in the moment, right now, what could I control, what do I want to accomplish, what could I accomplish? What if all I could do was get better? Would this be enough? Would I be OK?
I also wondered if there was room, in the cavernous and rich expanse of my mind, for a voice that said it was fine to strive for great things, even if we don’t accomplish them. For a voice that said that all the great players were of course terrific, but that they were all different as well. For a voice that said that there is no end point, no perfect place to get to, or no better place than the present moment, which in reality, is the only real thing that we can experience.
In the end, all was fine. I played a good but not a “perfect” concert. My colleagues didn’t seem to notice much of anything because they were thinking about their own performances more than mine. The audience liked it because despite my belief sometimes that I am the center of the universe, they were listening to the orchestra and not the second trombone player’s entrance during measure 25. All was well, and even though the perfectionist in me still came out at times, he was somehow smaller, less powerful, and just one of many voices at my immediate disposal. Actually, during the concert, when I did focus on the present, I also found that the perfectionist had little room to make his voice heard anyway.
As musicians, we exist in a culture that often glorifies perfection, competition, and striving, as though without them, there is just no way to be successful or make a valuable artistic statement. Yet, beyond the platitudes and anecdotes, there is very little to support the notion that striving for perfection, rather than aiming for improvement, is either an effective or even healthy approach. Next time you find yourself striving for perfection, or for other things that are by nature unattainable, take a moment to breathe, reflect, and ask yourself – is this taking me where I really want to go, and if so, is it worth it?
Ashby, J. S., & Rice, K. G. (2002). Perfectionism, Dysfunctional Attitudes, and Self‐Esteem: A Structural Equations Analysis. Journal of Counseling & Development, 80(2), 197-203.
Holtkamp, K., Müller, B., Heussen, N., Remschmidt, H., & Herpertz-Dahlmann, B. (2005). Depression, anxiety, and obsessionality in long-term recovered patients with adolescent-onset anorexia nervosa. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 14(2), 106-110.
Rudolph, Susan G., Gordon L. Flett, and Paul L. Hewitt. “Perfectionism and deficits in cognitive emotion regulation.” Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 25, no. 4 (2007): 343-357.
Dunkley, David M., Kirk R. Blankstein, Robin M. Masheb, and Carlos M. Grilo. “Personal standards and evaluative concerns dimensions of “clinical” perfectionism: A reply to Shafran et al.(2002, 2003) and Hewitt et al.(2003).”Behaviour Research and Therapy 44, no. 1 (2006): 63-84.
In today’s fast-paced and over-stimulating world, few of us feel like we have the luxury to stop, breathe, and take a moment to reflect on our internal experience. Personally, I’ve had many days when I felt so busy that I found myself operating almost entirely on habit and instincts. Harvard psychologist Elaine Langer has described this habitual way of dealing with the world as “mindlessness”. When we are “mindless”, we lose our ability to notice novelty or distinctions, and operate on habit rather than on thoughtful and deliberate action.
As musicians, this type of mindless approach can be costly. This is especially true during practice, when it can be too easy to convince our selves that by simply playing through music or engaging in some kind of daily routine – no matter how mindless or habitual – that we will somehow reap at least some minor benefit from our practice. However, when we are mindful, and engage in practice deliberately and with appropriate focus and self-reflection, we are often more likely to progress and might even reap the benefits of an increased sense of motivation.
One way to be more mindful during practice is to engage in strategies that promote self-regulation. A self-regulated learner, as explained by McPherson and Zimmerman (2002), is someone who can remain motivated while planning, engaging in, and assessing their own work. Last year, my colleague Peter Miksza from Indiana University presented a guest lecture to my psychology of music class on the topic of self-regulated practice. He was is the process of completing a study, now published in the journal Psychology of Music, that demonstrated how collegiate wind players’ performances improved significantly when they were exposed to self-regulation techniques.
The details of the study can be found here, but essentially, Miksza’s findings illustrated that compared to a control group, musicians in a group that engaged in self-regulation strategies made greater performance gains after a five-day period, and chose more nuanced objectives (for example, dynamics versus notes and rhythms) than their counterparts. But improvement is only part of the potential benefits of engaged practice. In a study led by Elaine Langer (2009), orchestral musicians were asked to perform the finale of Brahms Fourth Symphony under two conditions. In the first condition, the musicians were asked to perform the excerpt with the goal of imitating the finest performance of it that they could remember. In the second condition, they were asked to add subtle and individualized nuances to their performance.
Langer explains that in the second condition, musicians would have needed to be more mindful, since they were asked to actively engage in their musicianship rather than perform based on learned or previously established models. This active type of involvement might also be characterized as self-regulated, as musicians would have needed to plan, engage, and react to their performance in the moment. One of the results of the experiment, perhaps not surprisingly, showed that the musicians preferred to play under the second directive rather than the first. More surprisingly, though, is that when the excerpts were played for audience members, they too preferred the second excerpt to the first, without knowing which condition they were listening to.
So how might we promote more mindfulness during practice, and reap the benefits of increased self-regulation? I think part of the solution is to encourage questions that will help us to be more deliberate as well as more reflective about the strategies we choose and the ways in which we evaluate ourselves during practice. During the last few years, as several of my colleagues at the University of Oregon have asked me to present research on effective practice to their studios, I’ve put together a list of questions that I believe might help in promoting a more mindful approach. The questions are listed below, and although these are certainly not comprehensive, should serve as a good foundation for promoting mindful practice sessions for those interested. Happy practicing!
Mindful Practice: 20 questions to ask your self before AND after practice
Langer, E., Russell, T., Eisenkraft, N. (2009). Orchestral performance and the footprints of mindfulness. Psychology of Music, 37, 125-136.
McPherson, G. E., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Self-regulation of musical learning: A social cognitive perspective. In R. Colwell, & C. Richardson (Eds.), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning (pp. 327 – 347). New York: Oxford University Press.
Miksza, P. (October 8, 2013). The effect of self-regulation instruction on the performance achievement, musical self-efficacy, and practicing of advanced wind players. Psychology of Music. DOI: 10.1177/0305735613500832
For my first post, I want to deal with the topic of performance anxiety. Almost every musician I know has either dealt with or continues to deal with performance anxiety in some form or another. I still remember a recital many years ago, when I was so nervous, anxious, and afraid of failing that my leg literally shook throughout the entire performance. No matter what I tried – taking deep breaths, positive self-talk, forcefully reorienting my attention – etc., I felt so debilitated and helpless that by the time I was done, I was completely devastated by the experience.
In many ways, there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling a rush of physiological energy before or during a performance. As a species, we have evolved to respond to high-stakes situations by releasing catecholamine, which includes neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and dopamine. These neurotransmitters prepare our bodies for “fight or flight”, and can benefit us by increasing our energy levels, loosening our limbs, and heightening our concentration.
Often, these experiences begin as somatic, meaning that they affect us on a physical level before we appraise them as either “good” or “bad”. This appraisal, however, is key to our experience of anxiety. When this energy is labeled as threatening, or is associated with fear or other negative emotions, it can overwhelm us to the point of debilitation. We literally believe that there is an imminent threat to our well being rather than realizing that we are in the middle of a musical performance, which regardless of outcome, will most likely not lead to death or bodily harm!
The interesting thing about this feeling is that often, we are aware that some part of ourselves is overreacting to our immediate or anticipated experience, and yet there is little to nothing that we can do about it. Suppress it and it comes back more powerfully, ignore it and watch it overcome you, engage it and it will lead you into endless rumination. And here, in the midst of our habitual and often ineffective ways of dealing with anxiety, is where mindfulness can help.
One of the most consequential and well-documented findings in the research literature on mindfulness is that it can reduce anxiety and improve emotional self-regulation. Although researchers are still in the process of determining why this happens, some theorize that mindfulness helps us change the context in which we examine negative experiences. Typically, we approach negative experiences as something that we should repress or fight, but when these experiences are examined through an open and curious disposition, their subjective meaning changes. What was once threatening is now simply one of many thoughts in an on-going stream. These thoughts, when acknowledged but not obsessed about, begin to loosen their grip on our attentional and emotional resources. Through this process, we begin to see how much of what we experience is the result of our conditioning. The nervousness, the shaking hands, but more importantly – the rumination and anxiety that accompany them, are two separate experiences that have been coupled through our conditioning, lack of careful attention, or fear of the unknown.
Unfortunately, the emotional labels or associations that we have attached to these physical sensations become so strong that that over time, they are triggered habitually and often inappropriately. Even worse, by trying to repress them, or by ruminating over them, we actually strengthen these connections. Yes your body is experiencing an energy rush, yes that is probably normal since you are going to need it to get through the performance, but no – it does not mean there is something wrong with you, or that you will fail, or that whatever negative thing that happened in the past is sure to happen again.
Once we have a created a space to see into the real nature of our experiences, then we no longer have to fight or push them away. We can let the experiences be what they are, and through this, allow the process of decoupling to begin. As our minds settle, energy is liberated from repression and resistance to acceptance, which in turn, allows our attentional resources to refocus on more important things. Through careful cultivation of our capacity to be aware without judgment, and through gentle but purposeful reengagement with a desired object of attention, we create new and more positive contexts for our experiences.
In the area below, I provide a mindfulness-based exercise for performance anxiety that I have used for many years. As with anything else, results will likely improve with regular and consistent practice. The exercise is also more effective when it is practiced long before the onset of an anxiety provoking event. After many years of struggling with this issue, I can honestly say that although I still feel an occasional rush of energy before an important event, I no longer feel the debilitating anxiety that would typically accompany it. Hope it does the same for you.
Mindfulness-Based Exercise for Performance Anxiety