Guest Editorial: Anxiety

Mike Lawson • Performance • August 14, 2014

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Addressing Anxiety in Music Performance Using Visualization

As a music teacher, I regularly meet students who, despite their God-given talent, find themselves unable to fully address areas of weakness, oftentimes because of fear. They persist in staying in their areas of strength, while hoping for a quick fix to any problem areas or “eureka moment” for change to occur. They seem to be afraid of confronting the areas of their skillset that require the most work, and that is disappointing for me as a teacher because, despite their talent, they never realize the level of musicianship that they are capable of. I was just such a student, and when I finally dealt with one of my areas of weakness, it not only changed my music making, it changed my life.

The following is a visualization exercise for dealing with fear related to auditions, juries, and/or addressing areas of weakness in musical skills. The mental images used may be changed to suit your needs. There are affirmations contained in this exercise that are not meant to be wishful thinking, but are statements of facts about you or your students, the activity that needs to be mastered, auditions, juries, performances, and the majority of the people who adjudicate them, and are intended to help clear your students’ head of thoughts to the contrary that tend to hinder their performance. The goal is to prepare the mind for the task at hand. That said, unless the situation is also addressed through regular practice following the exercise, it may well be a waste of time. Visualization is intended as preparation for real work and cannot substitute for it. That, indeed, would be wishful thinking!


Part I: The Elevator to the Comfort Zone

Sit in a comfortable chair in which your feet can rest flat on the floor and you are in an upright position – a chair such as one you might practice or perform in. You can remove your shoes if needed for comfort. Place your hands in your lap. Allow them to form their natural, relaxed curl, with palms either downward or upward, as you prefer.

Close your eyes and imagine you are in an elevator. You can make that elevator as elaborate as you wish, with warm wood panels or other features. The elevator is on a higher floor and the number of the floor is dependent on how many breaths you need to relax. My personal elevator when I first tried this was on the100th floor, but you may need half that many floors, or even fewer. The doors of the elevator close, and with each breath the number of the floor drops one. It’s a slow elevator – no need to hurry. When you get to the bottom you are ready to step out into your imaginary comfort zone.

Picture a place where you feel really at home – comfortable and relaxed, without a worry. My place was a grassy hilltop overlooking a colonial New England town with a white steepled church and an open grassy common area with a monument in the middle. Yours may be a room, the beach, out on a boat – wherever you feel most relaxed.

Observe yourself in that space from the other side of the music stand. You are watching yourself doing something you have difficulty with – an audition piece, a jury piece, a technical exercise, and so on. In my case it was sight-reading. You are alone doing this activity and you are doing it well. It’s time for some affirmations:

You have some measure of natural talent and that talent can grow larger when you fortify areas of weakness. Make the commitment to work on the aspect of your playing that is weak.

You have listened to a lot of music and can imagine what a good player sounds like – beautiful tone, good pitch, good rhythmic feel – and you, in time, can improve your playing to sound more like that player. Concentrate on that sound and make it your mental sonic picture of how you want to sound.

People enjoy hearing a good player, and you want to become that player.

The people who adjudicate love to hear good players. It makes their day and they do what they do in search of good players. They would love for you to succeed.

The person in the practice room near yours who sounds so much better than you is likely as scared as you are and may not be “practicing,” but rather, showing off – doing what they know how to do already. Being willing to sound bad and to address an area of weakness will result in strength.

Now it is time to go back into the elevator. The doors close and with each breath the floor number increases until you get to the floor you started on. The door opens and you are in your chair and it is now time to open your eyes and begin working slowly and methodically on your playing issues.

Pull out your instrument and begin working or doing a warm up exercise. If you have a technique issue or skill issue, begin small and address one detail at a time, as slowly as needed to produce a slow motion version of the desired result. Break things down into small chunks and work things slowly and relaxed. If it is a technique exercise, pay close attention to areas of tension in your body and repeat the exercise concentrating on staying relaxed. Good technique is efficient technique – it is nearly effortless technique. Slow, detailed work will help develop that efficiency.

Concentrate on what if feels like when you are playing relaxed and do not push the tempo of anything up until you can do so and remain relaxed. Do you remember how on some occasions you pull out your instrument in a rehearsal hall and you softly play to hear yourself a little, but not necessarily be heard? That is generally pretty relaxed playing. Put just a little more into it in order to be heard, but maintain some headroom. Never push too hard or try to force things out. Being impatient and trying the battering ram approach of forcing things to happen is counterproductive and may even result in injury.

Concentrate on that relaxed feeling. Couple that with good breath support – even on non-wind instruments – and see what comes out.

If your challenge is a particular piece of music, listen to the piece if you can get a recording and sing and finger passages that are garbled in your rendition of it. Work on clarifying your singing of a passage. That will tell you how well you hear it. The better you hear it, the clearer you will make it sound when you play. Granted, some contemporary pieces might be “unsing-able” by the average instrumentalist and so you might need to listen more to recordings to help form the image of how you want it to sound.

Once again, practice needs to be on a regular consistent basis. No visualization exercise can substitute for practice.


Part II: Recreating the Performance, Audition, or Jury

The first visualization exercise may be repeated for several weeks, but eventually you need to change the scenery and circumstances. Here’s a list of things you need to add and/or change to develop and prepare for the real situation.

Using the comfort zone scenario, add the adjudicators or an audience off to one side listening and nodding their heads in approval, Dress them anyway you like – clown suits, underwear, and so on – anything that “disarms” them and makes them less intimidating. Be sure to acknowledge in yourself any real improvements you are making in your playing. Recognizing those steps forward, however small they may be, is important to make yourself realize that you can do it.

Eventually, move out of your comfort space to the space where you might have your performance. If this raises your tension level too much, make your practice space the next venue. You are alone here at this point, but eventually you will add the adjudicators or audience.

Within a few weeks before the audition or jury, recreate the event in your mind, so by the time the real event occurs, you have done it successfully numerous times in the visualization exercise.


Part III: The Day of the Event

You’ve worked on your playing and prepared. You’ve recreated as best you can the circumstances you now face. Go into your elevator and go to the original comfort space you’ve imagined. There is no one there but you. Go through some affirmations such as these:

Remind yourself that the adjudicators want someone to succeed and you may be the one they are looking for.

Remind yourself that even if it doesn’t turn out in your favor, you can do something better now than before, and you are continuing in your improvements. You can be confident that you will make a better showing and someday it will be you!

Get back in your elevator and go to your starting floor. Open your eyes and warm up. Keep reminding yourself of the affirmations for this day and when it comes to your turn, enter confidently in a relaxed manner and set about your task.


My Story

I attended the University of North Texas as an undergraduate, not really knowing what I was in for. Sight-reading was an area of weakness for me and I was scared to death to work on it because there were so many great players. I could put on a good front playing things I already knew, but to work on sight-reading turned me from sounding like a decent tenor saxophonist to a junior high musician. I had knots in my stomach and would get sweaty palms just thinking about it. There were nine performing jazz lab bands and six reading jazz lab bands. I made a reading band my first year, but in the fall of my sophomore year I didn’t get into a band at all. I had to fix the problem, and thanks to the encouragement of one of my teachers – the late Rich Matteson – and also my own father, I finally addressed my weakness. Sometimes a big setback will make us think twice about pursuing something we love to do. They both encouraged me to keep trying in the face of my discouraging audition result and go to work on my area of weakness.

I picked up a book called The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson M.D. and learned about relaxation techniques. The elevator scenario is drawn from that book. I also found materials to deal with rhythm reading and pitch reading separately, and added to them jazz etude books and some easy-to-medium Voxman duet books. I played as slow as needed to complete each exercise without stopping. Tempos of 40 to 50 bpm were not unusual! I devoted about 30 minutes a day to this area. I followed the sequence in the visualization exercise as described. Improvements came gradually and my confidence grew as well.

At the start of the semester I felt terrible about my music making and was ready to give up. I would walk down to a practice room and hear great players doing things I couldn’t do and think that they were so much better and I would never catch up to them. By mid-semester, I realized some were playing the same thing week after week. I perceived they were scared like me and so I was encouraged to keep working on my weaknesses because I could hear they were treading water. (I say this not because I am competitive by nature – I am not – but because being around so many great players was intimidating and I was discovering that they were not as intimidating as I had made them out to be.)

By the semester’s end, I had done the audition in my head numerous times and felt confident that I could make it into a lower level band. For some perspective, when I first arrived at UNT, I told my father I might make the sixth band by the time I graduated because there were so many great players and I was a little fish in a big pond now.

The beginning of the spring semester of my sophomore year meant auditions again and the net result was landing the jazz tenor spot in the sixth band. It didn’t stop there. Subsequent semesters yielded even better results because I continued to work on my reading and had developed some confidence in myself.

In the last year of my bachelor’s degree, I made it onto the top band, the 1 O’Clock Lab Band – much higher than I had envisioned and personal proof that addressing weaknesses results in far greater success than I expected. I hope this exercise and even my own story will encourage you to get working and to face your fear. There is great power in it.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Larry Panella serves on the faculty of The University of Southern Mississippi as an associate professor of music and director of the Jazz Studies Program and is the founder and leader of the USM JQ. He has performed with numerous artists and entertainers, including The Phil Collins Big Band, The Woody Herman Orchestra, Natalie Cole, Steve Allen, Nelson Riddle, and Frank Sinatra, Jr.    

Panella received his master’s of Music from Northern Illinois University and his bachelor’s of Music from the University of North Texas, where he toured and performed as a member of the famed 1 O’Clock Jazz Lab Band. Before his appointment at Southern Miss, professor Panella served on the faculty of Wheaton College Conservatory and the Northern Illinois University School of Music.

Panella is an artist-clinician for Cannonball Musical Instruments, makers of the Big Bell Global Series line of saxophones.



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