Music and Psychology: Unlocking Stage Fright, Self-Esteem, and Student Safety - Music Books Plus
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Music and Psychology: Unlocking Stage Fright, Self-Esteem, and Student Safety

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By  Julie Jaffee Nagel

Julia Jaffee Nagel is a concert pianist—a Julliard graduate with plenty of performance experience, despite suffering from stage fright for years. To better understand this interference with her passion, Julie returned to school at the University of Michigan to study psychology and social work, and completed training as a psychoanalyst at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute.

With a total of five degrees and such an incredibly diverse background in music, mental health, performance anxiety, and other psychological roadblocks for musicians and individuals, Julie offers psychological and educational options for anxiety, depression, relationship isues, self-esteem, career concerrns, and more. We recently had the opportunity to learn more about the secrets of stage fright, nurturing self-esteem in music students, creating healthy and safe learning environments, and tips for conducting discussions around these sensitive topics.

Your career path is very interesting with the overlap between psychology, social work, and music. Can you tell us about how that transpired?

My “hybrid” career that I enjoy now certainly was not planned. I always wanted to be a concert pianist. I pursued my dreams at Juilliard, but was increasingly baffled by my own stage fright. No one talked about it. I graduated with two degrees, performed professionally in 2 piano concerts with my husband, Louis (also a Juilliard graduate), and taught music privately for about 14 years and in the public schools for about 3 years (I earned my education certificate after Juilliard when I realized that I no longer wanted to be a concert performer). The topic of stage fright always baffled and haunted me.

When we moved to Ann Arbor and Louie taught at the University of Michigan, I learned about a psychology professor who was doing research in test anxiety. I made an appointment to see him and he invited me to do some research with him with test anxious students. Not long after, we decided to do the same protocol with music school students. I got “hooked” on psychology and applied to return to school at the University of Michigan in social work and psychology and have never looked back. My clinical and theoretical approach has changed over the years, but never my dedication and fascination to learning about how to help people manage their stage fright. I also love to write and show how both music and psychology can be effective outside the concert hall and consulting room and used to promote social justice.

Stage fright is so common among students and performers. Why is that? Where does it come from?

It would be more unusual if performers did not experience stage fright, or performance anxiety. There are many pressures to deal with—both external and inside your mind. People become acutely aware that an audience is watching and listening to them. They want to look and sound good. They fear being inadequate and feeling humiliated and ashamed if they perform under-par—or, as many say, “mess up.” One’s ego is on the line in public. (Of course many people experience performance anxiety who are not musicians. There is anxiety about tests and exams, job interviews, playing a sport, giving a speech, writing a paper or book, and many other activities.) The physical and psychological symptoms can derail careers and interfere with relationships.

Stage fright has a long incubation period. Its roots actually begin in childhood—actually in infancy. Think about the earliest relationship of the infant who is totally dependent on mother and father for basic needs. While not able to “understand,” the baby feels a safety and security that comes from being appropriately responded to—fed, changed, held, hearing soothing voices. The baby “learns” that she or he has an effect on others (parents) by the sounds (music) she or he makes (coos, gurgles, cries). A sense of trust develops that people care as the child matures. This starts to form a sense of reliability in having control over her or his body and of other people. Performers seek to have this loving relationship with their audience. Teachers become parental substitutes. Performers may experience anxiety that they will be left or not loved (cared about) if they do not produce a wonderful—“perfect”—performance. These feelings can be traumatic and disorienting especially if left unaddressed.

How can teachers nurture confidence and enhance the self-esteem of their students, to help combat stage fright and other performance roadblocks?

This is a very important question. Teachers are probably the most important people in a student’s life after parents. Often, music teachers are the first responders for students who may come to lessons worried about something going on at home, at school, and/or with friends. They may talk about their concerns directly or the teachers will detect something doesn’t “feel right” in the playing, the way a student walks or sits, or is unprepared chronically.

The most important thing a teacher can offer is to listen to the student—to be emotionally available, to hear what the student says, take them seriously, let the student know that the teacher is reliable (remember like the parents were reliable with the baby), and let the student know that their feelings are valid. The teacher must not tell the student not to be scared, because the student is scared.

The music teacher is a mental health resource and realizes that feeling better does not result from practicing harder (yes, practice intelligently), or talking themselves out of feelings, or following some protocol from a book. In this respect, the teacher can address attitudes about the self that facilitate anxiety reduction. They can listen and comment on the negative reactions students say about themselves, point them out, and help students develop helpful and adaptive coping statements. Teachers can normalize anxiety and talk about how it is different for each person. What “works” for one person may not be right for another. There is considerable relief in feeling understood. There is no such thing as “perfection.” It is important to identify feelings and transform them into words in the secure environment of the teaching studio. It is very helpful to use the word “share” the music instead of “prove” yourself in performance to lower anxiety.

What other psychological roadblocks do musicians and students often deal with, and what are some solutions?

Managing stage fright is a process. There is no quick or brief or simple answer. You cannot—and should not—eliminate it. While teachers cannot be psychologists any more than psychologists can teach music (even if they are trained in music), there are some tools the music teacher can use with students to better manage stage fright. The most important is to be emotionally available to talk about the topic.

Some students enjoy learning about the physical symptoms, such as cold fingers when nervous. The teacher can use some mood rings to show students how the color of the ring changes when fingers warm up. To warm hands, the teacher can show how to do relaxation, deep breathing, or some simple meditation exercises—individually or in a class. Fingers will warm as the blood that has left the extremities to go to the heart (preparing for a fight!) returns to the fingers (when more relaxed).

Teachers can use visualization to help students imagine in their minds a cuddly pet, a warm beach scene, a fireplace, a favorite experience. Teachers also can emphasize some unhelpful reactions to stage fright, such as statements that “I am going to let people down if I don’t play perfectly,” or “I will look foolish and people will laugh if I make a mistake.” When teachers point out the unhelpful things students say to themselves, students can notice that they decrease self-esteem and raise stage fright. These and many other coping techniques are detailed in my book Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers.

Stage fright does not appear overnight—and it takes time, practice, and perseverance to manage it. This can be accomplished. A manageable amount of anxiety actually makes live performances more exciting and spontaneous.

As an authority on music and mental health, what tools should music teachers have in order to identify symptoms and help students who may be struggling with anxiety, depression, etc.?

When simple techniques, such as mentioned above, do not seem effective, the teacher needs to refer to a mental health professional. It if appears a student is struggling with serious mental health issues such as chronic and debilitating anxiety or a serious depression with low energy, negative self-image, and sadness, then they should inform the parents and suggest a referral for an evaluation. In all events, if the student speaks of harming her or himself, the teacher must immediately recommend professional assistance. Teaching music is a very intense activity that involves energy, dedication, and focused attention to the entire health of the student—not just the performer. Teachers need to take care of their own mental and physical health which includes taking vacations or time off to avoid burnout. It also helps for teachers to have friends or a professional with whom to discuss their concerns that linger.

You gave a session called “#MeToo: Challenges for Music Teachers” at MTNA last month. How can teachers ensure they’re creating healthy, safe learning environments for their students?

I was honored to be invited to present on this daunting and disturbing topic at the MTNA Conference in March. I am pleased that MTNA is leading the way to initiate discussions on this subject. The #MeToo Movement has painfully led people to consider the ethical violations that can occur in all professions—music teaching included. I quickly add that most music teachers do not take advantage of their students, much less cross ethical boundaries.

The teacher/student relationship offers opportunities to those who are predisposed by their own problems to initiate inappropriate behavior and take advantage of their power difference with students. My presentation covered this topic by looking at some underlying factors, some characteristics of people in power (such as teachers and bosses) who are inclined to take advantage of students, how to establish healthy teaching environments, and how to empower students.

Some things we can do to ensure healthy, safe learning environments include:

  1. Developing strong, clear, and consistently enforced accountability policies and ethics codes.
  2. Conducting thorough background checks for new hires that look beyond the CV—explore independent references.
  3. Forming Colleague Assistance Committees.
  4. Teaching students to say "no" if something does not feel "right."
  5. Understanding that this is a systemic problem for institutions, students, faculty, alumni, families, and society.
  6. Having zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviors and cover-ups.
  7. Understanding and modifying our addiction to "fame," "celebrity," and "star" teachers/students.
  8. Having shame-free and easy reporting options for students or anyone who is threatened.
  9. Taking any and all complaints very seriously—investigating internally and externally (bystanders have a responsibility to report).
  10. Including victims in legal policies with legal representation.
  11. Offering psychological treatment and legal services for students, paid for by institutions.

How can the music education community help victims feel empowered to speak up and seek help?

My clinical experience has convinced me that when you talk about a difficult topic, you solve problems better and empower people who are scared and victimized. I feel that we can learn a great deal from any situation, including bad ones. The #MeToo Movement has taught us to communicate better, help students feel protected and feel good about themselves, and not to keep secrets or protect those in power.

For those who view some of these topics as too “controversial,” how can we adjust certain attitudes in an effort to productively discuss these issues and create positive change?

Change does not come easily or quickly. Allow time for attitude change. Discuss why this topic is too controversial. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and avoid what is happening around us. We would like to deny this is happening—it is terrifying and not easy to think about—this attitude has been going on for too long and the problem is not going away. Talk, talk, talk! And have regular group sessions or conferences with multi-disciplinary speakers for teachers and students and parents—they wish to attend. Be transparent. Invite people to write questions vs. address questions verbally in a group. This topic is stressful to consider and is clearly unpleasant, but why “controversial” to discuss? Is it better not discussing this (or any problem)? When something unpleasant is ignored, it is much more likely to be repeated and become worse.

What resources are available to teachers and students who may be struggling with mental health or dealing with trauma?

Mental health services should be sought to conduct an evaluation for any emotional block—it does not have to be an ethical violation or trauma that triggers reaching out. It is a strength to seek assistance. If you are continually upset about anything, seek help. Make it a priority to take care of yourself.

Get referrals from trusted friends, doctors, and psychologists you know in your community.

Teachers can form relationships with several experts in the community and invite them to speak with students and parents at special class sessions.

Seek legal services if there has been an ethical violation.

Contact RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network—support, informational resources, advocacy, and hope) at Rainn.org and 800-656-HOPE, Available 24/7.


Julie Jaffee Nagel

Julie Jaffee Nagel, Ph.D. brings her unique combination of experience and education in music and mental health to a nuanced understanding of performance anxiety, career choice, and the #Me Too Movement Challenges in Music Teaching. A graduate of The Juilliard School, the University of Michigan, and The Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute, she has helped numerous people understand and overcome blocks to creativity, performance anxiety, relationship issues, and self-esteem.