So I’ve been exploring the area of performance anxiety and stage fright. And after a few weeks of research, I came to the realization that what classical musicians, and soloists in particular go through before they walk out on stage, and when they’re on stage performing, and sometimes during their post-performance come-down, is actually a microcosm of what my clients who come to me struggling with anxiety have to cope with. As mere mortals, when we’re struggling with anxiety, our system is flooded with adrenalin that completely block out that ‘coping’ neurotransmitter known as serotonin; the brain-chemical that contributes massively towards feelings of well-being, bravery, happiness, confidence, being in control and being a master of our own destiny!
Successful classical musicians however, harness that rush of adrenalin, control it, channel it and use it to their advantage; and then they’re able to let themselves get in the zone, forget about themselves during the performance and in a way, become just a conduit for the music and the composer. But in such a rarified world as classical music, where performing for example, Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No1, from memory, in front of a judging audience can seem like walking a high-wire without a safety net, this harnessing of adrenalin while still being able to feel relaxed enough to perform well, takes a huge amount of discipline and practice. It is in fact, another technique to perfect. Another habit to embed. And in many cases without perhaps even realising it, what these performers have learned is how to control that adrenalin so that their serotonin can still flow. Or, to put it another way, they’re practiced in the art of allowing their Pre-Frontal Cortex right-of-way over their Fight, Flight or Freeze, limbic system. Those that don’t happen to use Beta Blockers, that is. It’s a lot to ask. And my respect for musicians has increased even more, as a result. All musicians. Even the ones who do use Beta Blockers. The world of a professional, classical musician is a surprisingly tough one. And you do whatever it takes.
In a way it’s different for rock or jazz musicians. The high-wire isn’t so high because the atmosphere is not quite so rarified, improvising is to be expected and a cathartic freedom is favoured over controlled technique. Nevertheless, all musicians, and of course all actors, dancers and public speakers too, get this surge of adrenalin (in fact, need this surge of adrenalin to perform well). And it’s how they deal with it that determines what happens next.
One of the things I do with my clients who are struggling with anxiety is to help them get into the habit of being in control; help them to experience (when in a trance) what it feels like to be in control and what it feels like when their serotonin is flowing steadily and easily and not blocked by any of those, to be fair, at times useful, adrenalines. And with them in control, this changes their habits and their ability to be master of their own destiny.
Whilst watching one of the category finals of BBC Young Musician Of The Year 2016, there was a pre-recorded interview with one of the performers about how quite a lot of the contestants found it difficult to control their nerves but somehow did manage. Somehow-just-managing is the best way of course. Finding your own ways of coping in life and then coming through relatively unscathed is simply the greatest way to increase your own resilience and self-esteem. And watching them perform, I was really impressed with how well they did cope; none more so than the eventual winner, the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
My interview with Sheku was conducted over the autumn and winter of 2016 and during that time I learned to really admire this completely wonderful and yet grounded young man. He came across as a really kind, open-minded and extremely focused individual whose lack of complication and ego was clearly, partly what allows him to be the fantastic live performer he is. For him, it is all about the music.
SD: Hi Sheku, I am absolutely delighted that you’re able to give me the benefit of your experience and observations in this interview. Thank you for agreeing to do it. I know the psychological side of things is something that really interests you, which as you say, is one of the reasons why you agreed to do it. Nevertheless, you are much in demand and I really appreciate your time.
Let me start by saying many congratulations on not only winning Young Musician Of The Year but also on all your wonderful performances throughout the competition and how well you handled the pressure.
I’ve been working professionally as a hypnotherapist since April 2016 so it’s still early days for me. My background is in the arts. I went to art school in London, studied fine art and eventually worked in film and advertising, directing TV commercials. Now I’m a hypnotherapsit my ultimate aim of course, is to be able to help as many people as possible and, as I’m interested in the world of performance, I would love to help those who are struggling with stage-fright, or performance anxieties. It seems to me, such a shame that young, aspiring professionals with so many hours of dedicated practice and sacrifice under their belts, feel like they have no choice but to give up their careers before they’ve even started, due to whatever is holding them back. Especially when the answer is so simple and so effective. That answer being hypnotherapy of course. So to start, I’d love it of you could tell me a bit about your own experiences (if any) of stage-fright, performance anxieties or nerves?
SK-M: Hi Steve. I’m very interested about this subject and so I’m very happy to exchange ideas and I hope they are of use! For me, I don’t tend to get nervous before a performance if I feel I am prepared enough for it. Of course things never go 100% to plan in a live performance, but I don’t get nervous about that. However I would say that performing in front of larger crowds is easier than a small audience or audition panel. I think this is because it’s less personal with the audience when there are more people. Hope this makes sense.
SD: What is it about this subject that interests you?
SK-M: This subject interests me because, personally I don’t get very nervous before performances but I know a lot of fellow musicians do . Also I do find that when it comes to talking in front of a crowd I find that really difficult and nerve-wracking, completely contrasting to when I perform on the cello.
SD: I see. So why do you think some of your fellow musicians do get nervous before a performance? And as far as you know, has it ever been the case with any of them, that their nerves has stopped them going on stage? Or even made them question whether being a professional musician is for them?
SK-M: I’m not sure exactly why other musicians get nervous for performances, but it’s usually through fear of things messing up I think. For a lot of people, these nerves don’t actually affect their actual performance once they start playing, as it’s mainly a feeling that goes away once they are into the performance. I don’t know of anyone who has been put off completely from performing due to nerves.
SD: Why might the less personal experience of playing in front of a larger audience help someone play better or make it easier for them? I find it a really interesting distinction because the clients I’ve worked with who have a fear of public speaking, find the opposite to be the case.They can talk to a small panel very easily, but put them on a stage in front of hundreds of people, and they soon start to have self-sabotaging thoughts that interfere with their performance.
SK-M: When performing in front of a smaller audience, I think it’s that fact that you have that feeling of individuals watching, as opposed to just a mass of people. Also, the atmosphere you get in front of a large audience for me helps me perform much better I find.
SD: With you personally, do you feed off the audience’s energy? And if so, how do you do that? Is it a conscious mental approach? Or is it something that just happens?
SK-M: I would say that I do feed off the audiences energy, and I definitely play much better in front of a proper crowd as opposed to fewer people. I think it’s the sense of occasion I rise to perhaps.
SD: That’s interesting. What do you think the difference is between two performers, both of whom prepare well enough for their performance, but one does get nervous whereas the other doesn’t?
SK-M: I would say that often it’s that their nervousness comes from thinking about what can go wrong in the performance. When I perform, I simply try and think about communicating the music in the best and most sincere way, and I don’t think about the possible mistakes.
SD: I love what you said earlier about ‘of course things never going 100% to plan in a live performance but not getting nervous about that’. So apart from preparation, do you think that this approach and this mental attitude is what has helped you most in making you feel secure on stage? How much does the fact that things never go 100% to plan in a live performance, actually excite you?
SK-M: I think I’m a performer who takes risks, and I like to do something new on the stage. Of course this means some thing’s do go wrong, but equally it makes the performance special when they go right. I think this approach to performance means that I have an excitement when I perform as opposed to anxiety about mistakes.
SD: My next question is about focus. I just watched the wonderful documentary Young Gifted And Classical and it’s interesting to see that all the Kanneh-Masons have such focus! Not only that, but the support you offer each other and the really rock-steady (and beautifully chaotic) home environment surely plays a part in your feelings of security both on and off stage. Is that focus nurtured at home? Do you ever meditate? pray? do yoga etc…?
SK-M: I think our focus comes from the determination to succeed, encouraged and inspired by our parents, teachers and each other.
SD: So many people these days have short attention spans and are so easily distracted….for all too apparent, digital reasons…myself included! Do you ever allow yourself time to lose focus? Away from practicing, performing and playing football with your mates, would you say you spend more time reading books or more time on the internet?
SK-M: I would say that I do spend time on social media and things like that, but I try to make sure that that doesn’t distract my practise. I tend to read non fictional books about things I’m interested in and about the composers I’m playing. However I would say I spend less time reading than I do on the internet
SD: Which raises the point that perhaps to succeed (in any field) all you need is focus, support, encouragement, time, patience, hard work, resilience and talent. Not a lot to ask, really!
SK-M: Exactly, I do think that focus and hard work are the most important two things really.
SD: My daughter’s singing teacher told me something that I found interesting recently, and I wonder if it chimes in any way, with your experience, and also whether it is in fact accepted as pretty much a normal philosophy with you, your contemporaries as well as your teachers?
And what he was saying was this:
We were talking about the subject of stage-fright and he said that the mistake that soloists often make is to think that it’s all about them and so this can lead to feelings creeping in of not being able to do the music or the composer justice. Whereas if, as he was implying, the soloist considers him or herself as merely a vessel or a conduit through which the music is expressed, then it takes the “you” out of the equation and stage-fright becomes a much smaller issue.
How accurate does that feel, in your experience?
SK-M: That’s an interesting philosophy, and does make sense. I think when I perform I try to convey my interpretation of the story or emotions of the piece to the audience, but I would say that I am aware of performing. That is an interesting concept you daughter’s singing teacher has, I’ve never thought about it that way. I wouldn’t personally think of it that way, because I think as the soloist one has use the music the composer has written and say it in their own way.
SD: Yes, it’s a nice philosophy. But up to a point I think I agree with you; you can’t completely remove what makes you- you from the act of playing….because where would the different human interpretation and the personality come from? We might as well listen to robots. Or the reason why some people might like to listen to Stephen Isserlis on one day, you on another and Jacqueline du Pre on another. Interestingly, I felt that what I saw in Martin James Bartlett’s piano playing was an almost total removal of ego from his performances! And I thought he was really wonderful too.
And we often think the ego is a bad thing. Terms like ego-centric, or ego-driven or an ego-maniac are all considered negative terms. But it’s the ego that makes Mesut Ozil for example, or Mohammed Ali or David Beckham or Sigourney Weaver or Nicola Benedetti the great, individual performers they are / were.
But I digress, because our focus should be on anxiety and stage-fright, not performance. But I wonder if a performer having the ability to ‘channel’ something, amounts to the same thing that my daughter’s singing teacher was saying…the temporary leaving to one side, of the part of you that might contain any doubts?
What might set you apart from those who do struggle, is being able to channel the music through you. Whether one wants to call that interpretation or expression or whatever, would you say that when you play your cello you enter into a different state of mind? A kind of trance perhaps?
SK-M: Yes that’s so right I think! And I think when I play the cello, I have the feeling the music I’m playing makes me feel, and so I kind of get immersed in that world. I wouldn’t say that I become in a trance, because in a lot of my performances I have to concentrate on technical details sometimes and listening to the other people I’m playing with. Hope this answer makes sense!
SD: That’s really quite a lot to concentrate on! So if you can, can you describe the feeling of what it’s like inside your head, when you’re having to concentrate on so many things at once, the piece, the technical details, the other players, the live moment and spontaneity, etc…? I’d imagine it’s a very liberating feeling.
SK-M: I think there are a lot of things to think about when performing, however a lot of them for most of the piece become automatic through practise. So when it comes to the performance I think mainly about the story I’m trying to tell or the emotions I’m conveying through the music and maybe a few points where I have to concentrate hard on a particularly difficult passage technically. It’s often mentally exhausting performing a whole concerto though, as well as physically draining because of the focus required.
SD: I read something interesting today about some research done on students who, after a tricky and stressful presentation to an audience were given one of three different ‘rewards’. Either a hug from a loved one/family member, a phone call from a loved one /family member, or nothing at all. And then their stress levels were measured. Not surprisingly, those students who received love and acknowledgement got a boost of oxytocin in their body and coped better with stress, compared to those that didn’t.
So perhaps a reminder that we do matter, and that we have the unconditional support and love of people around us, no matter what happens in a performance, audition or competition, can help to remind us of the bigger picture. That we’re actually much more than just a cellist or singer or saxophonist or horn-player.
Personally, I think this is a really important point.
Did you Sheku, ever feel added pressure because of your family-support? I somehow doubt it! But I wonder if those players who do struggle with stage-fright and performance anxiety, have a feeling within them, somewhere deep down, that they are not much more than a musician; and neither feel nor are aware of, this bigger picture.
SK-M: I think that it is essential to have support from others especially family, and I think it would be very difficult for me personally to do what I do without that.
And I don’t think there is an added pressure because of family support, for me anyway.
That is an interesting point, but I think that a lot of people who are aware of the bigger picture still undergo nerves before performance.
SD: My next question is about pre-concert preparation.
So there you are, back-stage, an hour before you are due to go on. What’s your routine? What do you like to do, in order to get you in the right frame of mind for the performance?
SK-M: To answer your question: I think by an hour before I perform I don’t like to do much playing or practicing apart from warming up. I try to do a lot of thinking about the piece I’m about to perform or sing it over in my head, to help me to focus so that I’m in the right frame of mind by the time I walk on to the stage.
I’m often with my sister who accompanies me on the piano, so we often just chat and chill back stage, I think it’s good to stay relaxed.
SD: And so onto my final question.
How do you feel after a performance? How do you deal with that adrenalin surge? And how do you unwind? Do you like meeting the public, accepting their praise, congratulations and feedback? Or do you prefer to stay quiet and reflective?
SK-M: After a performance I generally feel quite tired and worn out, but also very happy and on a high. I don’t mind meeting the public afterwards, it’s quite nice. Often my teacher is at my concerts and i like to hear what he thought as he always has interesting and useful feedback. My brother is the same.
SD: Thank you so much Sheku, for sharing your thoughts with me. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you and being able to learn from your experiences so far.
Sheku’s EP has just been released on Decca.