Why competing in a marathon might be similar to performing Beethoven?
As humans, we perform every single day whether it is playing an instrument, building a house or giving a presentation. However, some forms of professional performance are more complex and demanding than others. The evidence of performance complexity can be found in careers like professional sports and classical music. Like athletes, we musicians spend a lot of time practicing in order to master our instruments. However, the duration of our performances themselves is incredibly short in comparison with the amount of preparation time. Whether a performance in front of an audience or panel succeeds or not depends on physical, mental and emotional preparation – but if we fail, a lot of that preparation was in vain.
It is estimated that at least 50 per cent of the variation in an individual’s performance is a result of the influence of their state of mind; however, on average we spend only around 5 per cent of our time on mental preparation. (Clough, 2012) I believe that there is a lack of understanding within the classical music establishment regarding the importance of mental preparation. As musicians, we should possibly revisit the received idea that it is only long hours of practicing on an instrument which can improve our stage performance.
Performance itself is the culmination of our efforts as classical musicians. Therefore, it is critical to acknowledge that effective stress management can be directly related to helping reach peak performance. Although it is often assumed that there is no way for musicians to avoid stress when performing, changes in attitude and the development of a different mind-set, can dramatically reduce levels of anxiety. The fact that I am drawing on research in sports is not a coincidence. The mental and physical challenges for athletes and musicians are surprisingly similar; yet, the role of mental preparation is much better understood in sports than in music.
Athletes and musicians:
Start at a very early age
Train the body to perform the task
Both practice through repetition
Both deal with performance anxiety
Both require consistency in practice
Both suffer from traumas: sportsmen-fractures, ligament injuries; Musicians – tendonitis, back hernia
Both benefit from good mental preparation
Both have an endurance component
Both experience the pressures of high levels of competitiveness
Yet, the sports industry pays considerably more attention to elite athletes’ psychological development as a key factor in achieving successes. It may be the case that musicians learn to conceal their performance anxieties in order to maintain a confident image – that does not mean, however, that their anxieties no longer affect them and their performance.
I am a classical pianist and throughout my training I have been exploring methods which could help me cope with stage fright and performance anxiety. Deepening my knowledge and understanding of the complicated processes which are activated in a musician when performing has been incredibly useful to helping me address these problems. I finally came to understand the strong connection between mind and body, which explained that some of musicians' physical pain or fatigue could be triggered by psychological insecurities, a phenomenon other pianists like Charlotte Tomlinson have also documented.
While it is routine practice among sports people to receive mental coaching, I realized when I shared my own experience of working with a coach for musicians that very few of my musician friends knew how to deal with performance anxiety including the pressure which perfectionism causes. The general trend among musicians is to hide their weaknesses and not share problems related to their career, as this may weaken their image to others.
It is also wrong to assume that anxiety is an entirely undesirable trait in musicians: sensitivity is considered an important characteristic for the artist, as it is vital to perceive and express musical ideas. Without effective stress management, however, it can become an obstacle to successful performance, or to fully express this talent in a performance. It is known that mental toughness or mental sensitivity is a personality trait, which partly depends on genetics and on how individuals are raised (Clough, 2012). Both qualities are neither good nor bad, but musicians who are, or learn to be mentally tougher will usually cope with stress and challenges in their careers more easily and as a result will perform better.