On Becoming a Bulletproof Musician

The theme at last week’s group classes was becoming a bulletproof musician. The idea has been percolating in my mind ever since I discovered Dr. Noa Kageyama’s blog on performance anxiety and mindful practice, called The Bulletproof Musician.

Naming Our Fears

“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.” ~ Jedi Master Yoda

Each class had a different set of fears. I compiled everything that gives them performance anxiety below:

  • Everyone is watching

  • Making a mistake and everyone knowing it

  • Family teasing after making a mistake

  • Another student (known for giggling)

  • Messing up

  • Getting stuck

  • Stumbling and not being able to continue

  • Forgetting the music

  • Losing control

  • Not being ready (or able) to perform

  • People crowding too close to the piano

Most people share the same reactions when the body is under stress. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca.

Most people share the same reactions when the body is under stress. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca.

We discussed how our body reacts to performing under pressure or stress. To generate a paradigm shift, I showed my students this video by author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek on performing under pressure:

It really comes down to convincing ourselves that yes, we really can do this. With a few practising and performing hacks, we can train ourselves to rush forwards to the stage with excitement rather than fear.

Creating the Ultimate Pre-Performance Routine

We all have our pre-performance routines. It could be lining up your pens, pencils, eraser, and ruler in a particular way before writing a test.  Or wearing your lucky suit for a job interview. They’re little things, but they reduce our stage anxiety by helping us feel comfortable, grounded, and strong.

I read out professional tennis player Rafael Nadal’s 12-step pre-game routine. Most of my students giggled by the fifth (flicking the dirt of the hash mark with his left shoe). They were downright incredulous by the time I read out #10 (the order he wipes the sweat off his nose).

My students immediately poked holes in the routine: “What if both balls are fuzzy?...What if the ref tells him to hurry up?” I asked, “What if it’s raining?”

I then shared with them some of my pre-performance routines, starting with Mr. Buffalo. For most, it was the first time they heard about why there’s a photo of a buffalo sculpture above the piano.

Mr. Buffalo helped me ground myself before performing in master classes and recitals. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca. 

Mr. Buffalo helped me ground myself before performing in master classes and recitals. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca. 

At my first piano lesson with Elinor Lawson at the University of Lethbridge, I was so nervous that I couldn’t focus. Elinor told me to take a deep breath, look out the window, and focus on a point. Standing stoically on the coulee, was the buffalo sculpture.

It got to the point where I either had to go outside before performing to commune with Mr. Buffalo, or just imagine him. Prior to my junior recital, one of my profs told me that I was too tightly strung up. He told me to go outside, scream, and shake it all out. That helped too.

Although I don’t need to do any of those stress busters these days, my photo of Mr. Buffalo just serves as that quick visual cue to ground myself. These days, my pre-performance routine includes: having a light practice the night before, eating one of my favourite meals for supper, doing something relaxing the night before, getting a good night’s sleep, picking out and testing a performing outfit that matches the mood of my piece(s) - and having a back-up, eating light prior to performing, stretching, and breathing exercises. 

Then, it was their turn. Here are some of my student’s pre-performance ideas: jump, roll on grass, pack a lucky charm, sit in a sauna, swim, scorestudy, read a book, do something unrelated to the performance/test/presentation, keep your cool, sleep, watch TV, play video games, meditate, be at home and, be peaceful.

My students took a few minutes to come up with their own pre-performance routines and a mantra. Some notable mantras include:

  • Iz all gud.

  • I got this.

  • Nothing can stop me.

  • Calm down.

  • Play like you practiced!

  • I can do it.

  • What’s the worst that could happen?

  • Did I remember to turn off the stove?

  • Let’s go!

  • I am the captain of my own soul.

  • Let’s rock and roll!

  • Be aware of everything.

One of my younger students decided that Chewbacca had to participate in last week's group class. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca.

One of my younger students decided that Chewbacca had to participate in last week's group class. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca.

Although some of my students are too young, I addressed the challenges of using drugs or alcohol to calm down nerves. Two teens looked at me, shocked. “But Miss Rhona! We’re not old enough.” I replied that I knew that, but that I also know that underage drinking does exist. There's always someone out there who just may try it.

Performance Savvyness

Next up, looking good on stage. We covered everything from showing up early enough to scope out the area and to find a place to relax. We discussed the pros and cons of being in the hall to hear the other students perform (depends upon the performance). Most importantly, we talked about owning the stage from the moment we get up from our seat until the moment we are off the stage, which covers: the walk, the bow, taking time to make adjustments (seat, music, bench), taking a few deep breaths, and approaching/leaving the keys in a way that matches the mood or character of your piece.

Telling a story through body language and sound. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca.

Telling a story through body language and sound. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca.

Students came up, described their piece to the class and then played the opening. Their peers responded with how well their actions lined up with the piece. This turned out to be a fun exercise for all, trying to get the opening to look and sound epic or like little bunnies.

Exploring Practice & Performing Hacks

“The terror of performing never goes away. Instead, you get very, very comfortable being terrified.” ~ Eric Whitacre

We explored several performing hacks, which should alleviate some performance anxiety. One was an adrenaline drill. One student ran on the spot for approximately 40 seconds. Then, they had to quickly sit down and start playing. More often than not, the student had their hands in the wrong place. After taking a breath to clear their mind and recalling some of the performance savvyness aspects discussed earlier, they tried it again. Success.

Another performing hack we explored was a tempo drill. My students played a section of their piece at their desired tempo. Then, the others increased the metronome marking, bit by bit, while the one on the hot seat had to try playing at that tempo.

One student who has grappled with stage fright since day one, really connected with the visualization exercise.  I asked her to engage all of her senses - imagine how the keys feel, how the room smells, what sound she wanted to create with her opening notes, etc. and then play.

In another class, a student shared this grounding exercise:

Think of:

  1. Five things you can see,

  2. Four things you can hear,

  3. Three things you can feel or touch,

  4. Two things you can smell, and

  5. One thing you can taste.

One of the most popular exercises was the Roll the Dice Drill, which my students and I came up with when developing Maestro’s Music Tricks. As one student played, another would roll one of my polyhedral die and call out a bar number. The student on the hot seat had to quickly and smoothly transition to the new bar and carry on, not knowing when another student would call out another bar number.

Another popular exercise was the Play through Distractions Drill. Not only did that challenge the student performing to keep playing, but it challenged them to maintain his composure while the others flitted around, giggling and poking.

The Playing through Distractions Drill. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca.

The Playing through Distractions Drill. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca.

There were a couple of practice hacks that we quickly talked about, with the intent of working on it more in their piano lessons. One was studying the structure of their music, while the other was playing on a silent keyboard.

We wrapped up the class with my newest tabletop game, Cat Tower by IDW Games. It’s proving to be a popular game with my studio kids.

All in all, the kids found it a great class. It was comforting for my stage shy students to hear that they really aren’t alone with regards to performance anxiety. It was empowering to see them take charge and help each other level up their performance savvyness and bulletproof their music.

Now, if my students start performing a piece at the same speed as their on-stage heart rate, or someone’s phone rings in the middle of their piece, they should be able to “keep calm and carry on,” because they’ve prepared themselves for it through mindful practising, bulletproofing drills, and training their mind.