Do perfect performances exist?
Do you remember how old you were when you started playing the piano?
How old were you when started lessons; when you played in your first recital? I recall picking out tunes on the piano when I was four years old. My first piano was a little white toy with twenty-four keys. By the time I was five, my mother had bought me a large upright piano, and I fell in love with it. I started formal lessons at six years old.
Playing the piano allowed me to have all kinds of feelings that I could not express in words. I felt empowered that my entire body and my fingers could make such beautiful sounds on my piano. I could express all kinds of moods at the keyboard. I gained a sense of control that I could command the 88 black and white keys, and of course, I got a lot of attention. The piano became my trusted friend. It always was responsive to me when certain situations in my family were beyond my control.
Many piano students begin lessons at a young age. And all students grow up in unique, often complex, family dynamics that affect their feelings about themselves, others, and their performing. Can you think of any other professionals who are as highly skilled and in-tensely trained as musicians who begin their formal instruction in childhood? Musicians are unique in this respect. Thus, their performance anxiety must be taken seriously in the context of their unique life experiences.
Fast forward: a student or adult pianist comes to see me because of chronic performance anxiety. Understandably, musicians want a "quick" cure, thinking that if they tell me what is bothering them I will be able to offer a magic answer. Inevitably, I disappoint the wishes of these people. I am a psychologist, not a magician. I explain to my patients that they have life histories that form the backbone of their self-esteem and their attitudes about themselves and their performing. I suggest that if performance anxiety is chronic and interferes with enjoyment of playing the piano, we should take a look at their anxiety in the context of their life history.
When students talk about playing "perfectly," the teacher can help best by discussing how "perfection" is both magical and impossible.
We talk about how audience applause symbolically represents approving parents (and teachers) to the performer—parents who can appreciate, applaud, and offer love. Yet a basic fear that underlies performance anxiety is that the audience/parent will reject the performer if he or she is not "perfect." Perfection in performance, as in life, is not possible. Striving for perfection (vs. appreciating competence and playing as "well as you can") is a ticket to experiencing performance anxiety.
It is important for teachers to emphasize to their students that there is no such thing as a perfect performance. I have found discussing the idea of "perfection" to be very helpful for performers who put excessive pressure upon themselves.
Performance anxiety does not begin backstage before a recital. It does not exist in isolation from life experience. Starting piano lessons at a young age alerts us to the fact that both psychological and physical processes are developing simultaneously as the body and mind are still formative. Thus playing the piano becomes inextricably intertwined with physical, psychological, and social development. Music teachers can help their students with performance anxiety by being sensitive to the fact that a person with a complex life history goes on stage. When students talk about playing "perfectly," the teacher can help best by discussing how "perfection" is both magical and impossible. It is infinitely more helpful in lowering performance anxiety to encourage the idea of competence rather than omnipotence.