Sunday, October 18, 2009

... to questions about performance ...

Jourdain, Robert. “... to Performance.” In Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, 198-235. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997.
In this chapter of Robert Jourdain’s book, which I’m sure most of the bloggers here have already read, Jourdain goes over the physiological and psychological aspects of the performance of music. A large part of the chapter is devoted to discussing how it is that muscles, especially those in the hands, move, and which parts of the brain are responsible (or thought to be responsible) for this movement. Jourdain also discusses aspects of musical performance such as eye movements in relation to reading music, and sight-reading music. As well, there is some discussion of such issues as “muscle memory” in performing music, and the imagery involved in performing music, especially kinaesthetic imagery and kinaesthetic memory. Finally, there is some information on what constitutes musical “talent,” and the types of people and personalities that possess such a thing.

I wanted to read this chapter of the book critically, and reflect upon it, because I am a Music Performance student. Personally, I often have trouble in performances, and I was hoping that this chapter would address some of those. For example, when I get nervous, I often shake. Some people sweat, or get cold hands, but I find that my arms physically shake. This is often a problem, as it can throw my technique off balance. From a very brief section of Jourdain’s chapter I learned, or at least was encouraged to recall, that during performance, when a musician is under stress, he or she often has to deal with the “fight or flight” response, whereupon, as Jourdain puts it, “Primitive parts of the brain gorge the bloodstream with chemical messengers that prepare the body for action. As heartbeat and respiration rise, muscles tense and automatic reflexes quicken, unsettling the delicate balance between action and perception.” (p. 203) In short, when any musician performs, he or she must overcome the age-old “animal” impulses that were once key to survival.

My question, though, is how does a performer do this? Jourdain states that the brain “must fight its own elemental impulses” (p. 203) during a musical performance. But how? How can I train myself to do this more effectively? Is it even possible? Or would it be more productive to work with the “fight or flight” responses, in such a way that I can use all of that excess adrenaline to make my performance more exciting? And, if I were to explore this, how and where would I start? Nerves are such a key part of a musical performance. I’m surprised that Jourdain did not pay a little more attention to this issue in his chapter.

Jourdain’s article also raised some other questions, albeit ones that are specific to me and my own performance issues. As I stated in my summary, much of Jourdain’s chapter was devoted to describing how the brain is able to make our muscles and body parts move in a musical performance, and which parts of the brain are active during this. I have problems with extraneous movements, though. I often tap my foot, or raise my shoulder, unconsciously, often in time with a beat, but more often than not in no specific meter or time at all. So which part of my brain is responsible for this unconscious movement? Is it inhibitive to the success of my musical performance, i.e. would I be better off without all of this extra movement, and would it help my performance? Is it “distracting” to my unconscious mind, in a way? What I mean is, is the extra motion detracting from the energy I should be spending on useful movements?

Finally, Jourdain’s chapter raised some questions in my mind about my conscious awareness during a performance. I have heard some people say that, in a truly effective and beautiful musical performance, the performer hardly “thinks” about the music he or she is playing at all, and the inner commentary that usually accompanies a musician’s playing just disappears. So, how does one achieve this? And what is the significance of our conscious thoughts during performance? I know that often I can undermine myself when playing for an audience, berating myself as I play. I also know that my conscious thoughts can cause unconscious reactions and anticipations, such as when I see a difficult passage coming up in the music. I will cringe internally, and then end up tensing my shoulders and my arms. So, how can I avoid this? I know that, often, positive thoughts help me, and sometimes positive imagery. For example, I love the colour yellow, so if I think of yellow during a difficult piece, sometimes I can induce positive feelings and emotions, even while I’m nervous or scared. Is there a more effective way to overcome these anxieties, though? And is there a way to “shut off” my internal monologue when I play?

These are the questions that I ask myself as a performer, and unfortunately Jourdain’s chapter, “... to Performance,” simply raised more questions in my mind. I appreciate knowing how the brain works in its feedback loops, and the biological make-up of my musculature and what this means to performance, but I would have liked more of a discussion of the psychological aspects of playing, and how our conscious minds can either aid or undermine our musical efforts.

If anyone has some literature suggestions for me, so that I may answer my questions, please respond to my post! I would love to read up more on these aspects of performance.


Leonid said...

I totally agree that while Jourdain writes a lot about the psychological and physiological aspects of music performance he mostly deals with such physical characteristics as muscles or eye movement. But, frankly, I did not expect him to refer to a musician’s emotional state before and during music performance. Unfortunately, while there is a considerable and continuously growing body of research devoted to the investigation of the various aspects of performance anxiety or stage fright, it appears that the most serious researchers prefer to deal with the causes and effects of the phenomenon rather than with the coping strategies performers employ in order to overcome effectively the stress and other unpleasant feelings associated with performance. Yet, I think that is what we as musicians are mostly interested in. Personally, as a performer and teacher, I’m really interested in this research, and I think I’m quite familiar with the most significant studies published on the subject. For example, there is a substantial number of studies dealing with the issue available in “Anxiety disorders”. However, as I mentioned above, these studies do not put forward any solution to this complex problem. So, regrettably, in this regard we are on our own. One of the most extreme cases of performance anxiety I have witnessed when I was a student at The Moscow Conservatory. One of our students, a trumpet player, had suffered so much that he was completely unable to perform solo. During performances, he was literally shaking all over. It was not a subtle, barely noticeable hands or fingers tremor that we observe and experience quite often. His whole body was shaking so hard he was incapable of placing even his mouthpiece properly. Otherwise, he was quite normal, and never demonstrated or experienced anything like that. Naturally, he was forced to quit the Conservatory, and later gave up his music career altogether. Perhaps, it was one of the most severe and rare cases of stage fright. However, dealing with this pressure constitutes a substantial part of our everyday life, and we employ different means in coping with and reducing anxiety. One of the most interesting studies I have read on the topic was “Coping With Performance Stress: A Study Of Professional Orchestral Musicians In Canada”, by L. Bartel and E. Thompson. (The Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning, 1994, 4/5 p.70-78). In this study about 26% of musicians reported use of Beta Blockers as a preferred coping strategy, and the effectiveness of Beta Blockers was rated 4.4 in a range from 1 to 5 (where 5 is completely effective), while the effectiveness of music preparation was rated only 3.9.
As a professional musician and a teacher with lots of experience, I’m convinced that the ability to perform is inherent just exactly as, for instance, perfect pitch. Unfortunately, we cannot learn to be performers (well, maybe to a certain extent…), rather it is a whole complex of various qualities and physical and mental characteristics that we born with.
In short, it is a huge and important topic for us, which deserves to be investigated much deeper.
Here are some links to the sites that discuss various coping strategies, which personally I did not find helpful, but you might have different opinion.

Augusto Monk said...

I had had the same problem of getting very nervous in performance. i read the Inner Gamne of Music, which is enlightening, although at the time dind't help, probably bevause my mind wasn't ready for it. Now, in the Inner Game..., the author says that that kind of anxiety is generated by this dialogue we have in the mind; this can be conscious or unconscious' in my case it was very conscoius, as if I had a voice behind my ear saying "carefull with the next passage", or things like that... impossib le to perform under these circumsantces. I don not know the unswer to your quesation but I tell you what i did that helped. I realised that these distraction were caused by what i would calkled excess energy in my mind. In my daily life, as pretty much everyone, I am dealing with a million issues; when it was the time to perform, i just couldn't shut down the system and focus only on the mus; there was still a lot of mental energy to be used, and becasue of my western tiwsted nature, that energy was used negatively making unhelpful comments. So the way i dealt with the problem was making my mind occupied while performing, foir instance solfeging the music, or humming the music, or reciting the harmony as I played. That blocked getting nervous because i just didn't have time for it any more. I haven't played classical repertoire for some time, but in what I have been performing for the last three years, there is such a demand in terms of coordination and awareness that for sure there is no free disk memory to use on getting nervous. performing this stuff life has always been a great success in terms of enjoyment, and I never experience panic again. I should do the experiment again on calssical repertoire.

Renee Kruisselbrink said...

To a certain degree, I do think that someone in performance has to enjoy and be comfortable with the actual act of performing. Certainly, there is a degree of nervousness involved. But there is a significant difference between nervous tension and nervous excitement. It is possible to channel energy towards an improved performance.

For example, I find that anticipation of a performance (a few days) in advance improves and sharpens my approach to the actual act of practising – it can be either detail-orientated with respect to small passages, or with a large-scale, more formal approach. This also regards my performances. I find my focus greatly improves in a performance setting and I can be extremely conscious of what I have practised, in order to convincingly portray my interpretation to an audience.

I think context is another key factor to consider with respect to nervousness. What exactly is at stake in the performance? There is a big difference between a Kiwanis class at age 8, and a university audition for grad school ten or twelve years later. I definitely feel different types of nervousness in differing performance situations.

Regarding performance situations, they should be as "ideal" as possible. Aspects, such as being well-prepared, well-rested, and mentally alert should not be underestimated.