DESENSITIZATION: HOW TO ENCOURAGE FOCUS DURING PIANO LESSONS
Updated: Feb 22
People who experience more anxiety than others tend to focus attention on OPO (other people’s opinions), especially negative opinions. Those who are less anxious direct their attention towards positive audience reactions and away from threatening stimuli. To me, it seems a bit like the choice, often battle, between focusing on the half-full or the half-empty bottle. Although my present main goal is to learn to focus as much as I can on the tone and touch I am creating when I play, I also want to reduce anxiety of any kind and intensity.
Julliard professor and psychologist-musician Noa Kageman, cites a study that illuminates if not solves the anxiety issue for music students standing before an audition team of evaluators;
I highly commend Professor Kageyama’s website newsletter to anyone wanting to reduce "musician's performance anxiety" (aka MPA). In his prolific, gratis, periodic newsletters I often receive confirmation of what is going on for me as a returning adult student and “performer” for my teacher. I never perform on stage of any kind including for recitals, but sometimes I do play for and share my music with a friend or two, and always of course, with my ever-patient partner who never seems to complain when I have to endlessly repeat phrases I am working on or a piece I am memorizing. Professor Kageyama always offers practical strategies in reframing an issue I am grappling with, or he points out something new and practical to try, both of which I find helpful.
In this newsletter on anxiety, Professor Kageman suggests that the data he reviewed “seems to suggest that the more worried you are about what a listener or an audition panel thinks, the more likely you could be to seek feedback about your performance in the moment. And in that moment, if you focus disproportionately on hints of negative feedback, that may very well increase your anxiety, make you tighten up, lead to more discomfort and more worries, and hasten that familiar downward spiral of doom that we’ve all experienced.” But “... knowing is only half the battle” as he says!
I tend to fall into the highly-anxious group. Re-starting piano lessons 63 years after leaving them upon high school graduation, was especially unnerving for me. When I started lessons with each of my three piano teachers, my hands trembled and I felt nauseated or dizzy for some weeks or even months while playing the piece I had been working on. At some mysterious point, gratefully, I settle down and the symptoms disappear.
Apparently, I’m not alone in experiencing symptoms of anxiety in the adult returning amateur piano student population. I’ve sought out and read about every book published by this group of pianists, and most books by professional concert instrumentalists and teachers about how to conquer this performance problem. True, most of the amateur pianist authors return to lessons about 20 years after their early college experience in the serious study of music, which I did not have. Nor did I have musical parents and performers that most did. However, nearly every one of these amateur pianist authors cites unnerving tension and anxiety at the start of later-life lessons. Having successful, on-going careers under their belts, even careers involving a lot of public speaking and presentations before large groups, did nothing to reduce their initial anxiety. In my experience having a satisfactory career in the legal and business worlds exacerbated my nerves. I expected myself to be adequate in returning to the piano but did not expect the fact I had to go back to step one-plus for the most part, and move up from there. Even sixteen years of being a civil trial attorney, then 30 more years of speaking many times before audiences in the hundreds, were of no help to me.
Clearly, anxiety takes us away from the possibility of learning the piano. But just knowing that intellectually does not help move away from it in practice!
So what does the professor suggest?
First, “it’s probably best to avoid looking for any sort of feedback, positive or negative...”
Second, in that moment of performance or playing for a piano lessons, “..it’s more important to focus on what you want to say, rather than on what others (your teacher) might think.”
Third, on occasions with a small group, or even one friend, we might want to practice minimizing anxiety by focusing on someone who is looking at us, but choose someone with positive facial and body expressions such as smiles of leaning forward indicating attention.
I'm certain that I started reducing my anxiety by playing for my ever-patient partner, Ron, who on most evenings sits on the sofa working on his laptop while I practice. Not once has he complained! I often bore myself with needed repetitions, but Ron seems to tolerate them well (or maybe he just put in his industrial-strength earplugs?).
Then there are friendly and supportive neighbors Jeff and Joe, who loaned me a lovely semi-concert Bosendorfer grand piano two years ago. That started me on a search to buy my own grand piano. during that process I had to play many pianos to test the tone and touch. Normally the store salesperson, owner, or some customer was in proximity of my playing, but I had to soldier on. Then It helped periodically to invite Joe over to first play a piece he was working on. When I noted that he made a few mistakes, I didn't mind so much playing for him when I made mistakes. Then another friend, an amateur guitarist, agreed to listen. It helped me to play a light-hearted classic country piece with lyrics, and have my friend sing along, then play his guitar for me. Jeff, Joe and my Alexander Technique teacher and friend, Elyse, came over for a dinner party and to listen to me play The Duchess at her christening party in June 2022. Here Jeff and Joe listen to my presentation which by that time, while not error-free, was at least courageous, joyful, enthusiastic, and upon reflection, not bad after all!
A fourth suggestion of Professor Kageyama might not be relevant to reduce anxiety in us piano students, especially those who like me, take lessons on Skype or Zoom. I set the camera far to my right side and a bit back so my teacher’s viewpoint is over my left shoulder onto the keyboard. I cannot even see him out of the corner of my eye, so it’s relatively easy for me to forget he is there. I’m getting better at jumping right in to play my piece without thinking about him (hope that’s not an insult to him? Lol). Even a year or so ago when I attended two in-person lessons when Covid infections were at a low point, the teacher sat directly to my right side in front of her electronic keyboard, so my view of her was indistinct.
I remember in high school that my teacher sat next to me on a longer bench; pretty tough for me to imagine tolerating now!
One of my friends, also a retired long-time trial attorney who is about 15 years younger than me, is also taking piano lessons. She told me that for the first year of her lessons when it came time for her play the piece she was working on, she would ask her in-person teacher to go to a far corner of her living room so that there was not one chance she could see any evidence that he was looking at her or listening. Eventually she could tolerate him sitting by her side.
I think the process is called “de-sensitization” and it works in other areas of life to reduce tension, stress, and anxiety regarding a person, thing, or process. “Taking baby steps” might be another way to think of it. This process frees a person from a phobia or neurosis by gradually exposing the person to the thing that is feared. The intensity of an emotional reaction is thus reduced. While the process can have a deleterious effect, such as desensitizing youth to violence through repeated exposure to violent video games or movie scenes, for my lawyer friend and I, it has had clear beneficial effects in our piano practice.
Which all goes to support my latest thinking that two things are key to my progress: learning to have more
-- patience, and
-- persistence in repetition and playing for others
because anxiety will inevitably reduce, at least a bit, over time with experience. I hope you find that to be true, too!
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