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Ruth Kuefler

So maybe I'm not crazy after all . . .

January 11, 2008 at 3:36 AM

Over winter break I've been reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It's basically about the human ability to make snap judgments in a small amount of time based on limited information. It's amazing just how often these "blink" judgements can be correct. Gladwell also goes into how snap decisions like this can be be risky or even dangerous when misapplied. It was amazing to realize just how powerful our subconscious mind is, and how recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of this "blink" phenomenon can improve our decisions in daily life.

One portion of the book really struck me. It was interesting because it reinforced a theory that I'd formed over the past few years about performing. As I've had to deal with more stressful performance situations, I've also tried to examine more what it takes to overcome obstacles like nervousness and tension. One thing that a conductor of mine always used to say, and which has really stuck with me, is the phrase "Fake it till you make it." This can apply to a broad range of things in life, but the way I see it in relation to performance is that sometimes you simply have to fake that you're relaxed and confident until you actually feel more that way. Now, I'm not saying you can just fake your way through an audition you haven't carefully prepared for — nothing like that. I'm referring more to the psychology of performance. It's just that look — every person gets nervous to some extent before a performance. It's natural and inevitable. Sure, there's relaxation techniques, warm-ups, and pre-concert banana fixes that can all help. :) But bottom line, chances are we'll still feel nervous even after the most thoughtful preparation.

So . . .

Here's what I think. When we're nervous, sometimes the best thing we can do is to pretend that we actually are relaxed, poised, and confident. This means walking onstage with a confident, steady step even though you may be shaking inside. Or smiling and bowing gracefully to the audience, even though you may actually be terrified of them. Or breathing deeply and using free, expressive gestures in your playing, even though you may feel self-conscious. And guess what? If you can do all this, you might actually be able to trick yourself into truly feeling relaxed and confident. I know, I know, it does sound a little crazy. But you know, I think it actually might work. And even if it doesn't necessarily improve your playing by a huge margin (although I do think being more relaxed will help your technical security) the audience will certainly feel the difference. More than once people have asked me after a concert, "Wow, were you nervous? It didn't seem like that at all," and I'd have to answer, "Haha, yeah, actually . . . I was pretty nervous." But they didn't get that impression, because I tried my best to project confidence and musical expression, even when I didn't always feel that way internally.

So what does all this have to do with Blink? Well, in the book, Gladwell describes the work of two psychologists, Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, who collaborated to create "a taxonomy of facial expressions" (201). Basically, they would spend all day making and recording different facial movements for each other. Then they catalogued all the different gestures, linking combinations of muscle movements to specific emotions. "Happiness, for instance, is essentially A.U. [action units] six and twelve — contracting the muscles that raise the cheek (orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis) in combination with the zygomatic major, which pulls up the corner of the lips" (204). Ekman and Friesen could then us this taxonomy to analyze the facial expressions of different people and essentially read their minds. Cool, huh? (And a little freaky, too . . . )

But their most fascinating finding (at least in my opinion) was that simulating these muscle movements could actually cause the person to feel the associated emotion. "What we discovered" said Ekman, "is that that expression alone is sufficient to create marked changes in the autonomic nervous system. When this was first discovered, we were stunned. We weren't expecting this at all. And it happened to both of us. We felt terrible. What we were generating were sadness, anguish. And when I lower my brows, raise the upper eyelid, narrow the eyelid, and press the lips together, I'm generating anger. My heartbeat will go up ten to twelve beats. My hands will get hot. As I do it, I can't disconnect from the system. It's very unpleasant, very unpleasant" (206-207).

As Gladwell says, "These findings may be hard to believe, because we take it as a given that first we experience an emotion, and then we may — or may not — express that emotion on our face . . . What this research showed, though is that the process works in the opposite direction as well. Emotion can also start in the face. The face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings. It is an equal partner in the emotional process" (208).

So, maybe it really is possible to change how you feel by simulating the outward expressions of that feeling. It certainly is an intriguing prospect, especially in regards to performance anxiety. Food for thought . . .

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 11, 2008 at 12:33 PM
I read Blink last year and I agree it's a fascinating book. I have heard similar ideas behind biofeedback: that there is feedback from your body and facial language that creates an emotion rather than just reflecting it.

The only situation in which I've found personally that this doesn't work very well is with fake smiling. Girls, especially, get told to "smile" a lot and there's a lot of having to walk around with a fake smile plastered to your face, which can be especially painful in adolescence. And it doesn't really fool people. I'm not saying you were advocating this at all--I think this is very valuable advice for performance, only that sometimes it's taken too far or misapplied in other situations.

From William Wolcott
Posted on January 11, 2008 at 1:00 PM
From al ku
Posted on January 11, 2008 at 3:24 PM
actually, studies have shown that with some level of stress/anxiety, people tend to perform better, partly because of the higher level of concentration. most good golfers i know have what they call first tee jitters and after the first swing under stress, they tend to find their grove and start to cruise. for performing artists in training, i think the goal is to channel the anxiety around the first note/bow and learn to quickly, naturally go inside the zone right after that.

that is why i strongly believe sports (or other competitive activities) and classical music performance can feed into each other, to help the body/mind conditions itself to different type or level of stressful situations. eventually, at a higher level, the good ones crave for the stressful situations which tend to bring out the best performance and the performers get a "high" from those addictive experiences.

still, what happens after the first note depends solely on smart and hard practice. confidence comes from that and that only.

From Drew Lecher
Posted on January 11, 2008 at 8:15 PM

Thanks for sharing.

Anticipation, excitement and exhilaration of the moment are the "nervous feelings" we have when well prepared and experienced.

Then — the moment of truth!

Fear, trepidation, angst and dread are when we are not prepared sufficiently.

Walking out on stage with confidence is similar to the actor/actress "taking on the roll" — in full character and leaving themselves back in the wings. They are now another person.

We must step out of our ego and into the music — serving the purpose of portraying the various qualities, moods and character of the composition.

This is certainly not easy, but must be achieved for us to really perform as artists.

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