Warning: Your Practicing Could Be Hazardous to Your (Mental) Health

Musicians' Assistance Program - Part 2 Of 2

Volume CIII, No. 6June, 2003

David J. Sternbach, MM, MSW, BCD

Last month in this column we ended by asking the question, “Why do we often give ourselves unhelpful messages when we’re practicing?”

To answer this, we could look at our early role models. Did people around you laugh, shrug it off, stay loose? Or, did they get furious if things weren’t going their way and maybe look for someone to blame? And, if there was no one else to blame, did your early role models learn to blame themselves, overcriticize themselves and hang on to their upset feelings?

Do you do this to yourself in a practice session? Do you like it? Do you want it in a performance? What you practice is what you get.

Here’s the news. If in practicing, you habitually have a self-attacking style dealing with challenge, you are likely to have it pop up in concert. Welcome to stage fright.

If your intent is to be totally immersed in the music and connect with your audience, there is no place for a negative, self-critical, accusing and angry ego state.

How then to deal with it? Back to the practice room, this time to develop different self messages in the face of frustration.

What’s important in practicing for excellence is not just how you deal with the challenges. Just as important is what ego state accompanies this.

There is a world of difference between people who curse themselves for mistakes, and others who practice self affirmation, which operates to sustain our positive sense of self in the face of challenge.

An example of this affirmation might be the following inner dialogue. “OK, I’m hitting a wall here – nothing I’m doing seems to help. But I’ve solved everything one way or another up to now. I’ll solve this.” Or, “I’ve gotten this far along in developing skills; I’m confident I can find a way through this.” Or, perhaps, “I care about this music, and I want to keep that positive feeling alive so it can come across to an audience, engage them, help them enter the music. Being negative won’t get me there.”

These kinds of messages do not deny problems or frustration. Rather, they address how we feel while dealing with difficulties. They sustain morale – just as afflictive, negative self talk can dismantle morale. And, we now know from research that when a person’s morale is high, they are less tense, which also reduces muscle fatigue that can in turn lead to injury.

The decisive factor in how well this works is not just in whatever words you select. What makes the difference in self talk is exactly the same as what we need as performers. An affirming self message, as in performing, needs to be emotionally true for you, powerful and convincing. If you develop a strong voice of self support – stronger than negativity – it will be available to you when you need it.

How do you get it? Practice, practice, practice.

Affirming yourself is a proven, highly effective approach to learning to control stage fright. We are not only in that practice room going for excellence in skills, but also practicing excellence in attitude, and how we most want to feel in performance – maintaining grace under pressure.

David Sternbach, a psychotherapist who works with performers, is director of the Center for Arts and Wellness at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. There, Sternbach runs a training program for music students. A former professional musician for 25 years, Sternbach now plays occasionally.