New Brunswick

Moncton pianist sharing lessons of her 'uphill battle' with performance anxiety

Moncton pianist Emily Logan, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, wants to help music students better cope with performance anxiety.

Musician and therapist team up on symposium to help perfectionist performers

Graduate student and pianist Emily Logan wants music teachers and students to be educated in how to manage performance anxiety. (Submitted by Emily Logan)

Moncton pianist Emily Logan knows what it's like to be paralyzed by performance anxiety.

That's why the doctoral student at the University of British Columbia is involved in the symposium "Tackling Performance Anxiety with Heart and Wisdom" on May 25 in Moncton. 

Logan has partnered with psychotherapist and musician Paula Wise and the New Brunswick Registered Music Teachers' Association to offer the event, aimed at both students and teachers.

When she was a child, Logan said, performing came easily, but in her teens the stress started to creep in. She still remembers the moment the anxiety took over.

I couldn't face walking on stage one more time.- Emily Logan

"I was backstage and it just seemed completely overwhelming to step on stage, and I ended up pulling out of that competition at the last second because I couldn't face walking on stage one more time," Logan said.

'You can't stop thinking about what went wrong'

At that time, as an undergraduate student studying piano performance at Mount Allison University, Logan was determined to win the "uphill battle" with her nerves.

"That was definitely a period of intense questioning because I was preparing myself to continue on in piano performance, but yet I had this block," she said. "I didn't quite know where to turn."

Emily Logan believes the perfectionist tendencies in many musicians can lead to anxiety and depression. She is studying whether psychological interventions could help improve the long-term well-being of students. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

The feeling was beyond stage fright, which she defines as something that makes you feel jittery in the moment.

Performance anxiety, for Logan, started days before a performance and continued for days after.

"A lot of musicians talk about ruminating over their mistakes after a performance for weeks and sometimes months on end. You can't stop thinking about what went wrong instead of thinking about what went right," she said.

"We're not very forgiving of ourselves when we make mistakes."

Managing anxiety long-term

Logan turned to self-help books. She said breathing exercises and relaxation techniques helped her through her undergraduate degree and subsequent masters degree in piano performance at Ottawa University.

In order to get to a professional level, there has to be this element of drive and always striving for better. It's just sometimes that can get out of control.- Emily Logan

When she began her doctorate in musical arts at the University of British Columbia, however, the anxiety started to surface again.

"It's very competitive to get into these programs," she said. "So we feel like we always have to live up.

"You're the highest level of student in your department. The undergrads look up to you, the masters students look up to you. You feel like the professors always want you to play consistently well."

That's when Logan met Wise, who came in to do a class workshop.

Violinist Paula Wise, pictured here with Emily Logan, plays with the Vancouver Opera Orchestra. She will present a symposium on managing performance anxiety in Moncton on May 25. (Submitted by Paula Wise)

Wise, who is also a performance coach, asked the students to introduce themselves and to say one thing they loved about their playing.

"I froze," Logan said. "I thought, 'I can think of about 10 things I hate about my playing, but I can't think of one thing I love.'"

Logan said she avoided eye contact with Wise, hoping she wouldn't be called on.

"And sure enough she looked at me and pointed to me, and started with me first."

Logan said that was the beginning of her relationship with Wise, which has helped her tremendously as a performer and as a teacher.

"In order to get to a professional level, there has to be this element of drive and always striving for better. It's just sometimes that can get out of control," she said.

The New Brunswick Music Teachers' Association is offering a symposium for teachers and students in Moncton on May 25. One of the aims is to help performers deal with stage fright, or performance anxiety. Vanessa Blanch brings us the story. 9:14

Performance anxiety linked to mental health 

Mental health issues often surface in young adults, and Logan said research shows that rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are two to three times higher than average among performing arts students.

In September, she and Wise recruited undergraduate students who took part in monthly workshops and had two private sessions with Wise.

"My study is looking at, if we implement an intervention … can that have a positive effect both on performance anxiety and potentially on long-term psychological well being of these students." 

Paula Wise will offer private coaching sessions and lead a workshop in Moncton on May 23-26. She combines her experience as a performance coach, professional violinist and psychotherapist to help musicians manage anxiety and become better performers. (www.paulawise.com)

Logan is still collecting data for the study but said so far the results look positive, with many young musicians now talking openly about their struggles.

"Music performance anxiety is not talked about a lot about amongst the music community," Logan said.

"If you say that you're struggling with performance anxiety maybe you won't get the next job or gig, maybe you won't win the next audition," she said. "So often the suffering is done in isolation."

Logan believes perfectionism, performance anxiety and mental health problems are clearly linked.

"If teachers of younger students can start to implement tools and techniques when the kids are six and eight and 10 and 12, then they'll have those strategies built in."

Wise said music teachers are in many ways like parents and have a huge responsibility to guide and encourage.

A symposium offered by the New Brunswick Registered Music Teachers' Association will feature violinist and therapist Paula Wise. The goal is to give teachers and students strategies to manage performance anxiety. (Submitted by Paula Wise)

"Quite frankly there's probably very few people in a child's life or young adult's life that you see weekly that is your mentor," she said.

Symposium for teachers, students coming to Moncton

Logan calls the lack of help for young music students alarming and hopes that by offering workshops and coaching sessions more teachers will be trained to help.

"We want to bring out the love and joy of music in our students," said Logan. "And when we see a student struggling, and all of the sudden their enjoyment is gone, we want to change something so they can have that spark back."

It's not that you feel completely at ease, but you know what you need to do to feel comfortable and you trust that it'll work.- Emily Logan

"I've learned an exponential amount of information from [Wise] and I just wish that I had had that opportunity in my undergrad when I was struggling, instead of having to do it alone," said Logan.

Wise wants to see a therapist, who is also a musician, at every university.

"So that the dialogue can open so that it's part of being normal to get up and be vulnerable," Wise said.

"To develop all these strategies and have it as second nature, much like with athletes."

Perfection not the goal

The symposium will open with a concert by Logan on May 24 at Mount Royal United Church in Moncton.

One of the ways Emily Logan manages her anxiety is by performing a few pieces at a time, months ahead of a big concert. That way she is more comfortable when she sits down at her piano. (www.artsnb.ca)

Sitting at the grand piano in her home studio, Logan has been rehearsing for months and admits that she still hears every uneven sixteenth note.

The difference, she said, is that today she has a better perspective, strategies to cope with her anxiety and tools to bring more emotion to her playing.

"It's not that you feel completely at ease, but you know what you need to do to feel comfortable and you trust that it'll work," said Logan.

In the past, Logan said the highest compliment someone could pay her was that they didn't hear any mistakes.

"Now it's that they were moved, or I think if someone is crying after a performance that's a huge compliment, because you realize that you touched something deeper," she said.

"To me that's one of the biggest compliments I can get."

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for nearly 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please e-mail: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

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