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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: the psychology of preparing young students for performance

My choir students will have their first concert of the year tomorrow. They are all sounding great and are well-prepared, but I also know that most of my students struggle with performance anxiety, mostly because for the majority of the students in my Title I school, this is their only experience performing in front of others, let alone an audience of hundreds. Over my years of teaching elementary music, and through my experiences as a music student who struggled with a lot of performance anxiety, I have picked up a few tricks for preparing my students to be as well-equipped as possible to deal with performance anxiety. I am pretty well settled into my procedure for psychologically preparing my students for performing, so I today I wanted to share that procedure with all of you. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments at the end of this post as well!

In the weeks leading up to a performance, I always go through the following steps to get the students in the best possible psychological and emotional state for their time on stage:

1. Second to last rehearsal
There are 2 things that I make sure happen in the second-to-last rehearsal (not counting the day of the concert) before a performance: 1) that we have all of the material learned beforehand and are running through the music in that rehearsal and 2) that I tear them down. *deep breaths* Let's start with the first point and we'll come back to that second one... it's going to be OK. 

I've found that, if the students don't have the musical material learned by the second-to-last rehearsal, they will be very unlikely to pull it off in a performance. I have, at times, cut pieces from a program if I realize about a month out that they won't be ready by then. It's simply not worth the stress. So take stock of your pieces when you have about 4-5 rehearsals left. Are the students going to know all of their songs (memorized if it will be performed by memory) by the second to last rehearsal? If not, that is the time to re-think your program so you can have everything ready in time.

OK, back to the whole tearing students down thing. If you've been with me for very long, you'll know that I am a big fan of positive reinforcement and all that jazz. It is very important, in order for this to work, that you have an outstanding relationship with your ensemble as a whole and the students individually as well. With that said, I have found it most effective to nit-pick the mistakes and tell the students that I am concerned about their preparedness for the performance in the second-to-last rehearsal. I make a conscious effort to have them leave rehearsal feeling a little bit worried about whether or not they will be ready for the concert. 

This tearing down does several things: it motivates students to practice and improve in those last few days/hours before the final rehearsal, it gives students a bit of "edge" on the day of the performance that improves their focus on the stage, and it prevents the ensemble for slumping right before a performance, encouraging them to peak instead. I have seen this happen time and time again both as a student and a teacher in a wide range of settings, ages, and genres, again with the understanding that the teacher and students have a good enough relationship to be motivated to make the performance successful in the end.

2. Final rehearsal
There are, again, 2 things that I make sure happen in the last rehearsal before the day of the performance: 1) that we practice everything, including bows, announcements, and movement as much as possible, and 2) that I build them up (see? don't you feel better now?). I do generally start practicing things like bows a few weeks before, but at the very latest, I make sure to run through the entire performance, including any movement on and off stage, bows, introductions to songs, announcements, and other extra-musical things in the final rehearsal. In my current position I don't have the opportunity to have the students practice in the performance space until the day of the concert, so we mimic it as much as we can in my classroom- I set up microphones on stands, and have students turn and take a few steps in the direction they would walk.

After tearing them down in the previous rehearsal, I spend a lot of energy making the students feel as confident as possible in the final rehearsal. If something goes wrong, I make sure they have the opportunity to make it right. I praise them every way I can, and I smile through the entire rehearsal. Where the previous rehearsal was all about giving them some extra drive, this rehearsal is all about building excitement and anticipation, along with the confidence that they will succeed.

3. Day of the performance
I learned this from my private piano teacher in high school: once you've learned it, your first performance of a piece on a particular day will almost always be your best. I don't have my students perform any of our concert pieces, at least not in their entirety, on the day of the performance. As I mentioned earlier, my choirs only have one short rehearsal on the day of the concert to practice on the stage (well, you know, or cafe-gym-atorium). I still don't have them sing through their pieces in that rehearsal. We spend that time doing an extended warm-up, practicing our movement on and off stage, and addressing any last minute logistical concerns (like whether or not Johnny can wear the black pants that have red pinstripes on them or does he need to call home and have his mom bring another pair? Because his mom really wants him to wear these...). I don't know why this works but it's true- the students always do better in the performance if they have not played/sung through the pieces yet that day. I keep the rehearsal on the day of the performance as low-key and stress-free as possible and reiterate my confidence in their preparation and ability to succeed.

The last step? Go perform! Know that your students are learning even on the stage, and enjoy the results of all your hard work. I can't wait to do so with my choirs tomorrow! :)

How do you help your students prepare for performances? Do you agree with my strategies or have you had success with other procedures? Share your thoughts below!

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