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Some things I have learned on a deeper level over the course of raising my son. When he was little it was more to do with how people learn. As he got bigger, past age 19, things really changed. The big issue now is anxiety and the close companion of anxiety, obsessive thoughts.
Looking back, my lessons with Verne Reynolds were very anxiety inducing, but clearly not on a level like James experiences anxiety. For Reynolds, it was a teaching technique–I hope!–to nearly break students and see who survives. It worked to a point, as to this day I rarely get anxious in any performance situation, but it is not a good teaching technique, “old school” and thankfully little seen today. (A broader look at what I learned from Reynolds may be found here.)
In James case, it is different in that much of his life is driven by anxiety. He obviously worries about all sorts of things every day. At one point, when things were the worst, among other things he was extremely obsessed about his cheese omelette for breakfast. He likes certain comfort foods a lot, but you would think the routine of the day would be pretty clear? At that point, he had so much anxiety that it was over a level that allowed for any quality of life for any of us. Now, so long as he knows we have eggs in the refrigerator, he trusts his omelette will be made every morning.
To get to more of a quality life meds have helped and we have to keep him on routines. This point we can all apply to our performances, actually. We are less anxious when we have routines and stick to them. Over time you develop different tracks and parallel routines. Concert days have their track that is different than a practice day.
As to the meds part of it, one bottom line realized was that without meds helping take the edge off things James really could not cope. When things were the worst he was literally breaking things every day and a danger to us and himself. It is not a sign of failure if meds really are necessary.
Also related to anxiety is the topic of triggers. Certain things will trigger anxiety, especially changes of routines, but also, he is sensitive to the moods around him as well. Understanding the things that trigger him has been important, and understanding what triggers you or your students is something that will help achieve better performances.
Keep on a schedule, but don’t obsess about it
One way we try to help James is with a visual schedule. We keep it simple, but he needs no surprises! For the same reason, visualization for the hornist is also important. I was not a fan of this for years, actually, but the value is you can reduce or eliminate anxiety if you have a good idea what is coming in your day. Keep surprises in your performing days to a minimum.
But there is a negative. We have to control the visual schedule carefully with James as it is so easy for him to obsess about things, which leads to anxiety.
The application there is as performers keep the surprises to a minimum but also make sure you don’t obsess about things either. Trust yourself, keep optimistic.
And when the series continues the topic is optimism.