Performance psychiatrist addresses stressed students

St. Olaf musicians often talk about the culture of perfectionism that pervades their social and academic environment. The general attitude is that with enough hard wor ak, perfection is achievable, and a good musician should not strive for anything less. The emotional stress caused by this attitude was one of the first things that Dr. Bonnie Robson M.D., addressed in her talk on Thursday, Oct. 29, entitled “Performance Psychiatry: Imagery for the Performing Artist.”

Although Dr. Robson has quite an imposing professional background (she has 30 years of experience as a clinical psychiatrist, and has held important leadership roles in the Performing Arts Medicine Association), her manner was friendly and personable. She made it clear at the outset of the presentation that her goal was not to help her audience achieve “perfection,” but instead to help them more easily achieve an optimal level of performance for themselves.

Optimal performance for musicians tends to manifest itself as a “flow state,” which is difficult to describe accurately even when speaking from personal experience. When Dr. Robson asked audience members to describe their experience of flow, people described it as both timeless and perfectly grounded in the present. In the flow state, the performer is free of any conscious concern about technical accuracy, yet somehow is able to achieve it nonetheless.

Robson was careful to emphasize the fundamental importance of knowing one’s own limits. Different personalities have different thresholds for stress tolerance; some people do not perform well unless they tell themselves that there is a lot at stake, whereas others are very easily pushed over the boundary from beneficial excitement to detrimental fear. Gathering this information is the first step towards knowing how to handle stress, and determining which types of stress are beneficial and which are harmful.

After laying this groundwork for the audience, most of Robson’s presentation talked about strategies and skills that musicians can practice in order to help deal with negative stress. Some of these were common knowledge to most musicians in attendance, like breathing deeply and trying not to be judgmental of oneself; however, Robson also delved into more advanced performance optimization techniques including visualization and imagery. She cited studies of internationally competitive athletes in fields like alpine skiing, golf and bobsledding, which provided evidence that practicing the visualization of success has a clear positive effect on performance, above and beyond the amount of improvement that can come from physical training alone.

Robson recommended that students use a three-fold approach to visualization practice: they should imagine how their successful performance will feel inside their body, what it will look like from their eyes as the performer and what it will look like from the eyes of an outside audience member.

Robson also gave examples of how to correct negative self-talk, which is one of the more pervasive and persistent problems that musicians face. This is another area where visualization could help; imagining the negative thought as a physical thing and then moving to swat it or throw it away could be an effective tactic.

However, merely shutting out problematic thoughts is not enough; to truly change one’s thought patterns, the negative thought must be replaced by a positive one. This positive thought does not need to be about a huge accomplishment – as Robson said, it could be as simple as “I called my parents today because they wanted to hear from me,” or “I went outside and got a few minutes of light exercise today.”

Goal-setting is another thought strategy that can help an individual shift to a positive mindset. Expectations of perfection can do serious damage to self-confidence when the musician, being human, inevitably falls short of their own high standards. Setting reasonable goals is not an ability that some people “just have” and others do not: it is a skill that musicians can (and should) practice.