Got nerves on stage? Meet Noa Kageyama, performance psychologist

Are you one of those performers whose teeth start chattering just prior to taking the stage? Or maybe your hands just get clammy and you find it hard not to add a little shake to that Schubert?  On Wednesday and Thursday, October 9 and 10, Dr. Noa Kageyama, a Juilliard-based performance psychologist, will visit the School of Music to offer his insights into how to conquer–or at least quell–those anxieties, not only found among musicians but all people who find themselves in front of a crowd.

Calling his talks “The Psychological Skills of Top Performers,” Kageyama will offer two evening workshops and a colloquium. Workshops will be from 7 to 9 pm in Morphy Hall, and the colloquium will be October 10 from noon to 1 pm in Mills Hall. The events, which are sponsored by the university’s Vilas trust, are fee and open to the public. For students interested in a more personal conversation, Dr. Kageyama will also be available for individual coaching sessions.

On Thursday, October 10 at 8:40 am, Dr. Kageyama will also appear on WORT radio as a guest of Tony Casteneda, a host of the “8 O’Clock Buzz.”

In Japan, Kageyama started as a violin student, studying with the legendary Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki Method of instruction, and took his studies through college with considerable success. But he also experienced considerable frustration.

“Along the way, I learned all about discipline, sacrifice, and what it takes to be successful,” he writes on his blog, The Bulletproof Musician. “But I also came to see that this wasn’t quite enough. Despite my successes, I struggled with inconsistency and felt that my playing often fell short of what I knew I was capable of. It was frustrating to play so well in rehearsals and then sound like a different person in performances and auditions.” At Juilliard, he attended a class taught by a sports psychologist, Dr. Don Greene, who helped Kageyama to consider a new way to think about performance. Kageyama wound up with a master’s degree in performance from Juilliard and a doctorate in psychology, and opened up a practice with the goal to answer the question:  “Why do some people thrive under pressure while others choke?”

We asked Dr. Kageyama a few questions about what’s he’s learned along with way, and what he might present here at UW-Madison.

So you are a “performance psychologist.” Was there even a field of PP when you were just starting out?
Well, the field of sport psychology has been around for quite some time, but for most of its history has been centered around athletes. In the last 20 years or so, there has been increased interest in the application of sport psychology principles and techniques to other “performers” like musicians, public speakers, even Wall Street traders. So as the field has expanded, some have taken to referring to it as “performance psychology” as opposed to sport psychology, but it’s really the same thing.

Noa Kageyama
Noa Kageyama

On your blog, you mention a man at Juilliard named Don Greene who taught the PEM class. You said it was illuminating. Were there a lot of Juilliard students who actually needed that class?
To be honest – and this is not at all a knock on Juilliard students by any means – we all did. We all want to play our best all the time, and so few of us do on a consistent basis. I used to assume that this was just how things were, that performances would always be somewhat hit or miss. I didn’t realize that there were specific physical, mental, and emotional skills that consistently great performers had learned and mastered. We all took away different things from the class, but the coolest thing was to walk off stage one day, and just realize that you totally “get it.” As in, you totally understand exactly what you have to do physically, what you have to think about, and focus on that leads to great, memorable (and even enjoyable) performances.

Did you ever arrive at an answer to your question: “Why do some people thrive under pressure while others choke?” Does an answer exist?
I could get into more complex, in-depth explanations, but the simple answer is that there are certain mental, physical, and emotional states that are conducive to peak performance. The athlete (or musician) who can get into those states on demand maximizes the likelihood of thriving under pressure. The performer who doesn’t know what these states are, or how to get into them at will, and is dependent on chance and circumstance, is going to be more likely to fall short of their abilities when the pressure is on.

Are there some principles that apply to all people on stage?
Absolutely. Sport psychologists tend to focus on a common set of key skills that are pretty universal to all folks in a performance setting – whether it’s a solo, a presentation, or a monologue.

These include skills like anxiety regulation, confidence, focus, resilience, and understanding how to prepare the right way for the specific demands of a performance.

I knew friends way back in the early ’80s who enrolled in Toastmasters as a way to become more comfortable on stage, not usually performing arts people, however.  Is this the same idea?
Toastmasters can be a very helpful experience. What’s most helpful is the regular exposure to performance-like conditions. Having to get up in front of people and perform (or speak, in this case) on a regular basis gives you an opportunity to develop stronger performance skills, and also helps you become more comfortable with performance situations. Like any other skill, we get better at performing, by practicing performing.

What is your thought on the use of beta-blockers as a way to diminish nerves prior to critical performances? This has apparently become very common in the world of music.
I don’t take as hard-line a stance as some others do, and don’t get into the ethics or morality of it, but I have never recommended beta blockers, and at the end of the day, beta blockers will probably hold people back from performing their absolute best.

Why? Well, beta blockers will generally address the physiological response, but in most studies, the cognitive aspect of anxiety – i.e. the worries, doubts, fears, second-guessing, the analysis, judgment, etc. is more predictive of performance than the physical aspect. So even if you negate the physiological response, many will still be sabotaged by the mental response.

Furthermore, there’s a common misconception that we perform our best when we’re calm. We might be more comfortable when we’re calm, but most performers (and athletes – even in really high-precision sports like pistol shooting), actually have their best performances at a moderate to high level of activation.

When you coach a student individually, how do you first start? Do you evaluate first, or observe? Are you able to glean an understanding of a student’s performance problems simply by observation? Are students even truly self-aware at such an early stage?
We always start with a mental skills assessment to figure out what their mental strengths and weaknesses are. Like how do they recover from mistakes? Do they have trouble staying in the present? Do they get distracted easily? Do they get tentative and overly careful under pressure?

Then it’s a matter of developing their weaker areas just as they would in a regular music lesson, through a combination of observation and Q&A and experimenting with with different strategies and techniques.

What are your plans for your workshops and colloquium in Madison? Are your workshops similar to master classes, in which students are pre-selected to appear on stage and perform, then are evaluated by the teacher?
That might be interesting!
The plan is to hold a couple larger workshops, where we will work on these skills as a group. Some students will volunteer and be “guinea pigs” whose mental skills will be tested in a good-natured sort of way, but ultimately almost all of the students will play and learn a few key mental skills they can take away and put to use immediately (or at least with a little practice).

I also believe I will be working individually with some folks to do a little more in-depth personalized coaching.

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