Emilia was a jazz pianist who wanted to break into the Bay Area performing scene. Her roadblock was performance anxiety.
A small technical mistake would get her wondering whether anyone in the band, or the audience, noticed the mistake. The resulting physical tension made it harder to play well, and the problem went in circles.
Her technique was solid, she’d been told. Technique is essential, but performance isn’t just about technique. Performance is about connection with the audience. But how could Emilia connect when she was worried about whether or not she was measuring up?
What doesn’t work
I once watched a dancer who was technically very proficient. Her performance was difficult, and executed well. But her mind seemed to be somewhere else, and I wasn’t moved.
A few weeks later I watched a relative beginner. Her moves where not polished, but she was having so much fun dancing that I couldn’t help but feel the excitement along with her. She was able to connect with the audience, so we could share her delight in dance.
It was the second dancer’s ability to connect, and therefore affect the energy of her audience, that made the event so enjoyable.
If you’ve every sung a lullaby to a child, you know the feeling. A lullaby isn’t about the words or even the music. It’s about using your tone and presence to create a mood – in this case a quiet, sleepy mood – for someone else.
As Martha Graham, who shaped the early history of modern dance, once said, “What other people in the world think of you is really none of your business.” Performance isn’t about you. It’s about connection.
Emilia wanted to get paid for her musical skills, no small feat in the Bay Area. She wondered if neurofeedback would help.
There was good reason to hope it would.
The classic study on neurofeedback and creativity was done at the Royal College of Music in London in 2002. It was one of the first studies that used neurofeedback to enhance a complex skill.
Ninety seven music students were selected. In addition to their regular practice, some of the students received neurofeedback. Their performances were videotaped before and after the neurofeedback, and each performance was rated by expert judges using a standard evaluation protocol. Judges did not know whether they were watching a “before” or “after” performance, nor which students had received neurofeedback.
Neurofeedback and creativity
The students in the neurofeedback and creativity study were less affected by performance anxiety, but that wasn’t entirely surprising. Neurofeedback has been used since the 1960s for relaxation and stress reduction.
But it was a surprise that they also improved on other aspects of their musical performance, including musicality, audience communication, and technique. The improvement was significant – 13 to 17%, the equivalent of a year’s time in the program.
These students were engaged with a particular type of neurofeedback that helps people increase a particular frequency of brainwaves called “theta”. This in turn helped the students create and spend time in a deeply relaxing hypnagogic state similar to that found with meditation and hypnosis. Time spent in that state, it is thought, helps the creative process and their ability to connect with their audience.
As we continued with neurofeedback, Emilia too felt more relaxed and focused when she played. She also felt more of an ability to get out of her own thoughts about performance and engage with the music.
There was no panel of experts to rate her performance, but something was working: she started to get invitations to join local bands as a guest.
Since 2003 there has been more research on how spending time in deep states of consciousness, through neurofeedback, meditation, or hypnosis, can foster creativity. It’s not clear how this works, but it appears that some of our best talents lie past what we can affect consciously.
You can’t make yourself more creative, or more engaged, but you can make it more likely that you will end up in a creative and engaged state.
The neurofeedback and creativity study, headed by John Gruzelier, is summarized here. The program, which is still at the London College of Music, is described here. And Gruzelier’s hypothesis about what might be happening a the level of neural networks can be found here.
You don’t have to be a musician to appreciate the power of this approach. Neurofeedback has since been used to help people enhance many types of artistic, sports, and academic performance. If you’d like to learn more, you can find a few popular news stories here.
Emilia is playing much more, and has semi-regular gig. She understands the simple truth of performing: it isn’t about you. It’s about the audience.
She still has moments of anxiety, when she feels cautious and on guard. But she has more moments of flow, when she is able to stay open and invite the unexpected.
It’s a paradox to focus intensely in order to let go, but the contradiction that comes up all the time. It’s necessary, if you want to create a response in others. Ask yourself: can you allow the music, the story, the sport to change you, even as you draw on the skill that you’ve spent hours building? Can you allow it to take form in a way that is new and unpredictable?
More research is needed, of course, but the evidence so far suggests that neurofeedback can help. Whether you’re writing a paper, playing the piano, or singing a baby to sleep, neurofeedback helps you drop into that creative space where you can let go of performance anxiety and have the opportunity to connect.