On December 26th, 2011 I had the pleasure of sitting down with Helen Spielman via Skype to discuss her growing popularity as a performance anxiety coach. Though now accomplished and able to help many flutists and other performing artists in pursuing a marriage between confidence and humanity, the path she carved was not easily forged prior to her calling.
Interested in teaching visually impaired children, Helen Spielman completed an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's degree in special education. She also made time for music, her second passion, by performing with the university ensembles and taking private applied flute lessons. Shortly after completing her degrees, she found employment teaching blind and visually impaired children. Unfortunately, as the years passed, bureaucratic difficulties challenged her work, forcing Spielman to re-evaluate how she might continue to help those in need.
In the meantime, Spielman's parents passed away. Because of these losses, she became interested in the field of death and dying, sought certification in grief counseling, and was later hired as the Director of Bereavement Counseling Services for Hospice. As the field developed, so did the emerging Medicare limitations. Spielman became so frustrated that she thought, "I could teach the flute and be much happier!" In January 1990 she placed an advertisement in the paper as a private flute studio teacher and within eighteen months she had a full studio and the support of her local music colleagues and teachers.
Interestingly, both of her career paths crossed in 2002, when flute colleague, Anna Thibeault, course director of the Wildacres Flute Retreat, invited Spielman to attend the retreat as a guest. Because of her own struggles with stage fright, Spielman decided to offer a performance anxiety class for participants to reciprocate Anna's gift. The resulting class was a huge success and the following year became a traditional weeklong workshop at the annual retreat. Spielman has been invited to present her findings and techniques across the country and internationally.
As the leader in an emerging field, Spielman often states, "I did not plan on a career in performance anxiety, the career found me!"
•The Business of Performance Anxiety Coaching
Did you ever expect the topic of performance anxiety to be a career focus?
No, I never expected to have a life in music. I loved music as a child and as a young adult. However, I never expected this career to happen. It is one of the most amazing things in my life. I am so blessed to have spent the last twenty-two years working in music and in performance anxiety.
How long did it take for you to embrace the different career paths from special education, to grief counseling to flute teaching, and then performance anxiety coaching?
The transition from special education to bereavement was very difficult. I had been thinking of myself as a special education teacher since childhood. This made it hard to change my mindset. Moving from grief counseling to teaching the flute, however, was much easier. I knew I had to leave the field, and I enjoyed teaching the flute so much that the transition was easy and enjoyable. Going into performance anxiety coaching was also fairly easy. I continued to teach the flute during the transition and it wasn't until recently, around two years ago, that I mostly stopped teaching private flute lessons.
When you started performance anxiety coaching what kind of legal aspects did you take into account?
I have always maintained extreme confidentiality in my practice. I don't release any information to anyone unless I have his or her written permission. I have a lawyer check through all my written materials and website to make sure what I say is appropriate. I have to be careful in the way I phrase things because I am not a licensed psychologist. I take great precautions to protect myself and my clients. They would not feel safe talking to me if I weren't entirely reliable about complete confidentiality.
How has your original focus and business plan for performance anxiety coaching changed?
When I first started doing performance anxiety I was eager to teach any workshop. In more recent years I've became more selective and changed my focus to working with private clients via phone, Skype, and in person, although I still enjoy workshops as well.
What is your typical workday like?
I prefer my workday to be very flexible. With a variety of clients, and the many different time zones they reside in, I must have a flexible schedule. I receive clients from every slice of life. My week eventually fills up with different sessions. I have anywhere from 1 to 5 clients in a day. It is their responsibility to call or Skype me at the appointed time. It's as if they were coming to see me in my office. It's up to them to drive here. If they forget or get busy that's their responsibility.
How many performance anxiety sessions do you recommend your clients have?
I don't recommend an amount. Performance anxiety is so specific to each individual that I can't specify a timeline for a specific client. The process depends on their individual history, needs, fears, and goals and we work together to decrease or eliminate their performance anxiety.
Do you think performance anxiety disappears, or is lessened?
That again varies. For some people it lessens. Once it lessens, they can control their anxiety and musically produce what they wish to express. For some people it disappears. Sometimes it disappears very quickly and other times it takes a long time. I myself had severe performance anxiety. Over time, mine has disappeared completely. I now have none!
Does performance anxiety develop or is it a trait you are born with? If both, do you encounter one more often during your sessions?
There are some people who report having performance anxiety since they were very young. Other people I've worked with had perfectly confident careers for a lifetime, then all of a sudden became anxious for any number of reasons. I have not discovered a pattern at all.
Do you see a change in the way clients approach you? Is performance anxiety becoming something more vocalized and common?
When I started doing this work, not a single person in the flute community was specifically working in the area of performance anxiety. Until I came around, there weren't any magazine articles about it, there were no courses, and there were no workshops. There are people out there, students and professionals, who need help. I get emails all the time from people saying, "I'm so nervous I cannot produce, I am about to quit my job, I am blocked!" I write them back with information and let them know that I am open to working with them. When they ask, I tell them my charge per hour. Often I get the response "I cannot pay that." These are the same people who will pay twice as much for a flute lesson. They will practice and practice, but not understand that in one, two, or three sessions many of these people can discover the key to overcome what is blocking their ability to perform the way they dream of. I have seen a change in the approach, but not enough. I believe that more people need to be educated about performance anxiety and how to cope with it.
What are some of the main reasons people don't step forth and ask for assistance in overcoming their performance anxiety?
Sometimes it's the dollar amount. A lot of the time it's the fear of dealing with their feelings. Another factor is the lack of tradition. Many musicians will practice for twelve hours a day to prepare for a competition or audition. After numerous hours of practice many musicians are still so nervous in performance, they cannot produce at an optimal level. An hour's lesson with me can be very useful and can potentially start a client to become free from performance anxiety. A new tradition of asking for help and dealing with performance anxiety would be a very good thing in the music world.
Do you receive most of your clients from any one particular field?
I work with way more flutists than any other group. As I like to say, it's because "I am one!" I am known in the flute world because of my publications in flute journals and appearances at the National Flute Association Conventions.
Do you think that a performance anxiety faculty position would be beneficial?
Yes, I often go to universities and conservatories to do an hour seminar and end up staying all day long. While at these institutions I see students, and half of the time I see faculty professors. Performance anxiety is almost as prominent in professors as it is in students. The students and teachers have no place to go and nobody to turn to. At the end of the day, I sit there and want to weep at the burdens these young people carry. They are trying to get through school with no one to guide them through their performance anxiety. I believe that someone needs to be at these institutions full time to support students and faculty members.
Do you think that schools and teachers in general are responsible for performance anxiety that develops in students?
I would say that in classical music, with its emphasis on absolute perfection, is certainly a contributing factor. It's not the only thing but it certainly contributes.
Is there a technique you can apply to the general public who may suffer from performance anxiety?
In my opinion, the general public would do well to focus on how to control and replace their negative thoughts. They can replace these negative thoughts through specific positive self-talk. When working with a professional, the client and coach can work together using neuroscientific principles to eliminate the anxiety and fears contained within the client.
•Sample Situational Guidance
A high school student is planning to audition for the high school honor band and is experiencing fear of failure and peer judgment to the extent that it is inhibiting her performance. What techniques could the high school student use on her own to better her performance and lessen her anxiety?
The student could write down the scary thoughts and anything else she can think of that contributes to her anxiety, then work to find more helpful thoughts that counteract the ones that are making her afraid. For the positive thoughts to be most effective they need to be in a certain form, which is a more complex task. However, if she did the steps stated above on her own it would be better than not addressing the situation.
A college student is experiencing severe hand problems before his senior recital and graduate auditions. He has performance anxiety because of the pressure to succeed in auditions, despite the extreme pain in his hand. What techniques could this student employ?
He could use the techniques of progressive muscle relaxation and visualization to relax his body. He could mentally rehearse performing free of pain and anxiety, and playing the way he wants to. These activities may help reduce the pain and mentally prepare him for the recital.
A professional musician holds a very prestigious job in an orchestra. She has never experienced performance anxiety to the extent that it inhibits her performance until now. She is faced with the pressure of being perfect and relies on this level of performance to support her family. What techniques could this professional musician use to decrease her anxiety?
This is a very real complex situation. I see this all the time. The musician needs to find a way to maintain her high standards of excellence while keeping in touch with her humanity. That is a process that cannot be summarized very easily. I would recommend the musician purchase one of three books. The first two are Present Perfect by Pavel Somov and The Perfect Wrong Note by William Westney. These two books present similar information but from very different approaches. I would also recommend Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff. Though there are many books on the market about self-compassion I prefer this one because it has been recently published, is based on research, and is very easy to read.
• Performance Anxiety Counselor Career Advice
What would you suggest for someone who is interested in doing performance anxiety coaching? How would they prepare for a future in this field?
I suggest they continue to study music and get an advanced degree, probably in another field. They must have really strong credentials, which will enable them to open up a practice and work with performance artists. Those professions which can be licensed to work with individuals, such as nurses, psychologists, and psychiatrists would do well in this field. However, if a person wanted to stick with a music career they could do that as well.
In preparation for performance anxiety coaching, are there any specific classes you would recommend taking?
Yes, if you want to work with musicians keep being a performer yourself. In addition I would recommend taking anything and everything in the field of psychology. I would specifically recommend human development, abnormal development, and counseling classes.
What inter-personal recommendations would you make for someone pursuing this field?
I pieced together my background in education, counseling, music and my own experience in performance anxiety. What I recommend to others pursuing this field is to know themselves as deeply and profoundly as possible, to be able to communicate, and to have passion for the field.
I. Knowing Themselves: The only way people can really begin to understand others is by knowing themselves. They can achieve this through many ways such as therapy, religion, and intellect. That may sound trite, but that is the real truth of the matter.
II. Communication: Learn as many communication skills as possible. If they want to work with people it is essential that they can communicate well. They must use language and interact with clients in a way that establishes a safe and healing relationship. Though I'm not a therapist, I have a healing relationship with my clients. Therapy means help and I am in a helping position. If I were to say things in a manner that shuts down communication, I wouldn't have a job. Take courses on communication. This is primary. Someone with ten degrees after his/her name who lacks communication skills cannot be effective.
III. Passion: I recommend they be authentically passionate about the field. They can show their passion by talking to people, working with people and writing about their passion. They may try to present at local and national associations about their subject.
What potential do you see for further development within the performance anxiety field for yourself? Do you have any vision of where the field is going?
I love what I am doing now and would like to continue doing it. I enjoy working with my clients. The field, however, has a need for much more emphasis on this type of work. Educators need to focus on the way they teach our music students as children and teens, and in colleges and conservatories, because performance anxiety is so common. During my travels throughout the country and the world, I see how many people have to deal with the basic fears of performing and the many aspects that contribute to performance anxiety. Contributing factors include dealing with perfectionism, worrying about what other people think, and sometimes inappropriate and abusive treatment by previous teachers. The faculty at most places I visit have no idea how to help their students with these issues. In fact, I was recently at a top-of-the-line music conservatory when a senior music student approached me. She said in her four years at this conservatory my workshop was the first time that she and her classmates had been exposed to this topic.
Have a lot of people come forth in interest of becoming a performance anxiety coach?
There are a very, very few famous performance anxiety coaches, such as Don Greene at Juilliard and Eric Maisel in California. Only two young people, a flutist and a pianist, have approached me with great interest in working in the area of performance anxiety. It is my pleasure and honor to encourage them as they find their way. I've been asked to train a couple of other individuals in the area of performance anxiety coaching, and I have declined. The reason is that while I can teach anyone to instruct others in the techniques, the interpersonal skills required to do deep work have been acquired over a lifetime of study, practice, and experience. I wouldn't know how to teach that to another person and am not qualified to do so. However, I do encourage others to pursue this field. Performance anxiety has been hidden for years and it is gradually coming out. With that being said, it needs to be out so much more! People are still very ashamed. They think they are weird, sick, or abnormal when, in fact, they are not. It's so exciting to think that even a few other young people want to study performance anxiety. If others can make it into the field, together we can change the way musicians deal with it. We could have such a big impact!