Braiding Hair: An Attempt to Face Performance Anxiety

Oh your A is out of tune… wait why is it so loud in here? (listens to conversation…) How are we already facing performance anxiety? These kids have never played for an audience.

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Setting: Students are filled with different energies in preparation for the afternoon’s concert. This is their first concert as a young orchestra. Instruments are being tuned, sounds plucked strings, bow exercises fill the air. Reminders to help emerging bow holds, and growing posture with instruments of all sizes are given, and the small rumble of young voices talking.

Student: I’m so nervous!!!

Other Students chime in: Me too! I don’t want to perform for people! I’m so nervous!

Inside the teacher brain: Oh your A is out of tune… wait why is it so loud in here? (listens to conversation…) How are we already facing performance anxiety? These kids have never played for an audience. My nervous kiddos got a STORY TIME!

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STORY TIME: I spent a few months living with a host family, student teaching and traveling in Scotland between graduating and beginning my teaching job in the USA. It was my birthday weekend, so I took myself on a trip to a music festival in Glasgow, Scotland called Celtic Connections. I went specifically for a weekend workshop called the Fiddle Village. The workshop is taught by Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas.

As I made my way into my hotel, I saw a friend and she told me to come back down after I put my stuff away. I came back down to a seat and a drink waiting for me. The people at the table were all musicians whom I admire, as well as some of their family members.

We got on the topic of anxiety, as people asked me what I was going to do when I got home. I had no clue, after applying for jobs. I just graduated from university at the time. A woman at the table looked me in the eyes and this conversation ensued.

  • Woman: What are you good at?
  • Me: (I would normally say I’m pretty good at playing the cello… but one of my cello heroes is at the table so…maybe not) Well, I’m pretty decent at public speaking…
  • Cello Hero: That’s Lame! She’s really good at braiding hair.
  • Woman: That’s cool! Braiding Hair? What do you think about when you braid hair?
  • Me: I have no idea, I just know what to do to make it look good and make it work.
  • Woman: EXACTLY! When you braid hair, you know what you need to do, you don’t think about an audience, you just get the job done and apparently you do it well. When you are anxious about anything, take that same approach. Do what makes you nervous, as if you were braiding hair.
  • Me: (…whoa. Sounds silly, but this may be some of the best advice I have heard in a long time.

If I’m anxious I say that I’m “braiding hair”, and it calms me down. That conversation stuck with me. I hope that story was impactful to my students.

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