I think I started by listening a lot to the problems of students. Listening to what is said, and often what is not said, gives insight into a bunch of micro problems that are difficult to untangle and lead to a single, overarching problem: performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety is more commonly known as 'Stage Fright' but it doesn't have to involve a musical instrument. Actors get it. Anyone who has to speak in public, especially when someone shouts 'say a few words', can lose the power of speech quite quickly.
It can happen whenever and wherever there's an audience - concerts, recitals, assessments, etc. A player can easily lose confidence with just one wrong note. One wrong note, can lead to the fear of playing more wrong notes. It's the thought of playing things perfectly that interferes with flow. So playing becomes stressful and angst ridden. It's no longer organic. Players try to play the music and the trying stultifies any freedom, which consequently stifles creativity. Risk avoidance makes for uninspiring performances.
Initially, I started helping, in a small way, by connecting a player with their inner voice. As I've said elsewhere on these pages, students tend to diminish their own voice, whilst taking on another, more accepted voice. They attempt to play things outside their comfort zone often for reasons that are more to do with acceptance than the sheer fun of playing things that push the boundaries.
Over time, more and more students came to me for specific help in this area, so I now offer counselling sessions for helping students specifically with performance anxiety, as well as music lessons and workshops.
Jazz guitar has more of its fair share of cliches and a player can ride on the coat tails of a tried and trusted musical vocabulary without venturing anywhere near their own, individual voice. Imitation is beneficial in the beginning but I feel it's important at some point to give yourself a chance to hear what you, as an individual, with your history, your ups and downs, your characteristic voice, really want to say.
People take a run and jump to things they are not really feeling. So it's important to slow them down and find out what they really hear. You have to provide a space where they feel safe to explore, slowly, what they are really hearing and what they are feeling. I'm constantly amazed that more players don't give themselves this space.
Each player is an individual and it's important to find out what works for them. This can happen in group workshops if you keep attentive. You have to be really quick at spotting problems with individual players within the group context. If you're really attentive, you can see timing, rhythm, and phrasing problems quite easily in the first few minutes. You pick up whether someone is relaxed or not - whether they're breathing or tight around the shoulders etc. These problems really surface when they feel like they are performing for others.
Counselling sessions take place both at my house and one-to-one in colleges. I also teach and counsel on Zoom. But when I'm doing workshops, these topics invariably come up. They're fairly universal. So I talk about these subjects in colleges, or in organised workshops up and down the country. I don't just talk about these things with guitarists, but I also do workshops where I talk about anxiety and how it affects playing.
I use strict confidentiality because of the nature of my students’ work, and it being a small world in this business. My past students tell me that I've helped in some way. Often just articulating how they might feel, or why they might be having a certain problem, so it's out in the air, seems to at least get some movement going toward strategies that open new pathways. I see my students relaxing, and becoming much more confident in their musical choices.