Do you ever struggle with nerves or anxiety when you need to perform? Whether that performance is a musical one, a class presentation, a serious talk with a family member or teacher, etc., I'm willing to bet at some point in your life you've felt nervous! Maybe one time (or many times) your nerves became overwhelming, to the point where you felt unable to perform at your normal ability level.
That's normal - you're human.
But, what if I told you there was a technique that you could use to harness your nervous energy and be able to perform fully focused without fear? Such a technique exists, and it's called: centering!
It's all Mental
I used to suffer from absolutely horrific performance anxiety. It was so bad that I would drop my instrument from shaking so hard, black out, cry, run from the stage, or completely forget how to read music or play my instrument. It was terrible! Centering was a game changer for me. Once I learned this technique, it allowed me to perform on stage with the most ease and calm I had ever had in my entire life.
What makes centering such a great technique is that it is a mental technique. Before I learned about centering, training the mental side of things was virtually non-existent. Musicians are really excellent physical trainers - we tend to focus on the actual physical playing of the music. However, performance psychology research has shown that mental training is as important, or even more important, than physical training.
There are so many excellent mental training exercises that I began to learn about and practice after I found centering which I will cover in later posts. But now, let's learn about how to center!
The entire point of centering is to focus all of your mental energy (your thoughts, feelings, emotions) to one stream of focused energy. When done correctly, it will dampen all the background noise such as distracting thoughts and emotions so that you are solely focused on the present moment and the task at hand, i.e. performance. It is an excellent technique for really solid mental focus.
There are six steps to center:
Find your center
Form an intention/goal
Pick your focus point
Close your eyes
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth while thinking of your goal and focus point
Open your eyes and go!
Let me break it down for you:
First, it is important to find where in your body your center is. It is an actual physical place, also known as your center of gravity. The best description I can give you is that it is around where you belly button is, but inside your body. Your center is what makes you able to balance. If you didn't have a center, then you would fall over. Your center is where you are most stable - all of your energy stems from this place! It's very powerful.
Once you've found that, you must form an intention or goal for when you are centered. For example, if I am centering to perform on stage, my intention could be to radiate confidence or to perform to the best of my ability in the present moment. Whatever it is, it should be personal to you. Other examples include: "I will enjoy myself." "I will focus on the music." "I will play as musically as I can." Whatever you want to do, it is yours to hold!
Now that you know where your center is and you have your goal/intention, you must find a focus point. The focus point is where you will direct all of your energy from your center to one very small, focused point. It will be out in the distance. For example, pick a speck on the wall across the room. It needs to be small so that your mental focus is "centered" to a specific point.
They may seem like long explanations, but in reality these first three steps should go by very quickly. Find your center, form your intention, then pick your focus point. Easy!
The next three steps are where we get to the meat of the process. You will do this with your eyes closed so that you won't be distracted by things you see.
Important Tip: Practice centering in a quiet place where there are no distractions. It will make it easier to accomplish if you're an absolute beginner!
The next step is to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. This is not simply breathing, however. Every time you inhale, think of your goal/intention, and every time you exhale, think of your focus point - where you will direct all your center energy. The entire time you breathe, you will be gathering the energy in your center so that it is ready to burst forth towards your focus point, and towards your goal. If at any point you need to remember your center, go ahead and touch your belly button as a quick reminder!
The first couple times that you do this step, it will take at least five minutes, if not more. The length of time required to center depends on the individual; it depends on anxiety and stress levels, the task at hand, the environment, the time of day, etc. So, if it feels as if it takes you a really long time to center, that's totally normal!
Before you move to step six (Open your eyes and go!), make sure you are fully centered. How do you know you know when you're centered, though? The best I can describe it is that you will feel a sense of calm and mental focus. You won't be distracted by other thoughts or by what is around you. That is the whole point of centering - to be absolutely mentally focused on your one task, be it performing on stage, speaking in front of your class, conversing with a teacher, etc.
So, once you feel you are centered, the last step is simple: open your eyes and go do your task! Do not wait. Simply act. Put forth all of your center energy towards your focus point and perform!
It seems like a lot, I know. But I have made it easier for you all by recording a walk-through of the centering process. You can listen to it here:
Or click here if can't see the above link.
Centering is a skill, just like playing your G major scale. Therefore, you must practice it to become better! Please don't attempt to center for the first time on the day of a very important event. It just won't work! You must practice it on your own so that you learn what it feels like to become centered. You must also learn what your individual energy preferences need to be. For me personally, I need to feel completely zen before I perform. Others may feel they need a little energy or a lot of energy! It's very individual.
Also, once you practice centering enough and have mastered it, the entire process will take about 10 seconds or less. So, don't feel turned off by the fact that it takes a couple minutes at first. It always becomes easier!
If you need more clarification on this topic, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email!
If performance psychology is something that interests you, here are some books I would suggest you check out:
"Performance Success" by Don Greene, PhD. https://www.winningonstage.com/products/#books
"The Inner Game of Tennis" by Timothy Gallwey https://theinnergame.com/inner-game-books/the-inner-game-of-tennis/
"Mindset" by Jackie Reardon and Hans Dekkers https://www.amazon.com/Mindset-mental-guide-Jackie-Reardon-ebook/dp/B01I5ZSMCE/ref=pd_cp_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&pd_rd_i=B01I5ZSMCE&pd_rd_r=c8839b84-5dfc-11e8-82d7-bd788d9ee510&pd_rd_w=PLqck&pd_rd_wg=CpxH5&pf_rd_i=desktop-dp-sims&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_p=80460301815383741&pf_rd_r=D6D2ESPC987G4GMQ36BP&pf_rd_s=desktop-dp-sims&pf_rd_t=40701&psc=1&refRID=D6D2ESPC987G4GMQ36BP
Also, here is another article about centering from the Bulletproof Musician Blog: https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-to-make-performance-anxiety-an-asset-instead-of-a-liability/
The steps he outlines are similar, but in a different order than mine. It's something worth checking out for extra practice and understanding!
Until next week, happy practicing and centering!