The Peer Influence: Relaxation Techniques and Group Performance Classes

by lsisterhen

This past week, I had the opportunity to work with a group of high school students at the Baylor University Summer Piano Institute. On the last day of camp, I got together with the whole group of forty students and talked with them about strategies for optimal performance. What I found was that the students were eager to talk about their own experiences with performing—its unique challenges, joys, and of course, the nervousness that is often experienced beforehand. There was a deep sense of communion among the group when they could talk openly about physical symptoms of anxiety and the thought patterns that we tend to keep to ourselves or try to ignore. By giving voice to our fears, we can explore whether they represent real concerns and whether have anything to offer us. Fears become bigger when we hold them in, or when we perceive that our thoughts or feelings are reality; instead, we can consciously tell ourselves positive affirmations to counteract our worries. Teenagers who place so much importance on peer relationships usually find great comfort in the fact that everyone feels nervous, that these feelings are normal, and that it can in fact lead to better concentration, more attentive listening, more energy, and a more exciting performance, if they are harnessed in the right way. Once they got on board as a group, knowing that the purpose of the class was to help them communicate most effectively and share the work they had accomplished in the practice room, they were open to trying out new things and recognizing the true benefits of such techniques. There was a wonderful feeling of communal relief among all the students as they embraced deep breathing, stretching, and even imagery.


“Buying Into” Relaxation Techniques

Teenage students may find it difficult to get excited about the more abstract notions of meditation, deep breathing, and imagery, unless they have experienced its direct applications in benefiting their performances. A regularly scheduled performance class offers an ideal opportunity to practice relaxation techniques immediately prior to performance. Videotaping the classes can only further enhance the benefits as students observe and hear themselves playing in a more relaxed and open way. Not only does it help them learn to evaluate their own sound and technique, but this type of mental practice also reinforces memory and helps them re-experience this confident, focused, and relaxed feeling.


Mix It Up

Getting the right mix of students together makes all the difference when trying out these techniques, which require a positive attitude and an open mindset. You must be careful to blend students not just by age, level, and personality, but also by attitude. Negative students who are less interested in discussing repertoire or engaging in relaxation or imagery should be separated from each other in different groups if at all possible. Aim to have at least a couple of students in your group who are open-minded, prone to following directions, and talkative in discussions. The right mixture can get quieter students to participate more actively, and may also get disinterested students to perk up.


A Simple Start

If your students are already gathered in a group for a performance, this is a great time to begin teaching introductory relaxation techniques. Opening the class with simple stretches combined with deep breathing will allow your students to immediately experience the physical and mental changes that occur after only a moment of muscle-to-mind relaxation. They will experience more energy along with greater relaxation (a winning combination!), more focus, and even a more positive attitude. Without singling students out, everyone can work together and each individual student might be reminded to take a moment to breathe and center before they start their piece. Remind students that breathing while playing is something that requires time in the practice room, and that it can help them stay focused and relaxed, with better motor control during performance.


A Sample Curriculum

A teacher might use the following order of instruction for four months (a semester) of monthly performance classes:


Session One

Learning deep abdominal breathing, with hands placed on the stomach so that they can feel the stomach gently expand as the breath moves up on the inhale from the stomach into the ribs and chest. Inhale and exhale for counts of 5/6 (inhaling for 5 counts and exhaling for 6 counts), 6/7, 7/8, and 8/9. Think of a cue word such as “calm,” “relax,” or “let go” on the exhale. Remind them to exhale completely, and allow for a moment of rest in between inhalations and exhalations. Give time for them to hear the first phrase of their music in their mind, breathing along with the music.


Session Two

Continue breathing with longer counts. Begin sitting stretches:

  1. Wide arms up and down with inhale/exhale
  2. Neck stretches: To each side, and moving in half-circles: looking to one side, the floor, and then the other side.
  3. Warming up the back: Interlacing the fingers, extend the arms straight out in front of the body and round out the back, with the head down. For a contrast stretch, reach arms around and behind the back, interlacing the fingers behind and opening the chest.
  4. Side stretches: Stretching the arms overhead, interlace the fingers and extend up to the ceiling, to the right side, and then to the left side, for three breaths each.
  5. Shoulder shrugs and rolls


Session Three

Deep breathing and stretching, with additional stretches:

  1. Standing, inhale the arms up and bring them into prayer position in front of the heart; focus on posture, grounding the feet into the floor, with shoulders down, and top of head rising toward the ceiling.
  2. Standing forward bend: Raise the arms wide, swan dive into a forward bend, touching the knees, shins, or toes, and breathing deeply. Roll up slowly, attending to each individual vertebra.
  3. Cat/cow: in a tabletop position on the floor with the shins on the floor and the shoulders directly over the wrists, inhale and arch the back, lifting the head; then exhale and round the back, looking down. Alternate for a few deep breaths.
  4. Sitting forward bend: with legs extended, straighten the back and extend the torso over the legs, reaching for the knees, shins, or feet.

Begin meditation and imagery:

In a sitting position, sit with the eyes closed and imagine the opening passage to your piece. Continue to breathe deeply as you see and hear yourself onstage playing the passage perfectly. Repeat as necessary for two minutes.


Session Four

After deep breathing and stretching, lie on the floor with the palms open to the ceiling and scan the entire body for any muscular tension. Then tighten and completely relax the following four parts of the body on cue (progressive relaxation):

a. Tighten the face and jaw, scrunching the eyes and mouth; then release on a quick exhale.

b. Hold both arms at a 45-degree angle, in fists, tightening the biceps, forearms, and hands; then release.

c. Tighten the torso by making the stomach hard and pushing it out; then release.

d. Tense the legs and feet, with the toes apart and feet flexed; then release.

Scan the entire body once more to relax any remaining tension.

While still lying down, imagine a relaxing scene, such as lying on a beach. Transition into mental practice of the opening passage of your music.


How have you integrated relaxation techniques into your performance classes or private lessons? I would love to hear from you!