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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Performance Anxiety Panel in Ann Arbor

Julie Jaffee Nagel, Ph.D., Program Coordinator Carol Barbour, Ph.D., Chair, MPI Ann Arbor Committee

On November 8, 2004, the MPI Ann Arbor Committee and the University of Michigan School of Music Department of Outreach presented its popular annual program on performance anxiety. This year’s program was both novel and interdisciplinary, with musicians and athletes offering a variety of strategies for dealing with high-pressure situations.

Two psychoanalysts participated in the expert panel: James Hansell, Ph.D., Co-Chair of the Committee on Sports and Psychoanalysis of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and Julie Jaffee Nagel, Ph.D., Co-Chair of the Committee on Music and Psychoanalysis of the American Psychoanalytic Association. The panel also included Dean Daniel Washington, opera singer and Dean of Minority Services at the University of Michigan School of Music, Brad Labadie, Coordinator of Player Development for the University of Michigan Football Team, and Kay Zavislak, doctoral student in piano performance and faculty member at Albion College.

Dr. Nagel and Dr. Hansell outlined various ways to think about anxiety and its management. These included discussions of physical and psychological symptoms and when and how to evaluate performance anxiety as “more than symptomatic.” Additionally, they emphasized the circumstances and effects of childhood involvement with a musical instrument and/or sports activity. Drs. Nagel and Hansell highlighted the implications of the challenges faced by musicians and athletes who desired a career that requires high levels of competence. One suggestion was that programs which train professional musicians could develop courses to help students address the unique issues faced by musicians, who spend hours each day practicing an instrument in solitude.

Dean Washington, an opera singer of international reputation, and Ms. Zavislak eloquently presented the performer’s perspective. Dr. Washington spoke about fear and challenged audience members to ask themselves, “what do you fear?” as a way of inviting them to become more self-aware and able to address their central concerns. Ms. Zavislak shared her experiences as a performer and teacher. She related that she has learned to be satisfied with her best efforts instead of reaching for some ideal of perfection.

Mr. Brad Labadie shared many anecdotes about training approaches with the University of Michigan Football team. Players are trained to concentrate under extreme pressure. He described the routines of practice and preparation which include techniques to deal with the massive distractions inherent in Big Ten football. For example, when preparing to play Ohio State, the UM team practiced with a tape blaring the Ohio State fight song and crowd noise. He also related Coach Carr’s respectful attitude toward each player, creating an atmosphere of “family” and mutual support which helps each player contend with the pressures of key individual performance within the team.

Common in these diverse approaches for dealing with anxiety was agreement about the complex nature of anxiety and the necessity of knowing oneself. The standing-room-only audience engaged in a lively question and answer period following the presentations. They raised questions ranging from requesting personal advice, to an expanded discussion of points the panelists had presented, to sharing coping strategies of their own. The program concluded with informal socializing while enjoying refreshments. Louis Nagel, DMA, Director, Department of Outreach, is to thank for arranging the evening’s event at the University of Michigan School of Music.

As one participant expressed it, “If I hadn’t been on the panel, I may not have known about this program tonight and would have missed something very special.” The MPI Ann Arbor Committee and the University of Michigan School of Music Department of Outreach are already anticipating another thought-provoking event next year and hope you will join us then.