David Juncos & Elvire de Paiva e Pona: On ACT and a New Approach to Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Whether you’re taking an orchestra audition, sight-singing in ear training class, or asking someone out on a date, I think we all know that nerves are normal and to be expected. But that doesn’t stop us from looking for ways to try to get rid of those anxious feelings, because butterflies and jitters aren’t usually much fun.

I certainly tried my darnedest over the years to get rid of nerves, often by trying to reduce the self-imposed pressure that I put on myself. But whether it was telling myself I didn’t care what seat I got in orchestra, or that it didn’t matter what school I got into, my brain knew better, and was never fooled by my attempts to reverse psychology it into a better headspace… 🙁

I also tried positive thinking, but found this to be a real challenge too. I mean, it can be hard enough to visualize yourself playing a simple scale perfectly in tune. How the heck does one imagine performing a whole concerto or recital’s worth of repertoire going perfectly? Of course, if you’ve been told that it’s important to “think positive,” and you can’t even see a positive outcome in your imagination, it can feel like you’ve lost the mental game even before you’ve started…

Is there another way?

A preoccupation with battling nerves and negative thoughts can also make it easy to lose sight of the real goal. That is, to play beautifully, where the performance is a positive experience for both performer and audience.

So, the question more researchers have begun to ask in the last couple decades is…how important is it really to vanquish our nerves and negative thoughts? Could there be other paths to optimal performance?

Well, if you’ve struggled with nerves and your positive thinking efforts have been more frustrating (and exhausting) than helpful, there is indeed a relatively new wave of evidence-based approaches and techniques to handling stress that come from the therapy world, but are increasingly being used by high-level performers in sports and music.

These techniques aren’t yet widely known, so I thought it might be interesting to chat with a psychologist and a singer, who have both been integrating this approach into their work with musicians, and recently co-wrote a book on this subject too.

Meet David Juncos & Elvire de Paiva e Pona

David Juncos is a clinical psychologist based in Philadelphia, PA. He works with adults, teenagers, and couples on clinical issues ranging from anxiety to mood and substance use disorders at Hopewell Springs Counseling Center (Marlton, NJ), and is also on faculty with the Voice Study Centre in the UK, where he lectures on topics such as peak performance and statistics/research design, and trains music teachers in using ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) coaching principles to address performance anxiety and enhance music performance.

Based in Vienna, Elvire de Paiva e Pona is a classically trained singer who performs internationally in operas and concerts ranging from classical to French chanson. With degrees in vocal pedagogy and psychology in addition to vocal performance, she is also a dedicated educator and teaches individual and group singing lessons and facilitates music classes for young children.

In today’s episode, we’ll explore…

  • 3:42 – What is ACT?
  • 6:15 – How the belief that performance anxiety is bad paradoxically make it even harder to manage.
  • 8:49 – How do you get to the place where you can genuinely experience performing and nerves in a more positive way?
  • 13:10 – What is the “continuum of willingness” and how do you help a student (or even yourself) move through this?
  • 17:56 – Could doing so help us overcome the resistance many of us experience around recording ourselves?
  • 21:51 – What is “cognitive defusion”? Does this new way of relating to our thoughts and our inner critic help to explain why some folks seem to navigate challenges more effectively?
  • 31:00 – Dave describes “hexaflex” training, and the six processes that promote more flexibility and resilience.
  • 33:04 – How our habit of attaching our future happiness to specific outcomes creates a lot of pressure. And how we can take away some of that pressure.
  • 40:01 – Is ACT something that teachers can use to help their students with nerves, frustration, an overly active inner critic, and more? Is this something we can do for ourselves? Or is this something that only works if you consult with a psychologist?
  • 42:45 – What does it look like to integrate ACT principles into lessons? Say, for instance, with a student who is getting frustrated that something isn’t working.
  • 49:21 – Where to begin if you’d like to learn how to use ACT in your own performing or teaching?

Subscribe to the weekly podcast via iTunes | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher

Noa
Hi! This is Noa Kageyama and you’re listening to the Bulletproof Musician podcast. Every Sunday morning, we’ll take a look at a new research based tip or technique to help you practice more effectively or perform better under pressure. And on the first Sunday of every month, I’ll have a guest from the music, sport or research world who will share their insights on how we can all be a little more awesome in the practice room and on stage. You’ll be hearing from two guests on today’s episode, but before we meet them, have you ever been told not to be nervous before a performance or been encouraged to just think positive before an audition? If so, you know that even if this is really well intentioned, good advice, both of these tasks can feel pretty impossible, especially when you’re minutes away from a performance or an audition that’s really important to you. And when you can’t get rid of the butterflies or quiet the critic and chorus of what ifs in your head, it can feel like you’ve failed in some important way, even before you’ve played a note. Fortunately, there’s increasing evidence that it’s actually okay. If you can’t eradicate nerves or stay in an unfailingly positive head space before you go on stage and that you can still play your best and enjoy more positive performance experiences regardless. If the idea of liberating yourself from the pressure of keeping nerves in check and thinking only positive thoughts sounds pretty appealing. Think you’ll be intrigued by the subject of today’s episode. I’ll be chatting with a psychologist and a singer, and you’ll learn an approach to optimizing performance that is growing in popularity and starting to find its way into the mental training toolbox for not just athletes, but musicians as well. Let’s meet today’s guests and learn more about what this is all.

Dave
I’m Dave Juncos. I’m a clinical psychologist in private practice in the Philadelphia suburbs. Clinically, I treat anxiety, depression in cases as well as things that are more specific, substance abuse, ADHD, so on and so forth. I’m a researcher who researchers ACT and the efficacy of using ACT to treat performance anxiety. I train singing teachers as well as other types of teachers in using ACT as a non-clinical intervention to treat their students with performance anxiety. I’m on faculty with a school in the UK called The Voice Study Centre where I do some performance psychology work, as well as oversee research projects there.

Elvire
My name is Elvire de Paiva e Pona. I’m French and Portuguese. Born in Lisbon, and now currently living in Vienna, Austria. I’m a classically trained singer, and I am a singing teacher. Nowadays, I explore all sorts of styles of singing. So I do not only classical, I’m also doing like French chanson and musicals. When I was doing my masters in performance, I started to be interested in ACT. Before I studied music, I did a bachelor in psychology. So when I was doing my masters, I had to decide a theme for my master thesis. And I decided to explore how we could apply the tools of ACT to improve our performance as musicians and also in the context of the music lessons since I was also doing studies in singing pedagogy. So nowadays, I’m a freelancer singer, I teach and I also do music lessons with small children and babies.

Noa
Okay, so you’ve just heard Dave and Elvire both refer to something known as ACT, which is an acronym that stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or in this context, Acceptance and Commitment Training. And what is ACT exactly?

Dave
I think the best description of it is, it’s a third wave behavioral psychotherapy, meaning it’s lumped into other mindfulness and acceptance based psychotherapy that have become popular since around that time, like at least maybe 15 to 20 years now. And what they all have in common is, as you can imagine, the aim to promote mindful acceptance of symptoms of distress, as opposed to the aims of the predecessor second wave, which is CBT. That’s the second wave of behavioral psychotherapy, the cognitive wave, that therapy teaches you to change the content of your thinking, such that you can reduce symptoms of anxiety or such that you can improve behavior. So it’s more adaptive, etc. ACT is part of the newer model that says, you don’t necessarily need to change the content of your thinking to reduce symptoms or to perform better. Rather, you can just get better at accepting it, get better at noticing it, and change the way you’re relating to it. Because the way you relate to it informs how you respond to it. So if you’re relating to it, for example, like it’s something dreadful or toxic to be avoided at all costs, and you’re not going to have a lot of response ability to you, you know what I mean? But if you’re relating more neutrally, it’s just a thing that kind of happens, unfortunately to young performers or performers that have vulnerabilities to tap in performance anxiety, for example, then that mutual relating can kind of entrain more flexible responding skill. So So the overarching goal, in addition, then for ACT, in being a mindfulness and acceptance based psychotherapy is overall psychological flexibility, which is the ability to feel your distress on the one hand, while also engaging in behavior that’s valuable to you and persisting in that behavior until you’re rewarded until you succeeded in whatever you set out to succeed. And that is difficult, it takes the flexibility to really pull it off. But ACT really aims to teach psychological flexibility. That was the goal. You know, having to deal with stress and anxiety as a young person, it really helps. It helped me at least, to take a mindful and accepting perspective towards that rather than trying to dig into my thinking and spot distortions in my thinking and replace distorted thoughts with, you know, less distorted thoughts, etc, which is helpful. CBT is actually incredibly useful. But for some, myself included, I didn’t take to that approach as well. So I really took to this this kind of new emerging model that my therapist was teaching me and I even studied it in graduate school. And I really enjoyed the approach of that.

Noa
there are a couple things that I wanted to come back to that address some common objections or resistances, that I think people naturally have when they first hear about the idea. But before we do that, Elvire, I wonder if I could ask how you might have come to this from the music perspective?

Elvire
Yes. So you’re right in saying that I was exactly a bit in search of answers, I was doing my master’s degrees in performance. And I was actually suffering from a lot of anxiety, linking to my singing and my studies, and I couldn’t find really something that that was helping me there was in the university not so much help available. And I didn’t like this whole approach of trying to think positive and change the thoughts into something else. It didn’t work for me. And so I started a bit looking and I found ACT through a book of Russ Harris, a self help book. And so that’s how I started working on it. And I really loved this idea that I don’t have to get rid of this anxious emotions and thoughts. I can actually continue doing what is meaningful with them present. So I don’t need absolutely, because I felt that I it wasn’t I was not able, they were there somehow. So it didn’t felt natural for me. So this actually was quite liberating for me to think that I can, I can keep on working to what matters to me. And at the same time, having those feelings and I think also, as an artist, somehow, I think a part of me, didn’t really want to get rid of those, or change them because they actually also useful for my art, all these this difficult, stressful thoughts of feelings, it’s what brings something perhaps to my art. So I think this is also why it might be useful and relevant for artists, musicians, in this case, more specifically.

Noa
I wonder if you could say more about the nerves or the performance anxiety component, because I think the natural inclination that most of us have when we get nervous in performances is to think if I could only just be calm onstage and not nervous at all, then I’ll perform my best but my understanding of performance psychology when I was first introduced to it, and also what I appreciate about ACT is that the perspective seems to be a little different, where it’s, you can be nervous, and you can still play really great. And that those two things don’t have to be in conflict, because you’re right, like, eliminating nerves is a real challenge. And I don’t know that it’s even possible that at times, or like you said, desirable in many cases, but yeah, can you say more about that and how you have made that work?

Elvire
Yes, exactly. So it’s it’s for me it comes really to this point for the this is this tool of acceptance where I can really open up to them I can really make room for them and when I really am willing to have those thoughts with me, there’s a very funny image where you see like the monster in you, you invite to have tea with your monsters. So in this case, with your anxiety. So for me, it’s an image I like to use. So I’m saying okay, I am befriend my anxiety, I say I’m okay to have it here near me. And as everything when you are afraid of something, I see it also with my children now, like they’re afraid of something, but if you you befriend these things, if you are actually open to connect with it, to know it a bit better, then first of all, it loses a bit of its power. And second of all, even if it still scares you, you can still do what matters to you. So this is the work that you have on one side, the acceptance of it, the willingness of being with it, and once you are okay with that, then you’re not spending your energy on trying to eliminate this. You can spend your energy on focusing on what matters. So once you said, okay, I’m willing to have this anxiety. Now, what is it that I actually want to do right now for this performance, what is important for me, and let’s go do the best that I can. For this particular one that is in front of me.

Noa
it ultimately sounds like a more effective or adaptive approach to managing the situation and coming out of it, having achieved what you want from that performance, and this could be addressed to either view, but I wonder what that looks like. I mean, is it like a gradual process? I mean, is it like an experiential process is like just a shifting of a mindset or, like a redirecting of attention? What does that look like getting to that place where you can actually genuinely experience performing and nerves in a qualitatively different way?

Dave
Willingness is really the work part of the acceptance part of training, meaning willingness is a decision that you’re making on an ongoing basis, to decide to be willing to do things with anxiety present. And you don’t have to wait to start that. So you can start as soon as day one or day two, as long as you know that this is what’s going to take you to a more accepting outcome to be able to perform better with your anxiety present and to the less caught up with it and to struggle less with it. So what’s useful early on is to kind of, I usually talk with my hands here, and I can assign like a Likert scale of sorts in front of a client and just kind of choose how willing are you along the spectrum here to do things with anxiety present. Whereas on this far, my far left here would be very low loneliness. In here’s the middle, and over here is someone who’s really, really excited about anxiety, which there’s not many of those, but maybe they exist, who knows. But the idea is that usually, people start out in therapy, performance anxiety, kind of on the lower end. And when you’re on that low end, you hear statements like, I just wish I didn’t have this. And this is a problem, and I need to get rid of my anxiety, and I can’t believe I’m struggling with this, etc. And when you can recognize that as the language of low willingness, then you can kind of help them like move through this continuum a little bit more easily, while teaching them that in the middle here, it’s qualitatively a different relationship with anxiety. And you hear differently in their words, they say things like, yeah, my anxiety might be a good thing. But it might also be a bad thing. But I’m not as bothered by it as it used to be. And I’m not trying to get rid of it as much. And their behavior then is differen, too. Someone in the kind of medium willingness range behaves in a slightly more approaching way towards things that would trigger their anxiety where someone over here is avoidant, they’re just like highly avoidant. And they’re basically a bad romance with their anxiety, as I like to say. If you can just regularly kind of gauge where they fall through their attitude and through their behavior, I think it helps them kind of move their way through this process of increased willingness here. And eventually, it’s not necessarily the goal to bring them over here to a very high willing state, but it’s always just a challenge to get them to move into a slightly higher willing state.

Noa
How does one help a musician or a student through that continuum of willingness? I mean, is it something that’s active or is it more subtle, like in the language of a teacher and it’s something that teachers can even help with?

Dave
That’s a really good question. I think, Elvire can speak to it as a teacher and as a psychotherapist, you may have more time and more opportunity to get into the distressed component that they’re suffering with. Because usually, again, when their long willingness, they’re highly distressed by their anxiety, so they’re kind of stuck in this distress experience here. And what I find helps and perhaps this is helpful as a psychotherapist, because you have more time to work with someone I think, than perhaps you was as a teacher, because I know you have an agenda as a teacher, you want to incentivize them to move through as a statement of value. If you can link values to this work of moving through and making yourself more willing to do things that are challenging, and in that there’ll be more vulnerable and be more anxious in doing so then at least their training and values based action here. So if they see the point, then in doing that, then they’re probably more likely to frame it more neutrally rather than negatively as, yeah, this is like training for doing things that I value and if I can have clarity on what I value, then that helps me to really like decide to be able to move through this continuum more readily. But if they don’t see the value or don’t see the incentive, then they’re probably just going to stay in this mindset here. So it’s ideally a relationship that you’re in training with their anxiety on their behalf and it just takes time but I think the values part really incentivize them to grow in that relationship.

Noa
Values as in for instance, wanting to play for family members, you know, as an adult learner or friends and neighbors or, or as a professional wanting to take more auditions or perform more chamber music, that sort of thing. Do you mean?

Dave
Exactly you’re on the right path and I would say those are examples of valued actions and if you can think of like the larger bigger picture, direction that those value actions we moving the musician in, for example, if they value expressivity, then as Elvire was talking about, you know, the anxious energy Is fodder for expressivity. You can use that to express anxiety you can use that to express fearfulness, you know, within your performance. And she also alluded to this idea of like, it loses its power. And that’s yet another indication that you’re moving into like a higher willing state, because your experience is transformed, you’re no longer viewing it as like this awful thing. It’s this thing, basically. So. So yeah, the values work is vital. And we can talk in more detail about it, because it’s a longer conversation. But ideally, you want to clarify what are the big picture directions that they want their life to be guided by, basically. And how do you get them to move in that direction? Well, you have examples of these actions that you can take that are synonymous with the value of expressivity, or the value of giving to family, or I’m not sure exactly what the value would be in that case there. But it takes time to clarify what the values are. And then it takes time to come up with examples of actions in accordance with that, and then eventually, to get them to do these actions here.

Noa
Elvire, I wonder if you can speak to some of what Dave says?

Elvire
Yes, I absolutely agree with what Dave was saying. The work on on the values is really crucial, because the values is what is going to trigger for you, meaning what is going to trigger joy. So it’s what is going to trigger you something that makes you want to move. So once you you, you got that it’s the best way to start. Because actually, when you have your value, and you have your goal at the beginning, everything is great. I mean, you have my goal is to be a great violinist, a great singer, and I start taking lessons and after the challenges come by and after the thoughts come by, and different emotions, I always say like, for me learning an instrument and learning to sing is a bit you can always do a parallel to your life in general, it’s going to you’re going to have new challenges on your path that you have to, to overcome in some somehow in the best way you can and so absolutely having direction where you have to move towards. And after, when the challenges arise, then you can use all the tools that ACT proposes, the tools of acceptance and defusing with stressful thoughts. And of course, mindfulness is also really very important. So that you are aware of all these.

Noa
Wonder if you can say a little bit about this continuum of willingness in the context of lessons, because as a teacher, I imagine, you have students with varying levels of comfort, performing, or even various levels of comfort, recording themselves and listening back, and so forth. And I wonder how this this comes about, and how you help students move closer towards the middle in your teaching.

Elvire
In general, in my experience, at least, perhaps I’ve been very lucky, I have music, this music students that I have, are actually quite willing in doing the things in moving forward. Sometimes, of course, then the stress and the anxiety comes up when you actually then have to go to do an audition, to audition in front of people. And to record and listening to recordings, you’re right is an absolute challenge. I think all the musicians probably can relate to that. How we work with that I think it’s really goes with, with what we were saying about the tools of acceptance, I really come back to it. But I think that this is really very important to be able to agree to have stressful thoughts when you’re listening to yourself, agree to having the chatter in your head saying that this is not sounding how I want, why am I even doing this, it can be all sorts of chatting so so first of all, of course to be aware of that, because sometimes you are exactly like you are fused with that you don’t even you’re not even aware that you’re having this kind of footage, it’s just who you are you are completely like identified with that infuse with that. So if we take a moment to breathe in, breathe out to take a bit of a distance to mindfully understand, oh, wait, I’m having that story again. I’m saying again, this thoughts to me. And these thoughts are happening in my head. But it doesn’t mean that it’s absolutely true. And this is another thing that I think is very useful is saying, are these thoughts useful for me right now. So for example, I’m listening to recording of myself or working out, and I’m having all sorts of thoughts in my head. This is something horrible and everything and why am I even singing or whatever? And you just okay, are these thoughts useful for me right now? For this work that I’m doing? I’m listening to this recording, I’m doing it for I don’t know what reason to improve in something specific. And so, for me how I use it, it’s like it’s useful, keep it. If it’s useful for you now, keep the thought if it’s not useful, say thank you, thanks for being here. And for now, just okay, you are right here. You put it on your left on your right, wherever you want. And again, you refocus. What was it that was interesting. Yes, what was important for me right now was to listen how I was doing, I don’t know some technical aspects of of the recording that you actually want to work on. And so it’s the mindfulness, so that you are able to notice, observe, take a distance from it. And eventually, if the motion is very strong, then we have to do the acceptance, the opening up. And once you are willing to do that, then okay, reshifting to what is important. The useful non useful thoughts, I think, works quite well to say, okay, this is not useful for us now, let’s just keep it on the side for now. And let’s work with to what to what is useful.

Noa
It sounds like it’s almost a way of training your inner voice to be more like a teacher or a coach, as opposed to just a critic all the time. And you use the word, distance, I think a few times, and I heard the word defusion, I wonder if you can speak a little bit more about the idea of cognitive defusion or distancing, self distancing. Because I think one of the challenges that we have is, we learn over time to be increasingly adept critics of our own playing. And sometimes you know, you don’t have a good practice session, you don’t play in tune and see your class and you feel like, you’re an awful person, and like, you don’t deserve Chipotle that day, you know, me, like, we can just start really spiraling to a bad place. And so this sounds like the sort of thing that I imagined is, is useful, it’s like a useful tool for addressing that. So I wonder if one or both of you can maybe speak to that.

Dave
So I like in the states of fusion to imagine you can see into my mind right now. And for those who are not watching, I’m using my hands as thoughts right now. And when I’m fused with a thought, it appears right here, in my mind’s eye, it’s like so front and centrally located, I can’t have any separation from me. And therefore I view it as reality, right? If you would have something that is like highly believable, or highly personal about me, essentially. So when you’re in that kind of relationship with your thinking, it kind of rules over my behavior. You know, like, if it tells me to do a jumping jack, I will follow it like it’s a command to be followed, if it tells me not to record my practice, I will not record my practice, you know. So unfortunately, fusion gets people stuck in a lot of anxiety problems, a lot of mental health problems. So it’s useful, then to use this kind of visual metaphor to teach a client that there doesn’t have to be this non separation between you and your thinking, you can learn to separate yourself from your thinking. So it’s about right here, as opposed to, you know, somewhere outside of your conscious mind, you’re not trying to suppress it outside the conscious mind, you’re just trying to place it in front of you, like you’re looking at it. So if you’re in this kind of relationship, where you’re less fused and slightly more defused or distanced from your thoughts, you can actually think about your thinking, and you can think about what your mind is trying to tell you right now. And you can make moments to moments decisions, like Elvire is talking about, you know, saying, Is this useful? Or is this not? Is this true? Is this not? Is this something that defines me or not? Even if it’s a thought about me? Do I think this is necessary? And do I want to pay for their attention about this, even if it’s a really uncomfortable thought, what do I want to do with this basically. So when you have that ability to kind of a) separate through mindfulness and acceptance and b) just kind of disentangle your behavior, and yourself and your thinking that it really enables you to be more flexibly, then the future times you’re having these thoughts come up either during your performances during the practice. So it’s, it’s a very useful skill, and I find it can be taught fairly quickly too. There’s literally hundreds of defusion techniques available.

Noa
So it’s sort of like the difference between saying to yourself, I’m a terrible musician, or saying to yourself, I am having a thought that I’m a terrible musician. And that not necessarily being true, even though it feels true in the moment when we’re saying it to ourselves.

Dave
In fact, that is a technique right there that that preface I’m having the thought is a preface that I would teach a client to use whenever they notice that they’re thinking, and that using that preface promotes noticing, I’m having the thought, that perspective is one that lends itself to noticing that you’re having the thought rather than just the blind, the activity to your thinking,

Noa
Any other quick techniques, maybe that Elvire you’ve used with students?

Elvire
I quite like the idea of to give a title. So like you because when you will have several different usually a student or everybody we have like a different kind of thoughts that are recurrent, often coming. And so I like to use a bit of one of the tools of defusion is a bit to take it a bit in a more humorous side. So this works well for me, and to say, okay, so I’m going to give a name to this story. Sometimes I even like to imagine to have a nice publicity panel or to visualize really something. So it depends if the person is more visual, you can imagine the title of the song in the radio. And so you have here again, the song, I’m no good or the song I’m not able to do that. So sometimes I will just say to my student, if I see that is because we know each other well. And so if I see is falling again into that pardon, I say, do you know which story perhaps you’re having right now? So and like this it quickly? He quickly Oh, yeah, you’re right. Okay. So this, this, I think, helps quite a lot.

Dave
Another fun one, if I could jump in to share another quick one is to name your mind, then you can get very creative in the naming of it. I’ve had therapy clients name their mind Barnaby because they think it’s a circus. And you know, it’s always just wild up there. And then describe the behavior of it over a series of like five or 10 or 20 minutes or so which really promotes prolong mindful introspection of what’s happening in your mind. And when you’re describing it from that third person’s perspective, as if it were events occurring, rather than reality happening, then you really like promote that ability, just kind of watch thinking and decide how you want to respond to it. And the kicker is, if you can thank your mind, as Elvia was talking about earlier, you know, thanking your mind for whatever ongoing thoughts or ongoing products it’s creating for your observations. And it really like promotes that neutral stance. So you’re trying to cultivate through increased willingness and increased defusion with your thoughts. So thank you, mind for that really self critical thought. That’s an interesting one there, but I’m going to focus in on what I’m doing right now.

Elvire
I think just to add something here. I mean, when we are speaking about really anxious feelings, I don’t know, for an audition and everything. So sometimes it’s not so easy to get in the humorous part. So it depends. But for me as a singer, for example, it works quite well. I imagined singing the thoughts with some melody and something and just or I, I tried to visualize it with different letters and everything. It just, I liked how was Dave showing with the hand, it just shows you okay, this is actually a thing and I can play with it. It’s not completely I’m not used to it. It’s not exactly this reality, I can actually play with this thought. So even if the thought is very intense, and you feeling really like stressed about it, you can anyway, change do something it’s like a bit like play dough perhaps. depends on the person. There are different things at work, but like they were saying, there are so many things, it’s really, it’s interesting, because everybody will have some different ideas and creative idea of what they can do with their, with their thoughts.

Noa
What I like about this, too, is that it doesn’t mean that you have to force your mind to try to think only positive thoughts 100% of the time, even backstage right before you go on stage. Because I think for a lot of folks, it’s it’s really difficult to get our inner Barnaby to, like, only think positive thoughts, like I mean, Barnaby’s job is to do the opposite. And so if we then start believing that the only way I can be successful on stage or at this audition is to be completely driven by positive thinking, and then our inner Barnaby is fighting as hard as he or she can with that, then then it almost feels I think, like we failed and not develop the mental skills we need, or we’re not going to play on stage as well as we could. And am I understanding that correctly, that we can kind of play with our thoughts that way?

Dave
You play with your thoughts in that way and to further that thought train that you just started to unravel. Perhaps identity related thoughts, or like thoughts of self worth will become entailed into that thought training there, you know, like, if I can’t get my mind to do what I want to do, then I’m a bad human, or I’m a bad performer, you know, inevitably you’re going to be coming back to the story or coming back to the thoughts related to the self or whatever the kind of core belief is there. So those two are thoughts. And even though they’re stories that may have existed in your mind for a very long time, they still come from modern current thinking that just kind of feed into the old story. So just pulling back from thoughts and then pulling back from the stories that kind of the thoughts feed into that, or maybe even larger, in the mind, so to speak, is really useful in training, flexible responding to that kind of internal stuff.

Elvire
And in the end, it’s really all about flexibility. And I think it’s really liberating to be able to say, okay, I don’t have to eliminate those or I don’t have to think positive exactly as you’re saying it was exactly what I was not able to do. And I was I was like, I cannot I’m like too nervous it just so to learn how to change my relationship with them. Instead of trying to change them. I’m just going to transform my relationship. And somehow, it felt more healthy for me at least.

Noa
And ultimately, it sounds like at the end of the day, there’s only so much we can think about or focus on at any given point in time. And a lot of the inner conflicts and fighting that we do with the negativity or the thoughts that aren’t useful or helpful, end up taking a lot of bandwidth away from the things that we actually do ultimately care more about and can control and want to focus on to perform more effectively, it sounds like. This might be a bit of a tangent, I’m hoping it’s not. But one of the things that I know is often challenging, especially as we get closer to, in particular auditions, even more than performances that are really important to us, maybe it’s our hometown orchestra. Or maybe we’ve been subbing in that orchestra for a long time, we know we can do the job, we love the people there, we’d love to have a permanent position. It adds more pressure on us to then perform as well as we think we can in the audition, and become really attached to a very specific outcome and the story in our life of how things will be if we play well, and we get the job, etc, etc. And, and I know athletes talk about this a lot, you know, being increasingly process focused as you get closer to competition and finding ways of detaching from specific outcomes as you get closer, which is much easier said than done. And I’m wondering if if ACT has any tools or, or techniques that can help musicians do that as they get into those situations.

Dave
It’s funny, you mentioned the word process, because ACT is actually a process based therapy. And by that, I mean, it doesn’t aim to have symptom reduction type outcomes like CBT. And maybe medical science does, rather aims to undermine the unworkable patterns of behavior and processes of behavior that lend themselves to symptoms that lend themselves to disorder. And there are six processes that are examples of that. And when you’re training actually learn about like the six healthy processes that are the hexaflex processes, but it’s also important to talk about the unhealthy unworkable patterns that are the inflexibility processes, so mindless this avoidance fusion with thinking attachment to the story itself, lack of values, clarity, lack of committed action, those are processes of behavior that people just through automaticity or through, by virtue of them being well learned, they just find themselves kind of stuck in and it’s very difficult to climb their way out of them. So I would argue that the hexaflex training very much is in line with that process approach there, where, when training, in willingness and acceptance, you’ll find yourself being caught up in avoidance less frequently. And when training and mindfulness you’ll find yourself being like less reactive or less absorbed with mental chatter less frequently. So I would argue that these processes that the hexaflex will train you in are examples of what you’re talking about there, where you’re not necessarily like focused so much on symptom reduction or symptom related outcome or specific or personal outcome, you’re just kind of training in the process that is definitely correlated with healthy outcomes for many people, you know, so if you can train in values, clarity and training, committed action and training these other hexaflex processes, more often than not, they will work for you. Because these are healthy processes that correlate with well being the correlate with performance enhancement outcomes correlate with a lot of good stuff, they may not guarantee that you’ll win that audition but if your life becomes more trained in these flexible processes, then more often than not, you’ll have good things happen to you, I would argue.

Elvire
I was listening and thinking also, I mean, the shift, because you were talking earlier about how, how it grew on us a bit act, and how was the whole process of learning out and, and I think that the shift also, for me, was to stop linking my happiness to achieving this or this goal, but to live according to my values. So live in a way that is meaningful for me and finding a way of linking my actions, my actions on every day, something that I can really, because I mean, whether I’m going to get that job or win that audition, it’s, it’s not totally on my hands in the end. So what I can to focus on what is important for me, what I can act on, in one way brings meaning to me in my everyday. So to shift this, this view of, if I achieve this in this in this, I will be happy to if I live in a way that that is in accordance to what is meaningful to me, then I will be happy. And this is also in the process, this idea of focusing in the process is really very important. And I think even with small children, I think it’s from a very early age on, we are very much about the goals I see now my sons are three years old and one year old. And I see my one year old is completely in the process. You know, he’s just touching the things and enjoying and he’s not waiting to manage to do something to be really happy, just happy with the process that already the three year old, he is going to be like you we are playing football and he’s going to be happy when he scored the goal right? So I think the mindfulness here is very useful to learn how to not notice the process, instead of right away cheering by the goal and so describing what happened, what led to the goal, and what perhaps led to not scoring a goal and the same thing with the music so enjoying the process what led to this audition whether is successful or not to then focusing on this on the whole process. So this is a lot about mindfulness and learning how to notice and observing what is happening right now.

Noa
That reminds me of a story of a trombonist in the Kennedy Center Opera, Douglas Rosenthal, who was auditioning for jobs hadn’t landed a position yet and getting stressed out about it. But then he explains that he came to the realization or the determination that he was not going to let how well he did in auditions dictate how happy he was in his life. And once he came to that place, ended up winning two jobs in the span of like a couple of weeks and had his choice of where he wanted to live. And, again, it’s not something that we can all necessarily replicate like that. But it does, I think, speak to what you’ve been saying, you know, this flexibility and the freedom that comes from not having attachments that take us away from the things that we can control. And I think one of the challenges maybe though, is it maybe I’m just talking about myself, but I feel like it can sometimes feel or be difficult to give ourselves permission to be happy in the moment when we haven’t yet achieved goals that are really, really important to us. It’s almost I don’t know, if it feels like we need to deprive ourselves of happiness, we can’t be in the moment and enjoy unless we’ve earned it. Does that make any sense?

Dave
Elvire, since you’re the musician, the professional musician, maybe you can weigh in more, I was gonna go on like an RFT and fusion direction there. Because very quickly RFT, relational frame theory, is the theory of language and cognition, like the behavioristic depiction of language and cognition that that led to the creation of ACT. And there’s so many patterns in our thinking, and our speech that are predictable according to RFT, and even this like kind of relational framing that you may be engaging in without your awareness right now Noa, this idea that if I can do x, then y outcome will occur. And I will be happy if y outcome occurs. That’s an example of relational framing essentially, and long story short, you want to get better at pulling out of that thinking and just kind of notice that my mind is trying to convince me that if I do x and y will happen, and I’ll be happy if I happens, then, you know, do I believe that or not? Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. At timed it feels very true to me. At times, it feels kind of like a distant thing. That’s not so. So true. So I think understanding RFT and a very, very long story short understanding RFT helps you better predict the types of thoughts that you’re fused with. But I think that’s more of an advanced ACT practitioner exercise than a beginner’s practitioner, for the sake of whoever’s listening right now, just getting better at defusing from whatever thoughts are most troublesome to you, whatever thoughts are associated to most like troublesome emotions to you is the direction you want to be going.

Elvire
I agree with what Dave was, was saying, I think it’s, it’s, again, this idea of hearing ACT. What is central is like, it’s, it’s not so much about the content, but what’s your relationship with it? Because if you’re having these thoughts, perhaps you will, but perhaps you will not be able to change them. So while they are still here, how can I change my relationship to the best? And perhaps you are still going to have the thoughts? Well, I can only be, I’d only deserve to be happy if I have this audition. So perhaps you will always have somehow these thoughts on a corner of your head? The question is, am I able to anyway, even with this thought on the corner of my head, am I able to do something that is valuable to me right now, and brings some kind of meaning and that matters to me joy, meaning or whatever is important to you right now. So it’s, this is perhaps the tough truth of ACT is that, yes, you’re not going perhaps to be able to get rid of this, this self defeating thoughts or whatever, they’re going to be here, perhaps they will still be here, but you are going to be able to move towards a matter because we are, yeah, we are trying to like no, we I want the pleasure, I don’t want to have those. But actually, and perhaps some of them will inevitably be here somehow in your scope. But it doesn’t mean that you cannot actually do something meaningful and do something pleasurable at that moment.

Noa
Before we wrap up. I’m curious about a couple things for each of you actually, one, Dave, you’ve been working with training singing teachers to be able to use ACT with their students, which I think is really cool that students don’t have to have access to a sports psychologist or psychologist in order to learn certain skills but very organically and naturally can be tied into their lessons without them realizing the benefit even of what they’re gaining for the rest of their lives and Elvire for you as well like how you found your own teaching changing, as you’ve incorporated more of these kinds of concepts into it and what that actually Looks like I’m curious about, too.

Dave
Thank you for mentioning that I’m excited about the research I’ve been doing in recent years at the Voice Study Centre, which is a school in the UK that confers master’s degree in voice pedagogy, performance coaching of musicians and in singing for health. And I’ve overseen a few students, master’s theses, they were all singing teachers, they liked this idea of ACT, but they felt like initially unqualified to be able to use it because they’re not like therapists or psychologists. So we piloted and has since replicated this alternative treatment model in which I had trained them to use a non clinical version of ACT, which is essentially ACT coaching instead of ACT psychotherapy, it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s a little more generalized and ACT as a psychotherapy is, but for the most part, you’re you’re training flexibility, just like you would as a psychotherapist. So we found that over five studies, at least I can think of off the top of my head, in each a singing teacher receive training for myself enact coaching, that didn’t take too long, less than 10 hours, on average, sometimes a little bit more than 10 hours, but it depends on the person. And by the way, that time total doesn’t include reading ACT literature, or you know, doing like the independent work that they needed to do for their thesis here. That’s just the face to face training out there. But in each of those cases, they were able to replicate the same kind of outcomes that I’ve gotten as a psychotherapist using ACT with with music students or professionals who have performance anxiety. And those outcomes are maintained, actually, at one month and a three month follow up to with those students who work with their teachers. So it’s moving in the right direction, it’s still kind of an emerging research field here. But it teaches me that yeah, perhaps if students don’t have access to a psychologist, or they have legit hurdles that prevent them from working with one, like maybe stigma is a big issue with a lot of students, they would rather not open up about their private issues with a stranger like that they’d rather go with a teacher because they know the teacher better than a stranger. So this alternative model may actually be quite viable here. And I kind of liken it to how teachers on the job, learn about mental health and mental health first aid training and learn how to make you know proper referrals. And depending on the type of issues that are noticing their students or ABA training, Applied Behavioral Analysis, that’s also a kind of psychology focused training for classroom teachers to deal with like disruptive or inattentive behavior. So it seems in line with that, training opportunities that already exist for for teachers to begin with that, teach them a little bit about psychological issues and train them in what to do. But this one is a little more in depth, because they’re learning to become performance coaches, in addition to be to being teachers here. So I think Elvire, I’d love to hear how you function in the role is singing teacher rather than performance coach or weaving in your interventions into your lessons here, because I think what you do is actually quite artful, like this idea of just kind of weaving in these things more naturally and organically into the lesson there.

Elvire
In the vast majority of the cases, I actually didn’t say to my students that we were doing ACT training. So I was actually just because I, first of all, I was not yet at that point yet where I was ready to say, I’m going to do some training with you. Because when you are doing the, the lesson, and there are always challenges that come up, and it’s very intimate work, the one on one work on an instrument, and you can mean, although the thoughts and emotions are going to have a direct impact on your playing. And so when there is a specific challenge, I try to see how I can guide the students in this specific moment. Of course I was we were saying like to take a distance at some point perhaps, or to be willing to be more opened up, for example, to receive some kind of feedback, to be open to receive it, to be willing to receive that and to feel the emotions that you are going perhaps to feel when I’m going to give that feedback to you. So I, I kind of do these exercises, without really saying we are doing ACT training. Because if I begin to say, Okay, we’re going to do ACT training and begin to define a lot of things, then we don’t keep on what is actually the goal here, which is to do a singing lesson or music lesson. So I just kick in some things. And if there is a moment when there is a particular challenging thing, then perhaps invite the student to talk a bit more about it. And we take a bit more of time to speak about it and to work on it. Of course, it has had cases of students where I felt that perhaps it would be a positive thing to really work more concretely, to do more ACT training. Usually what I do is that I take a bit of the time of the music lesson depending like 15 minutes to speak about one of the processes one thing and after I give the students some things to work on during the week. And after the next week we speak about. So perhaps it will take a bit more time than if we’re doing a full coach session. So but I do it like that and it has worked quite well.

Noa
Not to put you on the spot, but I wonder if you could share like a quick example. Maybe you have a student who is frustrated by something in the lesson or in the practice room, or maybe they’re just very critical of themselves. Or maybe they’re having difficulty accepting feedback or you know, something along those lines. I wonder if you could share a quick illustration, perhaps of?

Elvire
Yeah. So for example, it happens, sometimes, some student is having an issue on some particular technical aspects. And, well, it’s something that’s been going on already for a while. And so we’ve talked a bit about it, and perhaps it didn’t work out, we’re trying something else. So we are in the lesson. And again, it doesn’t work out, for example, in the singers, the passaggio is a very typical problem. So I, the students did this. And I tell him did this didn’t work out exactly, yet how I wanted it to work out. And so there might be like, yeah, kind of frustration, because the student actually thought it was already good enough. And so after we continue, and we actually try again, and students might perhaps shut down or feeling a bit more like, you see that you’re not, you’re not moving actually forward, you’re actually just oh, I should not have said that, exactly. So when this happens when I see that, actually a feedback I gave just blocked even more the student and I’m not able to move forward. So usually, I just tried to pause. And I would say, Okay, let’s just, I see that this is not working. Let’s just take perhaps a few seconds just to breathe in and out together. And perhaps you can tell me a bit, what is it you’re feeling? What is it you’re you’re thinking about? What is what is in your head right now, so and so the student will tell me that he’s feeling frustrated, because he thought this was working. And it’s he doesn’t see the progress. So all kinds of very normal thing. And so the first thing exactly will be to normalize this and say, so first of all this happens to all of us, it happens to me all the time also. So like, because sometimes you feel that you are alone with these thoughts, but actually, you’re not. And so once we do that, I invite the student to work on this again. So perhaps I will again, explain the situation that we have a clear idea where we are. And after I think what is very important in this case is is like to explain the student, if I’m telling you this, it’s because I trust that you can make it. So because I’m not correcting something in the student, if I don’t think he’s able to correct this yet. It wouldn’t make sense. So from that point on, okay, we have taken the time to stop, we have normalized we have the trust. So now we can bit perhaps, do you think you are able to continue on working on this? Even with the frustration, even with the thoughts, just try to see if you can, sometimes I ask where we would like to have them. Let’s put them in a spot someplace where they can be here. And now let’s refocus on energy. What is it we want to achieve? Now this is what we want to achieve? Right? So let’s focus on energy on that.

Noa
Sounds like a more flexible and almost collaborative way of jointly problem solving.

Elvire
It’s true, I have an approach that is very collaborative. And I think, for me, as a teacher, my view is that I’m here to give students the tools, so that he’s able himself after to say, I don’t have this position of saying, Okay, it’s me, I know how it is, and this is how it’s done. I really want the student to get the knowledge that I have, and after to be able to himself make his decisions. And I think it’s very important to give more responsibility to the student, sometimes in at least in the classical world and in my experience, we have a bit tendency, the teachers of telling you this is how it has to be done. This is the true path, follow my path and I will lead you to the light. And I think, of course there are things I the teacher is the expert, but the student has to take responsibility also and understanding what is actually happening and know how, why. And for this, we have to collaborate. I think it works best like that.

Noa
So for musicians who are curious to learn more about ACT or teachers as well, where would you suggest they start or where would they go?

Dave
Well, Elvire and I have co authored a book that is now available through all the major online retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble the title of our book is ACT for Musicians: A Guide for Using Acceptance and Commitment Training to Enhance Performance, Overcome Performance Anxiety, and Improve Well-Being. Aside from hitting on those main three areas their performance enhancement, performance anxiety as well as well being, Elvire or took the lead on how teachers can get involved in this work. In writing that book. We attempted to make this work appealing to both clinicians and non-clinical professionals like like singing instrumental teachers here too, so they can certainly start there. My webpage actformusicians.com has information about the book. Has information about the research and training that I do with my clinical practitioners who want more training in ACT so they can use this within their daily practice. My webpage is still under construction. I’ll just make that point clear, but it will be up and running within the next three weeks. So mid September, in case you’re listening prior to mid September to this podcast,

Elvire
The book is really has a lot of information, but it’s really written and accessible for musicians. It’s a workbook. But if you really dig into it, you will have all the tools you can really work on the exercise. It’s really step by step. So I think it’s really useful.

Noa
So the goal probably shouldn’t be to try to digest it in a weekend.

Elvire
No, no, exactly. That’s what I wanted to say. It’s really a workbook.

Noa
You can get the full transcript of this week’s chat plus links to various things that came up in conversation at bulletproofmusician.com/blog

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Notes

  • 5:06 – Dave brings up the concept of psychological flexibility, the core goal of ACT. If you’d like to know how you score on this measure, Steven Hayes, one of the founders of ACT, provides two quick assessments to gauge your psychological flexibility here:
  • 14:29 – Elvire and Dave both speak about the difference between values vs. goals, and the impact of focusing on process rather than outcome. It’s a simple but transformative concept that is key to high-level performance, whether in sports or music. Here’s a short video by Russ Harris (whose book was Elvire’s introduction to ACT in grad school) that explains this in more detail, and why this can be so helpful:
    • The Values-Focused vs The Goals-Focused Life
  • 31:20 – Dave lists the six core ACT flexibility processes; if you’d like more tips on how to hone these processes, Dr. Hayes offers several tips in each of these skills here (if you’d prefer a video to text, check out the next link below:
  • 35:11 – I mention Kennedy Center Opera trombonist Douglas Rosenthal, and how he has described his experience separating happiness from audition success:
  • 36:35 – Dave mentions RFT or relational frame theory. Dr. Hayes talks more about this in a TED talk – but more importantly, shares additional tips on how to get our mind to slow down and avoid spiraling to the bad place:
    • Mental Brakes to Avoid Mental Breaks, with Steven Hayes

More Dave & Elvire

You can order a copy of their book ACT for Musicians here:

David Juncos

You can learn more about and connect to Dave online here:

Elvire de Paiva e Pona

You can learn more about and connect to Elvire at her website:

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

2 Responses

  1. I attended a wonderful workshop at the Australian Flute Festival in 2019 with Deborah Hart, a former professional horn player who now also uses ACT to work with musicians. It was an absolutely life-changing workshop for me, and I hope (think!) for a lot of my students as well! I have found the application to my playing and teaching to be invaluable. I think this is a truly exciting emerging field in the psychology of performance and has a great deal to offer.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Lisa. Deborah is a friend of mine & I actually had the chance to interview her for our book on using ACT w musicians. Her wisdom & bravery as an orchestral musician were invaluable & I believe the readers will learn so much from hearing her speak from the heart about her own struggles w performance anxiety. Cheers, Dave Juncos

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 3-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.

Share137
Tweet
Email