Using Technique, Students Say Goodbye to Performance Anxiety

Kimberly Ashton
May 12, 2017
Jesus Burgos

It wasn’t long after Jesus Burgos got accepted to Berklee that he got tendonitis. Driven by powerful feelings that perhaps he didn’t belong at the college, Burgos would spend hours on end practicing guitar so that he could arrive on campus “being the hippest cat I can.”

Instead, he says, “I came to Berklee as a broken player.” Now in his fifth semester as a jazz composition and contemporary writing and production double major, Burgos describes those first few days as “very crippling” as he struggled to make sense of why he was even here, an injured player among some of the best guitarists of his generation. In fact, he’s certain that he would’ve dropped out if it hadn’t been for a book.

Recommended to him by Kim Perlak, associate chair of the Guitar Department, Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery was like salve on a wound for Burgos. He bought it the afternoon Perlak mentioned it and stayed up until early the next morning reading it.

The Joy of (Re-)Learning

Saxophonist Daniel Elbert also came across the book when he had hit a wall. Elbert had quit a successful career in business consulting in order to pursue music. He moved to to Thailand and played in a band, but despite practicing up to 10 hours a day for a year, his playing wasn’t improving.

“I thought it would just be like input equals output,” Elbert, now a fourth-semester performance major, says. “Instead, I felt like almost nothing changed. So I kind of went to this very dark mental place where I felt like, ‘I’m a musician now, but I’m not very good, and I don’t seem to be getting any better; how can I feel that I have any self-worth?’” And then someone recommended Effortless Mastery, which, Elbert says, “pulled me out of a deep hole.”

The book's techniques, and Werner's classes and workshops through his Effortless Mastery Institute at Berklee, show musicians how to break down the anxiety attached to playing music and to reconnect to their instrument from a place of comfort and expressivity. 

“I’ve restarted learning stuff with Kenny over and over again,” says Burgos, who also studied with Werner in the fall and spring semesters. Though Burgos had been playing guitar for 15 years, it took him a year to relearn how to play.

Andrew Cheng, a seventh-semester guitar performance and jazz composition major, says that his first exercise in Werner's class was simply to play a note without putting any intention behind it, without trying to make it sound good. To Cheng’s surprise, he couldn’t do it. “Especially at school, you get into a mindset of caring,” he says.

Accessing that spontaneous, playful place was also something that Delfina Cheb, a fifth-semester vocal performance and jazz composition major, struggled to do. “It was always hard for me to connect to my true voice,” Cheb says. The disconnection she felt when singing was so heavy that she probably would have left Berklee if not for Werner’s classes, she says.

Expression Over Tension

Once students let go of the stress and tension they’ve learned to play with, they then work on disciplined and deliberate practice techniques, so that when they are on stage, they don’t need to worry about their ability to execute a piece. They can let muscle memory drive their movements while they focus on what they are trying to express.

Burgos says that it’s like talking. “You don’t think about ‘oh, I have to make my lips to do this, and my tongue to do that.' You don’t think like that. You talk and then you see what happens, and obviously if you mess up a line you fix it. And that’s what music should be.”

His tendonitis has disappeared, and now he can critique his playing without cringing. And something else has happened since his first anxious days at Berklee. He noticed that practicing has become something it hadn’t been in a long time: a joy.