Does your child get butterflies before ballet recitals, school concerts or class presentations? Performance anxiety is common in kids. We asked experts how to cope.
Tears, tantrums and tummy aches: all of these symptoms can accompany the common childhood experience of performance anxiety, a familiar topic for Bobcaygeon, Ont., mom Michelle Garrett.* When her son Jesse* was assigned his first class speech in grade three, it created a lot of tension in their home.
“When he has to do something in front of others, he shuts down. He cried and refused to do the work until his teacher prompted him at school,” Garrett says. Jesse was last to present on speech day, and as soon as he made it to the front of the class, he froze and began to cry. I know, because I was his teacher.
Often called “stage fright,” performance anxiety can rear its head in a variety of locations other than formal recitals or concerts, including the sports field and the classroom.
This anxiety can appear at an early age, as Toronto mom Shelley Anderson* knows. Though her three-year-old daughter loves to dance, Anderson struggles each week to get her to participate in ballet class. “She’ll beg us to pick her up, or fall to the ground and have a tantrum rather than join in,” says Anderson. Anxiety can paralyze older children as well—when my dad was a high school hockey coach, he had a player who threw up before every single game—and can last well into adulthood.
The orchestra students at Bunker Hill Elementary School plucked and bowed their violins, violas and cellos one afternoon this week as they performed Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” for classmates at an assembly.
But this was no ordinary concert. Two special guests joined in: violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The world-famous musicians spent Tuesday afternoon swaying to the rhythmic sounds of first-graders beating sangba drums. They watched students act out stories. And the orchestra students learned how Bell and Ma get rid of nerves during performances: Ma pretends it’s his birthday party. Bell imagines everyone in the audience sitting on toilets.
“You played so well,” Ma told about 20 orchestra students during rehearsal for the assembly. “I love the energy. It was great.”
Ma and Bell visited the Northeast D.C. school through a program known as Turnaround Arts, which aims to give underperforming schools more resources for arts and music.
Violinist Joshua Bell, left, and DC Youth Orchestra’s Philip Espe, right, before they play a song together at Bunker Hill Elementary School. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
When faced with financial pressures, schools often cut arts and music funding to focus resources on math and reading. But Turnaround Arts, in about 70 schools around the country, was founded on the idea that every student, not just those in wealthy neighborhoods, should have access to the arts. Experts say the arts are essential for a well-rounded education and can help students succeed in other academic areas.
Every year almost 100% of public school students begin an instrument through their school’s music program (if a program exists). One or two years later, more than 50% of students quit; unable to enjoy all that music education has to offer for the rest of their K-12 schooling, if not beyond.
During my time as an educator and administrator, parents and students have shared with me several reasons why the child quit their musical instrument, including:
The student is not musically talented (or at least thought they weren’t).
The student is too busy with other activities.
The student hates practicing (or the parents grow weary of begging the child to practice).
‘The biggest problem with today’s playing is that people want to sound smooth and nice; everything is ironed out flat,’ says cellist Raphael Wallfisch. ‘Because instrumentalists make sounds without words, we often forget about telling a story. We get so bogged down with technical aspects of playing that we forget to give that big, open, direct message, which a singer does much more naturally.
Included in this camp is a “PLAY-IN” once every week for all string students who can attend. A PLAY-IN is one hour of playing and having fun with new and familiar music. We will all play together. PLAY-INs WILL BEGIN July 6 and continue every Wednesday, 4-5 PM for the next 6 weeks until the beginning of Boot Camp on August 22.
You’d see maybe eight teenagers: three holding sports duffle bags; one reading a library book; another holding a large art portfolio. The last three might be holding instrument cases shaped like guitars, violins, and trombones.
But what if those instruments disappeared? Unfortunately, that’s the reality for many K-12 students across the country.
These days, most American K-12 schools are focusing heavily on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs, but performing arts programs are getting left behind. When extracurricular budgets are tight, music programs are often the first to go.
As it turns out, STEM programs could actually save music programs.