One of the prime resources of any music learned aurally is YouTube. We have all wondered how a tune sounds or if a particular artist has played it and have searched youtube to find it. In addition many of us have used youtube to publish our own videos for various reasons including asking for critique on our technique, etc. One of the other uses is to just be able to see what we are doing or to act as an archive of our work.
This all sounds like a good idea: we play into the camera in order to see how we look and sound and we get exactly what others see when we play in a session or on stage. The only problem is that is not what happens.
The key here is that we are doing the recording, on purpose, while sober and all of a sudden we are in a position to screw up. The result is often a left brain performance in which we remain fearful of making a mistake, we tighten up and play clumsily, and our tone suffers along with the spontaneity that we usually strive for. But even if we are able to relax and play to our capacity, we can fall victim to what psychologists call a negative and distorted image of the observable self.
What they mean by this is that we are often our own worse critics. In the past I have been taken aback by movie stars who never watch their own films. It didn't make sense to me mostly because I enjoyed the movies and their roles in them. What I never took into account is that many performers have very high standards and a very critical way of viewing film.
Take this to a more local level and we have the rest of us who have a difficult time either videoing ourselves or watching the videos in a non-critical manner. I mentioned two forces in action when we video ourselves or watch ourselves from other videos: left brain performance and distorted images of the observable self. I'll go over each of these in light of the scientific literature and then suggest things that can be done to counter act the problems.
Left Brain Performance or Choking
Musicians, like all performers, go through a process of learning a skill and internalizing it until it no longer is a conscious skill. In this process there are several steps and thousands of hours of practice and repetition until a style is achieved. This is the way experts in any field develop and it is a process that has been studied for centuries. The so-called "10,000 hours" results in expertise as long as there is a layered process that emphasizes basic technique and moves on to more sophisticated aspects of performance.
In this process the brain changes considerably and the functioning goes from pre-frontal cortex/conscious effort to more unobservable (by eye) deeper brain structures that are called up automatically when needed. There have been papers showing that in this automatic functioning of the brain seen in experts that the left side of the brain is briefly activated but the processing quickly goes over to the control of the right brain. This is true of right handers and most left handers.
Studies of performance degradation under stressful situations show that there is a regression in brain functioning under uncompensated stress and a retreat to left brain function. One of the hallmarks is that the performer has a distinct isolation from an audience and thinks that people are watching for mistakes. The result is an increase in tension, loss of coordination and a tactic of thinking every motion through. Just the opposite of how an expert performs in practice and or under normal performance circumstances. In other words if you are used to playing in front of friends or the same venue, a change (such as a contest or master class) may cause you to mess up a lot.
There is a large body of literature about how to deal with this problem but it takes practice and some focus in order to achieve relaxation in these circumstances. Videoing yourself is one of these circumstances.
The other issue is negative and distorted images of the observable self (NDIOS.) Most of the studies on this problem have centered around helping patients with social anxiety. At one point it was thought that videoing yourself in a socially anxious situation (like giving a talk) would help self image and help to overcome the anxiety. Instead the experiment was a flop of sorts because it turns out that videoing yourself can also cause anxiety.
Some of the same left brain regression occurs, but the main finding was that people come into a viewing of themselves with preconceived ideas which are mostly negative. (The Holy Card Effect when someone is looking at your driver's license: "Jesus, is that you?") This is not just limited to highly anxious people, it affects everyone. A study in 2000 showed that with good preparation, this problem could be diminished and self ratings went up.
Now the reason you want to avoid both of these problems is the reason you videoed yourself in the first place. You want to see how you play and you want to be able to find things to improve in order to make better music. In addition you want others to see the video (for a variety of reasons, I might add) and enjoy the music. But if you are "camera-shy", the culmination of the two issues mentioned above, you will no achieve your goals due to deteriorating performance and you may regret publishing your video.
There are a number of things you can do about videos to make them a more palatable experience. First is the fact that you can do them over and discard the bad ones. We all make mistakes and sometimes they are more interesting than the real thing, but we also don't have to publish everything that a camera records. (This, along with poor visual standards, is the reason a lot of youtube videos suck.) If there are too many mistakes you can simply do it over - and over and over if it matters that much.
Secondly, sometimes you have to take what you can get. I will show you some of the videos that I think are sub-par but I have learned something from them which is, after all, the reason for the videos in the first place. The most common thing noted is anxiety and in my case a tendency to not only be heavy handed (due to striking way too hard as I become more anxious about screwing up) but to forget the variations I can do in my sleep. Clearly a right/left brain dysfunction on my part.
I will try and correct this in the future even though I know it will take a lot of work to do it well.
I mess up several times here and am not anywhere as light on the pick as I am in a session where we are all playing together.
A little better but still very conscious of the camera. I don't smile much either or seem to be having much fun.
Dealing with Stress on Camera
There are ways to combat these tendencies to freeze when a camera is on. The first thing is to warm up before you start recording. The idea is to play through the tune/set a few times to get in the groove as much as possible. This doesn't always work, but it does allow you to stop thinking and just play for a while. One aspect of this is Enda Scahill's admonition to "breathe" and relax when you play. A lot of us hold our breaths in this situation and this only serves to tense our muscles. When you warm up, pay attention to your breathing. For one thing it will take your mind off of the task and allow you to just play.
Next is the meme of "just playing. "It's not as easy as it sounds, but if you learn to focus on the task of hearing the tune in your head instead of how to play it, it will come more smoothly. But you can practice this and if you expose yourself to the camera a lot it also helps, especially if you try to relax into the tune and just play. This way the brain is more likely to go into right brain mode.
A corollary of this is to do something called "cognitive preparation." This is a technique used by therapists to help highly anxious people observe themselves on tape and decrease the effects of NDIOS by cutting off the automatic effects of this problem before it takes effect. It is a three step process which includes 1) predicting what will be on the video, 2) mentally imaging what it will look like in a positive way, and 3) mentally stepping back and viewing the video as if it were a stranger playing. Studies are very clear that this method is helpful in lowering anxiety and by being more neutral while watching the video, you can start to see what you have to do to improve without being self critical.
Lastly there is a technique called "hemispheric priming" in which you try to activate your right brain before you perform. This sounds like a screwy idea and it is counter-intuitive but there are imaging studies that show that it works. It consists of squeezing a ball in your left hand which activates the right brain. More importantly it seems to discourage the left brain from firing up in times of stress. Combined with good breathing and focusing on the music it seems to be very helpful.
Of course none of these methods work very well if you don't put in the time to make them work. Like any other performance tool they have to be practiced and you have to do the repetitions in order for the brain to respond and change. The level of perceived stress will probably not change, but the performance will and you will be able to make better and more productive videos. These same mental training methods will also help with stage fright, but that is another column.
I have a lot of videos on YouTube that will help with learning the Irish tenor banjo. Some are mine, but the vast majority are from master level players teaching in class.
Noa Kageyama Ph.D is the author of the Bullet Proof Musician blog. Noa teaches mental toughness at the Julliard School in New York City. He is one of my primary influences in this field. Take a look at his work.