The “observer effect” or “Hawthorne effect” refers to the idea that people modify their behavior when they know they are being observed. Penalty kicks at any World Cup soccer game is instant proof of the pressure a player feels from this effect!

For musicians, the observer effect can determine the way we work to prepare for public performances. In order to deal with the nervous energy that comes from performing for an audience, we are taught early on to block out the audience, to ignore the body’s sensory reactions to fear, or even to pretend we are in the practice room when we are actually on stage.

In her article on performance anxiety, Barbara Conable suggests we do the opposite: include the body, the hall, and the audience in your awareness with the understanding that blocking out takes more energy and splits the attention of the performer, thereby reducing the powerful presence and communication of the performer. She writes “Many people make the mistake of trying not to feel their fear, terror, dread, panic, or they try to diminish it, or they try to ignore it. This turns them into two people, the person who is feeling the fear and the one who is suppressing or ignoring it. You can’t perform split. It just won’t work….Feel the fear. Embody the fear. Truly arrive in the performance space. Truly relate to the space, the music, and the audience.”

For those of us retraining after a diagnosis of focal dystonia, adding an audience can set us back in what might otherwise feel like a progression of the control of our motor skills. I have experienced months where I was more and more in control of the dystonic symptoms every day, only to be sidetracked by a performance where the symptoms are suddenly much worse.

We spend hours retraining in a specific setting (alone, in the practice room) but have not retrained for a performance setting, with the observer effect in place.

Replicating the observer effect as you gain more control, or have reduced dystonic symptoms, can better help prepare for a performance. Create a transition period between the work in the practice room and the performance by retraining in public: play in a room of musicians warming up themselves (but not listening), play for a loved one (even with ear plugs in), read very simple chamber music with trusted friends, or play for a video camera. We tend to create this scaffolded process for our students by having them play in studio class or in a dress rehearsal setting before a competition, but we forget do do it for ourselves.

One creative solution to this problem was shared by flutist / violinist Melissa Carter who writes, “My FD symptoms act up if I think someone is listening or watching….so I added an audience to my music stand to help me get over that fear!”

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