Performance Power: Transforming Stress into Creative Energy, by Irmtraud Tarr Kruger

October 1, 1996


Performance Power: Transforming Stress into Creative Energy, by Irmtraud Tarr Kruger. Trans. E. H. Tarr. Tempe, Arizona: Summit Books, 1995. 252 pp. ISBN 1-887210-00-8.

Stage fright can be the constant companion of the performing musician or the public speaker. Performance Power attempts to help us understand the underlying causes of performance anxiety and to develop strategies for coping with these stressful situations. Dr. Tarr Krüger contends that the greater the discrepancy between the way we would like to be and the way we really are, the more we will suffer from performance anxiety. She concludes that "performance power" is the art of understanding our abilities, learning to confront and deal with excessive stress, and employing the positive aspects of performance anxiety to heighten our state of readiness for the task at hand. Dr. Irmtraud Tarr Krüger is highly qualified to address these issues, since she is both a psychotherapist and a concert organist. She holds teaching positions in Hamburg and Amsterdam and is well-known throughout Europe for her articles and lectures on performance anxiety.

Dr. Tarr Krüger believes that performance anxiety derives from the "structure of our personality. It has to do not only with the expectations of others and our feeling of inadequacy, but also with deeper feelings of anger, shyness, and shame, with an underlying fear of life and of others which is new in our time" (pp. 9-10). During childhood we quickly learn that in order to succeed we must be better than others. We also learn to fear being the object of laughter. In today's world where appearances are given such importance and where beautiful, self-confident persons loom on our television screens, showing fear is forbidden. Yet, "according to Dale Carnegie, the fear of showing oneself in public is at the top of the list of one's fears, the fear of death, for example, only occupying seventh place" (p. 31). Since Carnegie died in 1955, this information is obviously dated. There is no source given for this specific statement, although documentation does exist throughout the book in other selected instances. However, it should be pointed out that Performance Power is designed as a self-help book and does not purport to be a documented clinical study.

Dr. Tarr Krüger contends that there are inner voices constantly chattering in our heads. Our monsters are the judge, the doubter, and the timid soul, while our friends are the voices of self-esteem, conviction, and courage. We must become intimately acquainted with all of them in order to permit a healthy and meaningful reconciliation of these opposing forces. Similarly, we must understand both our strengths and weaknesses, allowing our inner mentor to direct us toward what is best for us and what is achievable. As teachers, we face the daunting task of instilling standards and self-criticism in our students while simultaneously building their self-confidence. Helping our students to understand these inner voices may assist us in our task.

Part 2 of the book makes us aware of body and mind relationships. For example, medical science has proven that smiling will make us feel better. In the well-developed field of sports psychology exaggerated motions and shouting are employed to intensify the combative nature of the football team. Conversely, the small motor skills typical of musical performance call for relaxation and auto-suggestion. Since our bodies are creatures of habit, we must practice these positive skills and enable them to prevail over the forces of negativism. Dr. Tarr Krüger gives numerous exercises to assist us in relaxing, both mentally and physically. Many are simple and easy to follow. Others are more complex, such as Hara (the Japanese art of centering) and the Alexander Technique. In the latter cases the descriptions are very brief and incomplete, serving only to alert us to their potential effectiveness. Since performance anxiety will be a heightened version of daily tensions, we need to incorporate the art of relaxation into our everyday experiences. Once we are comfortable with attaining a relaxed state, we must then learn to activate this state at will. By developing a cue, such as placing three fingers together, we can call up the relaxed state simply by employing the cue (p. 197).

Breathing exercises are also helpful in achieving relaxation. Dr. Tarr Krüger believes that "breathing exercises are exhalation exercises" (p. 178). She contradicts others who believe that deep inhalations are helpful, finding rather that they "tend to tighten the throat and neck" (p. 178). Instead, she suggests concentrating on "channeled exhaling." For actors and public speakers she recommends a specified breathing exercise while simultaneously "tensing up your stomach muscles (to prevent) fear-producing substances such as noradrenaline or epinephrine (adrenaline) from being set free in your body. The effect is: you automatically become calmer, . . . diaphragm muscles become activated, . . . and your voice will project better" (p. 179).

Visualization, or guided imagination, is one of the most powerful methods of dealing with performance anxiety. Mental images of disaster can sabotage us very quickly, but positive images can be equally as strong. We can learn to use these positive images both to overcome anxiety and to achieve our goals. Again we must be careful to set attainable goals and resist fantasy and daydreaming. Numerous exercises pertaining to visualization are described. As is typical with this book, they range from simple to more complex, and they may serve as starting points for exercises that we may tailor to fit our individual dispositions and goals.

As with any self-help book, the role of affirmation, or the "power of positive thinking," receives its fair share of attention. Also included in the book are exercises for overcoming ten common problems, such as butterflies in the stomach, cold and trembling hands, moist and sweaty hands, dry mouth, and pounding heart. In an interesting sub-section, Dr. Tarr Krüger draws upon her experiences in music therapy to discuss the value of drumming and singing. Drumming allows us to come in direct contact with our feelings without the danger of being right or wrong, while humming can help reduce stress and can also help us to perform better. In an interesting comment, Dr. Tarr Krüger opposes the use of beta blockers, but gives her own recipe for a "healthy alternative" utilizing ingredients from the local health food store (p. 209).

The translation of Performance Power from German is generally readable, although there are some awkward passages and several very long Germanic sentences. There are a number of typographical and grammatical errors and a few confusing mistakes, such the use of the word "spurn" instead of "spur" (p. 192). As an interesting sidelight, the etymology of several pertinent words is given. "Enthusiasm" ("der Enthusiasmus" in German) is properly described as coming from the Greek words for "God within" (p. 141). On the other hand, the origin of the term "limelight" is inaccurate (p. 19). Although lime was used in nineteenth-century footlights, the process was far different and more complex than that described by Dr. Tarr Krüger. The book includes an extensive bibliography with approximately twenty percent of the titles in English and the remainder in German.

Certainly, much of the material in Performance Power has become available in other books, articles, and even television programs; nevertheless, it is helpful to have information on so many concepts and exercises available in one compact source. Overall, Performance Power should prove both accessible and useful to college students, helping them understand the conflicts that arise between self-criticism and self-esteem. The book is ideally suited to a performance class setting or for use in connection with applied instrumental and vocal instruction. Performance Power deserves a place on every performer and performance teacher's bookshelf.

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