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Violist has shared passion for creating music and understanding the brain

Dr. Molly Gebrian, an assistant professor of music at UW-Eau Claire, is a distinguished performer, teacher and scholar. Her love of contemporary music has taken her across the United States and to Europe to collaborate with composers and perform alongside other talented musicians.

Gebrian earned a doctorate of musical arts in viola performance from Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, a master of music and graduate diploma in viola performance from the New England Conservatory of Music and a bachelor's degree in viola performance from Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music.

While her many academic achievements are impressive, it's the second bachelor's degree Gebrian earned from Oberlin College that surprises many; a bachelor's degree in neuroscience.

In addition to music and viola, Gebrian has another passion in neuroscience, specifically the study of music and the brain. She's especially interested in how neuroscience can help musicians get the most out of their daily practice and also how musicians' brains differ from non-musicians' brains.

As Gebrian has worked to understand how people learn and experience music, she's collaborated on neuroscience research with leading scientists on music and the brain. In recent years, she's published papers in Frontiers in Psychology and the Journal of the American Viola Society. She also taught a self-designed course at Rice University about music perception, cognition and understanding the differences between musicians' and non-musicians' brains. She will be teaching this course as an Honors elective at UW-Eau Claire in the fall.

Gebrian draws on her expertise in music performance and neuroscience in the following Thought Leader column about dealing with a common challenge faced by anyone who has to speak or perform in front of an audience: Performance anxiety. 

Dealing with performance anxiety 

By Dr. Molly Gebrian

You know the feeling: You get up in front of an audience to give a concert or deliver a speech and your heart is pounding, your mind is racing, your hands are extra-sweaty, you feel shaky and you just want to run away. Everyone has to deal with performance anxiety at some point in their lives, but it's an incredibly unpleasant experience that most of us feel helpless to do anything about.

The most important thing to recognize is that performance anxiety is a physical response you have no control over: It's the fight or flight response that evolved over time to help you stay alive in the face of a predator or other threat to your life. While rationally you know your life isn't in danger, the ancient part of your brain that controls this response doesn't. What this means is that performance anxiety is never going to go away entirely and there's no magic bullet to make you feel miraculously calm.*

You can, however, learn to control and channel your nerves. But the sooner you stop fighting it and accept that it's a fact of life, the easier it will be to deal with it.

Often, when people talk about controlling nerves, they tell you to take a deep breath. It may seem like this isn't going to do much, but it's actually a very powerful anti-anxiety practice. When you're nervous, your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert. When you breathe deeply, this stimulates your vagus nerve whose job it is to slow your heart rate (among other things). The vagus nerve is a major player in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with rest and relaxation. Your parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, so they can't both be activated at once. When you breathe deeply, it's a signal for the parasympathetic nervous system to take over.

Deep breathing isn't just something you should do in the moment before you go on stage. In the days leading up to the performance, often just thinking about the performance will cause you to feel a little bit nervous. If you practice deep breathing every time you experience that feeling, you are more likely to remember to breathe when it counts, and you also will have linked the feeling of nervousness with how to calm down.

Breathing also serves another purpose that is extremely important in dealing with performance anxiety: mindfulness.

When you practice mindfulness, you are practicing staying in the moment and not worrying about the future or ruminating on the past. When we feel anxious, it means we are worrying about something in the future. If your attention is entirely in the present moment, by definition you can't be anxious.

Mindfulness isn't something most people can just decide to do. Most of us need to practice it. Breathing helps focus your attention on the sensations of your breath. Many people also find that a meditation practice is extremely helpful in increasing the capacity for mindfulness. There are many free apps now with guided meditations (my favorite is called Insight Timer.).

The reason most of us feel so helpless to do anything about performance anxiety is that we haven't practiced the mental control we need to direct our attention when we're nervous. Meditation helps develop that mental control.

In addition to having a daily breathing and mindfulness practice, you should practice performing every day leading up to a concert or presentation. Play your recital or give your presentation to as many people as you can ahead of time. If you can't find anyone, do it for yourself, record it and then listen back. Make notes on what went well and what you still have to work on. That way, once you get to the actual performance, it feels much more familiar and less threatening.

Finally, read as much as you can about dealing with performance anxiety. What works for one person may not work for another, so find what works best for you. Here are some resources that have helped me:; and The Science of Stage Fright:

Books that I recommend include "Performance Success" by Don Greene;"Fight Your Fear and Win" by Don Greene;"The Art of Possibility" by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander;and "A Soprano on Her Head" by Eloise Ristad.

*People often point to beta blockers as a "magic bullet," but they're not. Beta blockers block the effects of adrenaline, but they do nothing to control the psychological symptoms of nervousness, which for many people are the most intrusive.

Photograph by Carlin Ma.