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Balancing act: Youth performances teach stress management

Mariah Sam performs Dmitri Shostakovich's Concerto No.2 in F Major for Piano and Orchestra, op. 102 at the Salute to Youth Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011 at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City.
Mariah Sam performs Dmitri Shostakovich's Concerto No.2 in F Major for Piano and Orchestra, op. 102 at the Salute to Youth Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011 at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

About a month after I started my new job, I found myself standing outside of a conference room, waiting to give a presentation to my employer's executive committee.

My supervisor thought this presentation would give me the opportunity to introduce myself to the company's top leaders while also providing an update on my team's activities.

The meeting was running a little behind, so I had plenty of time to stand outside the door and think ... and get nervous. My hands grew cold, and I felt a tightening in my gut.

But then I took a deep breath and calmed myself down. Everything was going to be OK, I reasoned. After all, I had been in similar situations before, since a relatively young age, and I knew how to channel my nervousness into a positive energy that would carry me through the presentation.

I thought of that incident the other day as I watched each of my four children — my 7-year-old son and my 15-, 12- and 10-year-old daughters — play two memorized piano solos for a panel of three judges as part of an annual student competition.

This was the first year of judging for my son, while all of my daughters had previous experience. But as I observed them before they played, I noticed that all of them were dealing with the same feelings of anxiety I used to get before playing euphonium solos for high school band competitions.

(Yes, the euphonium is a real instrument. You can look it up.)

I talked to my kids after the piano competition to ask how they felt while they waited for their turns.

"I felt nervous," my son said. "I felt kind of scared, too, because I thought I wasn't going to be perfect, and it was my first time."

My youngest daughter said she was feeling pressure to get a "superior" rating so she could earn enough points to win her "30-point cup." And my second-oldest daughter said she wasn't nervous while waiting, but as she sat at the piano and got ready to start playing, the nervousness started to come.

My oldest echoed the feelings of her younger siblings. "Once we were there, right before I wasn't very nervous," she said. "But between songs, I got nervous."

I asked them whether their anxiety affected their performances, and three of them chimed in with specific instances where they felt it had.

"Sometimes during 'Whirlpools' I didn't have very good tone on the eighth notes," my youngest girl said. "I would hit the key, and it wouldn't make a sound. I might not have been pressing the keys enough."

"You know how I messed up on the first part of 'Dancing Drums'? That was because I was feeling a little bit nervous," my son said.

The only one who said nervousness didn't affect her performance was my second-oldest daughter, which is ironic, since she used to be so shy that the mere thought of performing in front of people left her practically paralyzed with fear.

All four said they felt relieved and excited once they were done playing, although I was interested to hear that they underestimated the final scores they would receive.

"I thought I would get 'satisfactory.' My dynamics were harder on that piano, and my second note didn't really sound," my oldest daughter said. "I've gotten 'superior' every year, so I thought, 'If I don't get superior this year, I'm a total failure!'"

I'm happy to report that all of them received "superior" ratings. (Please excuse that "proud parent" moment.) But even more important, I think, are the lessons they learned that will help them deal with their own waiting-outside-the-boardroom moments in the future.

"I think (the piano contest) is a good thing, because it helps you feel pressure and overcome pressure and nervousness and learn how to get through it," my second-oldest daughter said.

"Whenever I think about it, I get really nervous about the AP test (I'll be taking) at the end of the year," my oldest girl added. "Apparently I did well today, and I wasn't really thinking. I was just letting instinct and training take over.

"I think it will help me ... at the end of the year to just trust my training and my instincts."

They all talked about the importance of preparation, and that's another lesson that will serve them well as they enter the world of work.

"If you haven't practiced, you're in trouble," my youngest daughter said.

"But if you know your song, you're going to be fine," my second-oldest girl added.

Even my young son had words of advice that translate easily from a piano competition to the judging we sometimes face from our supervisors.

"You might be a little nervous on the piano," he said when asked what he would tell someone who was approaching his first competition. "They should just take a deep breath before they go up to the piano. And if they're nervous before the other song, take another deep breath."

My own experience helped me do exactly that as I stood outside that conference room. I took a deep breath, remembered my preparation and, when my turn came, walked in with confidence that I would do well.

I'm not sure my presentation that day would have earned a "superior," but I am still employed, so I guess it was at least "satisfactory."

Either way, I'm grateful for the opportunities I had as a young man to learn how to prepare for and deal with high-pressure situations. And I'm glad my own children are getting similar work-life lessons today.

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