A good question—and as someone who has battled with extreme performance anxiety I would like to say “Yes,” however personal experience as well as research shows otherwise.
I recently ran across a blog post (Kavbar’s Blog: Recital Retrieval) which does a very good job of explaining why we need to perform in order to learn. I will copy a lot of it word for word here just because there’s no point in restating what someone else has already adequately said!
The post is based on an informative article in The New York Times (January 20, 2011) entitled, “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test,” reporting on a study that is detailed online at the journal, Science.
“The gist of the study was this: Three groups of students were asked to read a passage of scientific information. One group re-read the material several times. Another group engaged in “concept mapping,” in which diagrams, lines, notes, color-coding, etc., are created to help organize one’s thoughts. The final group took a test on the reading material, to discover how much recall they had with what they had just read.
One week later, each of the three groups was tested on the initial passage. To everyone’s surprise, the final group (those who had been given a written test after the reading) did much better on the test–about 50% better. In other words, the relatively passive exercise of simply reading was not as effective, nor was the more active approach of creating a visual “map” to identify the conceptual relationships.
The study actually was a bit more involved than what I describe. The Times article includes comments from several scientists (some of whom were not involved in this study), on how the mind seems to re-organize material through testing, making it easier to access in the future. “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, a psychologist from Purdue. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”
For performers, I see several implications in this study. First and foremost, the activity of performing is itself a major piece of the learning/growing process. Every public performance is a means of learning and moving ahead. Those tests must not be mere “Look at me!” photo-op attempts to validate what has already been achieved. The artist must actively engage in each performance, so that retrieval can support the moving ahead/growing process.
Far too often, the immature student (even a chronologically-advanced artist!) seems to think that public performance is merely a vehicle to display accomplishment–an occasion to gain the approval of family, fellow students, the public, even God–eagerly depositing a dead mouse on the back doorstep to establish “top cat” status.
A primary benefit of performance is the strengthening of the performer’s relationship with the repertoire. That success empowers the next performance to be even more textured, more effective!”
In my own experience the results of this study are true. As an undergraduate performance major the only solo performances that were required were our juries (end of the quarter/semester evaluations) or our recitals (one at the end of our junior year, and one at the end of our senior year). This amounted to 3–4 solo performances a year, and since juries were only held for the faculty the only time we heard our peers perform were at recitals. While there were other opportunities to perform I rarely took advantage of these due to my extreme performance anxiety.
During my masters degree in performance I was introduced to the studio class, a bi-weekly meeting of the violin and viola students where we got together with our teacher and performed for one another. We would receive and give comments to each other and have the opportunity to perform the pieces we were currently working on. Our instructor made sure that we were all up and playing regularly, even if we weren’t quite polished yet. As much as I hated the days I had to perform, I gained an appreciation for the skills I gained through having to get up and play frequently in front of my fellow students. You got a good idea of what was going well and what wasn’t. It was often a humbling experience, but also proved to be a very rewarding one at times as well. I can’t say I learned to overcome my performance anxiety, but I did learn how to cope with it a tad better. Coming out of my masters degree I wished we had had the same requirements in my undergrad. I grew tremendously as a musician in the two years of my masters degree and I attribute a large portion of that growth to the time spent performing.
As a teacher I do not require my students to perform, but I do strongly encourage them to do so. I also offer a variety of opportunities so that they can choose what is most comfortable for them. Master Classes, Recitals, Church Performances and Competitions offer my students several different venues in which to work on their performing skills.
Happy performing to you all!