I’m gonna jump right in here because I have a lot of thoughts on this. I want to give you some bite-sized, delicious little tidbits that will hopefully help you to not only understand where I’m coming from, but also to reframe any kind of insecurities you may have in your performance. Any kind of performance applies here!
I do not remember getting nervous to perform before senior year of high school. I had been in music lessons for a long time at that point: ten years of piano lessons, three or 4 years of voice lessons, and four years of flute lessons. All of these lessons had annual recitals. I NEVER got nervous for a piano recital, for 9 whole years. My tenth studio piano recital was different.
I shouldn’t say I never got nervous. I mean, I did get nervous, but it was the kind of heightened-awareness nervous that actually makes you perform better. It was nothing near crippling anxiety, knees knocking, palms sweating, can’t speak or look anyone in the eye. (I should say that my hands are shaking as I write these words, and I’m just thinking about how nerves affected me. )
I remember senior year of high school being the tipping point in terms of my performance anxiety, because that was when I started to feel real pressure about the quality of my performances. I had made the decision to go to college for music, with flute being my primary instrument. If I was going to do this thing, I had to be good! I had to prove my worth! I had to get into a good school! I couldn’t let people down, not my parents, my flute teacher, my band directors– all of whom were completely supportive and never gave me any reason to feel like college auditions were worthy of life-or-death, fight-or-flight anxiety. Yet, there it was.
Me being my over-achieving, type-A personality self put an incredible amount of pressure on my abilities at the age of 17. I had always excelled at academics, and I desperately wanted my musical abilities to match or exceed my smarts. I knew I had some “talent” because I had received positive reinforcement from my various music teachers my whole life. But now, something I had loved and enjoyed for so long became an obstacle for the first time ever (more to come on that in a later post). I also remember this period being the first time in my life having really BIG self-doubting thoughts. “Sure I’m good, but what if I’m not good enough???” My dad had just bought me an expensive new instrument. “What if all that money ends up being for nothing???” A teacher had told me I wasn’t cut out for the music business. “What if they’re right???”
Despite the best intentions of my biological fight-or-flight response, I did manage to audition into a good music program– with a scholarship, no less. Think how relieved I was! Then, spring recital season came around. I had missed my flute studio recital because I was at an audition. There was still the spring piano studio recital, though.
I can’t even remember what I played! I can’t! For the studio piano recital my junior year of high school, I played the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 14, “Moonlight.” I included a video for reference because, as you’ll hear, it is no easy feat! Granted, I was a junior in high school, I wasn’t going to be a concert pianist, and it wasn’t nearly perfect. But I was not nervous for THAT performance! I was excited! But my anxiety about proving my salt as a flutist translated to my piano playing in the spring of 2011. I had worked myself into such a tizzy over a now-meaningless piano recital that I had gotten a cold, which of course was at it’s peak on the day of the performance. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking how pale I appeared that day. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to do it.
Things did not improve when I went to college. I was immediately a small fish in a big pond. I was frequently nervous for rehearsals and concerts, even when playing a small part. There will be an entire blog post about sophomore year and the pressures of the “petition to major,” or what other schools call the “barrier jury.”
Eventually, things began to change. I was performing often enough that I literally didn’t have the brain space to be nervous. I had gained back some confidence in my abilities. I was given more opportunities to play with the larger school ensembles, with students much older than me. These were all learning opportunities. I was feeling good about myself! I literally forgot to get nervous for anything.
That’s the thing, folks: when you feel good about yourself, when you’re grateful for the new opportunities you’re given, when you come to terms with the fact that no one cares about your performance as much as you do, you’re no longer fleeing the stimulus that gives you anxiety. You’re fighting for the opportunity to share your art. When you base your self-worth as an artist on how others judge your art, you are searching for external fulfillment and gratification. Performance anxiety all of a sudden takes a back seat when you turn inwards. You realize that you don’t need anyone else to tell you how great/terrible you sound because at the end of the day, you’re doing this because you love it. You’re doing this because you want to share that love with anyone who will listen. That love will warm up any anxiety in your playing until all anyone hears is love. Then, perhaps no one listening has any idea of the internal struggle you went through to get to that level of presentation. And perhaps you can help guide one of those unsuspecting listeners along their own path to anxiety-free performance.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, people! Thanks for reading to the end, and be on the lookout for another anxiety-related post soon!