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20. I suffer from performance anxiety, or what most people simply call "getting nervous" when I play in front of people. What can I do about this?
Getting nervous when you play is something which affects many performers, whether they be musicians, actors, dancers or others who participate in performance art. What is now called "performance anxiety" has become a big industry in the performance world with many competing views on how to address and solve the problem. Here are a few thoughts of my own on the subject.
It is probably a truism that nearly every performer of a musical instrument who has stood up in front of an audience and played has experienced some degree of what they would call performance anxiety, or what used to be called simply, "getting nervous." For many, the feeling of anticipation and excitement before and during performance is not really anxiety at all, but is no more than a tingling feeling which leads to a higher sense of involvement with the audience. This feeling can often be attributed to a release of an above normal amount of adreneline into the system which creates part of the "rush" one can get during performance. For others, performance anxiety is a truly debilitating force which can have physical manifestations including visible shaking, dry mouth and an inability to play up to a person's personal standard.
For many years I've given masterclasses on the subject of performance anxiety. It always puzzles me when I'm asked to do so since I am one of those people who has never experienced a debilitating kind of nervousness. But, I am told, that is precisely why people want to hear my story and they want to work with me on the issue - they seem convinced that if I can tell them what I do, they will be able to replicate it and have anxiety free performance themselves.
While I'm always happy to try to help, the fact is that it doesn't work that way. We are all individuals who react to stress in our lives in different ways. It is all well and good to pass on my own personal experience to someone, but nobody can replicate my experience in their life. We are all a product of a unique genetic makeup and have each had a variety of personal experiences which go together to make us who we are. When we chose to be musicians, something inside of us said "You HAVE to do this" (some will say they didn't choose music, but rather that music chose them). And so we do it. But for some, "doing it" is something which doesn't feel good. What to do about it?
First, let me relate a few things about myself and how I believe I came to the place where I am today regarding performance anxiety. I began playing the trombone when I was nine years old, in the fourth grade. I actually wanted to play the trumpet, but by the time my band director got around to those of us whose last name began with "Y," the trumpets were all gone and a trombone was put into my hand. I wasn't very happy about that development - that is until I got home and put the trombone together and out came that first blast of a sound. I was hooked.
Like most young players, I didn't have a private teacher (in fact, I had only one private lesson before going to college); I took group lessons with other trombone players while in elementary school. But my mother was a pianist and church organist, and after a few months of playing the trombone, my mother asked me to play with her in church. I don't remember much about the experience except to say that most likely I didn't sound very good since I was so young and inexperienced, but I have a very strong memory about the response of people after I played. I stood next to my mother at the organ console, playing with her in church as I did at home where she played the piano with me. Playing with her in church was comfortable as playing with her at home was comfortable - it was a "safe" environment. After I would play in church, many people in the church (usually "little old ladies") would come up to me to say how lovely my playing was. OK, they were probably lying, but they wanted to encourage me. And encourage me they did! With positive reinforcement, I wanted to do it again, and again, and again. With my mother playing with me, it was very natural, easy and comfortable.
I confess I never particularly thought about the people in the audience/congregation who were listening to me. I never thought, "Oh no, what if they don't like what I'm going to play? What if I make a mistake?" or any of the other common thoughts which often defeat us before we even put the horn to our lips. I just stood next to my mother and played the trombone. I was not encumbered with any baggage about the trombone or performance. It was all new to me. Like the Nike ad we have all seen many times, my thought was simply, "Just do it."
And that is very much what I do today. I look back on my early experience as a young soloist and think that it had something to do with the confidence I have today when I perform. I always enjoyed playing and performing, and have always felt a "rush" of excitement and the thrill of something a little "on the edge" when I have played in public. So it is today, as it was when I was nine years old.
Now, for most people reading this, you can't turn back the clock and begin to play all over again. We are all stuck with baggage which we have accumulated over the years. But here are a few things you might try as you evaluate your own degree of performance anxiety.
With all of these things in mind, each person will work to eliminate things which become part of an overlay of tension and stress which can negatively impact performance. Recapturing the hilarity and joy of making music in a comfortable, natural way can only be done from a position of comfort and safety, and my experience has shown that can come most significantly from a vibrant, secure and meaningful spiritual life. My Christian faith gives meaning and context to my life, and my relationship with God informs my worldview on everything, including my music making and performing. In my article on taking professional symphony orchestra auditions, I speak about how when I took auditions (and today, when I perform), I found great peace and comfort between rounds by reading the Bible, particularly the book of Psalms. This is not a kind of "last minute, desperate, foxhole" kind of faith, but a natural extension of my ongoing relationship with God (the story of my musico-spiritual journey can be found in my article The Puzzle Of Our Lives). Many others I know who have a deep, abiding faith, testify to this same kind of peace which affects not only their performance life, but every aspect of their life.
As I mentioned earlier, there is quite a large "industry" which addresses the issue of performance anxiety. A search on Google with the words "performance anxiety", will bring up hundreds of thousands of website links on the subject, including books, articles and other resources. Some of them may be helpful, others may be confusing, some may actually be harmful. Two resources which I read many years ago and provided a piece of the puzzle and a bit of insight into this subject are The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey and Zen In The Art Of Archery by Eugen Herrigel (both are available from book sellers including amazon.com). Both books give insight on the process of thinking clearly, focusing on a task at hand and relating ourselves to performance. But neither book has "the answer" on how to eliminate performance anxiety. They give tips, suggestions, ideas and personal stories and anecdotes. But nobody else can solve this for you. In the end, how you react to performing is something you must solve yourself.
And that is the hard thing. We live in a time which often looks for easy solutions for complex problems. There are those who try to solve performance anxiety by taking Beta-blocking drugs such as Inderol (also sometimes spelled Inderal). Such a treatment may indeed be helpful, but in the end it doesn't really solve the problem; it simply masks it. Above, I've outlined some of my thinking about how it is that I approach performance and some questions and techniques others might find helpful as they try to unravel their own particular performance psyche. At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I believe that if you are meant to be a performer, you will be able to perform without debilitating anxiety. The "peace which passes understanding" is something which affects our whole life and it is something which can be found without drugs, hypnosis or psychological or psychiatric intervention. Such things may be helpful to some people but at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves: "If I am suffering so much, why am I doing this?"
That is a hard question. But it is one some will have to ask. I can't answer it for you. Only YOU can answer it for you.
Playing the trombone (or any instrument) and making music is a remarkable and wonderful thing. Many people have talent on a musical instrument, but not all who have talent will be able to succeed as performers. This is true about anything - working in business, public speaking, sports, teaching, etc. Having the desire to do something is not enough to do it well. You must have the tools to do the job well, too. And there is no denying that in order to do the job of playing the trombone well in performance, one of the tools one must have is the ability to play in front of people without debilitating nervousness. At the end of the day, if performance anxiety prevents you from playing your best in front of people and you do not seem to be able to conquer it, it may be necessary to ask yourself if playing the trombone in performance is really for you. Playing the trombone should be enjoyable, fun, relaxed, easy, meaningful and personal. At the same time it also can (and often should) be intense, passionate and soul-searching. Taking the pressure of "perfection" off yourself and instead putting on the hilarious joy of playing can be a big step toward getting a grip on nervousness and recapturing (or capturing for the first time) the love of the trombone and music making.
Think about all of this in a different way. Instead of trying to solve the problem of performance anxiety, think a little deeper and work toward putting your performance in context with your broader life. Performance anxiety may not really be a problem, but rather may be a symptom of other issues (such as insecurity, or emotional hurt, lack of preparation and dedication, etc.) which, once addressed in a straightforward, direct way, can lead to a healthier life in all areas. Don't assume getting nervous is "the way things have to be." You may be very surprised with what happens when you have a good, long, honest conversation with yourself about your life. It just might be the first step on a journey which will lead not only to reduced performance anxiety, but to a more balanced, relaxed and productive life as a whole.
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