Staring Down Performance Anxiety, and Winning A Skirmish

I haven’t had to think about the shaking hands and racing heart that seems to be part and parcel of my playing for others since my final December performance. And I’ve been happy to put the whole topic of performing and its accompanying anxieties aside.

By the end of December, I was thoroughly tired of the drama of what would happen when I performed. It finally hit me that whether I play or don’t play – it just doesn’t matter. Either my hands shake and I fall off the strings, or they don’t – that doesn’t matter either. World peace does not depend on my playing my harp in front of others. The earth will keep turning on its axis either way.  Twenty minutes after I’ve finished, or even sooner, no one will be thinking about what I played or how well I played it, no one will remember whether I screwed up or was spot on. Everyone who was in the audience will by that time be engrossed in their very own personal dramas.

My steadfast refusal to think about performing enabled me to keep my teacher’s pronouncement that I should play Nocturne for next Monday’s harp ensemble off of my current list of anxieties. My work on the piece has gone well, the tune is solidly in my fingers, my phrasing and dynamics are turning the piece into real music. And February 28th has seemed a long way away. . . .

Until my lesson this past Monday. I was working on refining a crescendo in one of the final measures when my teacher invited her next student into the practice room. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said all too cheerfully, “Now we can be the audience while Janet plays her piece.”

Maybe it was the suddenness of it, and the total lack of time to think about performing. Maybe it was that I’d spent the last 30 minutes working on the piece. Maybe it was my telling myself at that moment, “These people are my friends. They’re on my side and they want me to be successful.” Whatever it was, I took a deep breath, exhaled as my hands plucked the first strings, and played.

There was none of my typical internal performance-chatter, whose sole purpose seems to be to derail me while I am playing.  The things I did say to myself were positive and encouraging. I made a couple of mistakes but kept playing and thought, “You’re ok, just keep going. You know this piece.”

Somehow I could focus on and hear the music I was making as I was playing, while also hearing the music in my head the way I wanted it to sound, just a nano-second before I played it. It was bizarre, this internal hearing what I wanted a note to sound like, while also hearing what my hands had just played. Perhaps this is what left no room for the usual monkey-mind performance-chatter. But it worked. I played the whole piece without shaking hands or a racing heart.

My teacher said that she heard some lovely music making, and that I played with confidence. Amazingly, I felt confident. I felt strong, and capable. I felt as though I had slipped inside some invisible armor that protected me against self-doubt and fear. This so-very-different experience is a new template for how I can feel in my body while I am performing, one that I hope I will be able to find and use again. This template contains the possibility that performing could be something to be enjoyed instead of something to be dreaded. And the existence of that possibility is such a gift; a gift I doubted that I would ever receive.

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4 thoughts on “Staring Down Performance Anxiety, and Winning A Skirmish

  1. I have been reading your blog with great interest, and finding inspiration for my own playing in your description of your (seemingly) tireless practice techniques. It sounds like they are paying off for you — congratulations on a successful Nocturne!

    I will be playing “background music” for my aunt’s 95th birthday party this weekend, along with my partner who plays recorder, and I don’t think I’ve worked so hard at the harp before! I borrowed your idea of practicing in the morning, and played for half-an-hour before work yesterday; Sheep May Safely Graze was in my head all day at work. Now if only it’s in my fingers on Saturday!

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    1. Good luck with your birthday party gig! For me, those background music/ audio wallpaper gigs are the best – the “audience” has other things on their minds and other things to do besides stare at me, which keeps a good bit of my anxiety at bay. Thanks so much for reading my blog. I like hearing that my attempts at figuring out this practice business is helpful to other harperists.

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  2. Great description of our inner struggles while performing! I have been in the same situations, and agree with you, that learning to focus attention on positive thoughts is so crucial, and be “in the moment”. So tricky sometimes!

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    1. And so very elusive sometimes- just because my focus is good one day, there’s no promise that I can do it the next time I play. I hope this is another area where practice will increase ability. Thanks for commenting. Janet

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