I’ve been dancing with performance anxiety for a while now, particularly when I’m playing harp in a concert situation. The pounding heart, clenched stomach, shaking hands and tight chest I endured at the last harp ensemble concert was so painful that I seriously considered giving up playing with the group in order to avoid any future concerts.
But when I started writing my intentions for this year, the words “develop ease and comfort with performing” flowed out of my pen. My wiser self was not going to give up so easily. And as I considered what I would work on in this semester’s harp lessons, “practice performing” ended up on my harp goals list.
I’d not discussed any of this with my teacher. Little matter – she began my first lesson this semester saying, “I think you should do the Harp Society Audition and Evaluation this year.” The Audition and Evaluation happens every spring, yet my teacher never suggested that I participate in all the years I’ve been taking lessons. Apparently writing “practice performing” in my harp goals activated her hidden psychic powers. What could I do but agree to go through with exactly what I had asked for with my intentions and my harp goals.
The Audition and Evaluation is a national activity of the American Harp Society, sponsored here by our local chapter of the AHS. A student plays two pieces for an evaluator and a small audience of students and their parents, and receives feedback from the evaluator. The student then has a month to work on the two pieces, and ready a third piece for performance. Four weeks later the student plays again, having hopefully improved the performance of the pieces.
My initial performance did not go well. “Quaking like an aspen leaf” would be the best description of my attempt to play Susann McDonald’s Little Prelude and Marcel Grandjany’s Reverie. I made it to the end of both pieces, after stopping in the middle of my first piece to breathe. The evaluator was kind. I told him that I was doing the A&E to work on performance anxiety, and he assured me that playing that day was exactly what I needed to do. I’m not sure when my hands became calm enough to land on and truly pluck the harp strings, but he wrote on my evaluation sheet, “You play beautifully.”
I worked intensely this past month to make playing beautifully become a reality at my second performance. I played the A&E tunes in my lessons. My teacher coached me to feel the strings under my fingers and listen to the sound of my harp instead of being distracted by the monkey-mind chatter in my head. I practiced performing the tunes before each week’s group harp technique class. I played Scottish tunes for a summer music camp scholarship audition, just to have another performance practice opportunity. I practiced progressive relaxation, the Sarnoff Squeeze, and yoga postures and breathing to lessen the effects of my over-supply of adrenalin. I worked with a therapist using EMDR to desensitize me to performance situations past and present.
At one of my last lessons, my teacher told me to play my tunes as though I was going to slay the dragon – to not worry about over-playing or sounding beautiful, but to dig in and play with gusto, without care for how musical I sounded. And when I was finished, she said it was wonderful, that I’d engaged her with these tunes that she’s heard a thousand times, that they were musical without me trying to “make” them musical. The music was inside my playing without my trying to put it there. Freeing myself to play the tunes, slaying the dragon, let the music emerge.
Yesterday was day two of the Audition and Evaluation. I sat at my harp, feeling the warmth of my hands, and took a deep breath. As I lifted my hands to the harp I thought, “Slay the dragon!” and began to play.
I knew I would only freak myself out if I defined success as playing without shaking. Whether I shake or not is still beyond my ability to control. Instead, I decided that if I showed up, played all the way through my pieces without taking my hands off the harp, stayed present with the sound and music instead of going into hyper-alert sensory overload, and controlled any shaking enough to be able to still play, I’d call the morning a success.
And it was.