Performance Anxiety Meets My Three Non-Negotiable Decisions

I inherited my father’s gift for procrastination. In his mind, anything worth doing was worth putting off while he thought about all the reasons he didn’t want to do it, or didn’t have to do it, or what he wouldn’t like about doing it, or why he didn’t have to do it now.

To counteract my procrastination gene, I have to make decisions about what I am going to do that are totally non-negotiable. Those decisions are made, once and for all. I don’t need to waste time thinking about them. I don’t need to whine about not wanting to do them. I don’t need to debate whether or not I’m going to do them. The non-negotiable decisions are not open for further discussion – even if the discussion is entirely with myself, inside my own head.

The first non-negotiable decision is that I will walk my dog today. Whether it is raining or a beautiful sunny day, whether the temperature is a heavenly 70 degrees, a torrid 95, or a winter morning in the 20’s, I walk the dog. Despite snowstorms, heat waves and ozone alerts I walk the dog. Five minutes into the walk, I’m enjoying bird song, or the colors in the sky and trees, or the play of light and shadow on the sidewalk. I’m enjoying the pleasures of moving my body and feeling the pavement under my feet, and of seeing Charley relish our morning adventure.

I do give myself a pass on walking for lightning, for any form of ice falling from the sky, and for fever in either canine or human being. Being struck by lightning or hail stones, or falling on a street made slick by sleet or freezing rain is not required. Neither is crawling out of my sickbed when I am being colonized by the latest virus going around, or making Charley hit the streets if she is unwell.

The second non-negotiable decision is that I will practice harp today. I do not have to decide each morning if I am going to practice. The decision to show up on the harp bench and do the work is already made, whether I want to or feel like it, or not. Most mornings, after five minutes of warming up, I can’t imagine or remember why I thought I didn’t want to practice today. My reluctance drifts away with the sounds of the harp strings. My thoughts engage with the challenges of the tunes I’m learning, and I forget all the reasons why I didn’t want to practice.

If I am sick and unable to work, or if something is really hurting, I do take the day off to rest and recover. I’m not into making myself sicker or creating overuse injuries. But those days are rare.

Sometime between my dreadful first Audition and Evaluation performance in January and the second A&E performance a month later, I made a third non-negotiable decision: I am a musician, and I play music for others to listen to. I am going to perform.

With this decision made, it doesn’t matter if my hands shake or don’t shake. It doesn’t matter if I like how I feel performing or not. It doesn’t matter if I want to perform or not. I will do it. While the performance will be much more pleasant for me and for my audience if my hands can stay on the harp strings while I play, and if my demeanor exudes confidence and delight instead of dread, I will perform, either way.

I recognize that until I made this decision, I was not fully committed to slaying the performance anxiety dragon. After the harp ensemble concert last November, my first thoughts were, “I cannot stand how terrible I feel when I play in a concert. I cannot stand my racing heart, my nausea, my shaking hands, and my fear of being judged by all the people looking at me. I will quit the harp ensemble if this doesn’t get any better.”

On that Monday night, I forgot that my commitment to performing had to come first. I forgot this truth so eloquently written by Goethe:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.

Concerning acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:

That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred.

Last week I played in the end-of-the-semester Early Music Consort concert. Yesterday I played in the Introduction to Early Music Performance class concert. All sorts of things occurred that made me, for the first time, enjoy the process of playing in a concert. More about that in my next post.

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17 thoughts on “Performance Anxiety Meets My Three Non-Negotiable Decisions

  1. Good luck! As you probably know, the ‘nervous’ feeling is just your body adapting to the stress of performing. But indeed, it takes a lot of time to get used to it and to not to see it as an ‘enemy’ of good performance. Usually, people watching you playing won’t even be able to see that you are feeling terrible on the inside. As long as you keep on playing, they’ll only hear the beautiful harp music!
    Perhaps it’s also a bit about being in the moment with your music. It’s been a while since I last performed solo, but for me, the most stressful moment is the moment when I walk on stage, sit down behind my harp, just before playing the first few notes. After I started (if I’d prepared well…), I usually tuned out all of my nervous feelings and focused on the music. By the way, that also happens to me in real life – when I need to practise history taking skills on a simulation patient, I’m extremely nervous (shaking voice, trembling hands etc.) just before I start the conversation – and then, everything just flows as I focus on the person sitting in front of me. So perhaps it helps to focus on getting through these horrible few minutes/seconds and then allowing yourself to enjoy the playing, the sounds you create…

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    1. One of my strategies is to listen to and focus on the sound of my harp. Alas, often the adrenaline makes my hands shake so violently that there is no way for people not to see how I am feeling, not to mention making me unable to keep my fingers on the strings. The first five minutes are usually ok, then wham, there go the adrenal glands and the roller coaster takes off. But I’m finding that if I really focus on the sound, that blunts some of the adrenaline release. Strangely, I have no problem with public speaking, teaching, presenting workshops, or doing clinical interviews – but I think your focusing come more naturally to me in those situations, as I’ve done them my whole professional life.
      Thank you so much for your positive take on my performing future and for your support.

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  2. I am glad you are starting to enjoy performing! It takes lots of getting used to, but eventually you may even find that the adrenaline helps you to perform better than you otherwise would! People often perform best under pressure.

    I’d like to make on of my non-negotiables ‘I will practice before lunchtime’. When I practice early in the day I feel much fresher and more motivated to go on and do more in the afternoon. If however, I leave it til later in the day I get less and less in the mood to play. So I’m going to try and stick to that! Good on you for practising every day!

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    1. It is quite a journey, this getting used to performing, but I’m hopeful that it will continue to get easier. I look forward to the time when adrenaline will help me perform better instead of make me incapable of keeping my fingers on the harp strings.

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  3. Hurray, Janet! I am so happy I get to play in the group with you next Tuesday. All this work you’re doing will pay off, and eventually during a performance you will be able to concentrate on the music and not your nerves! I think it’s already happening…

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    1. I think it’s happening – I actually enjoyed doing the Consort concert. That’s a first! And I’m looking forward to Tuesday’s concert, instead of having the growing pit of dread in my stomach. I’m glad we’ll be playing together again, too.

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  4. I love your take on procrastination as I too am a good one for that. I like that you make practice non negotiable. Good for you and I will adopt that attitude!! And as another post of your’s mentioned….make it the priority, otherwise I find too many other “shoulds” will get in the way! I don’t know that I will ever perform (never say never) but I admire your determination and commitment to do so. I don’t know if you are still checking in on the VHC, but Laurie Riley posted a link to her new blog. Good article to read!!

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    1. Thank you Nanci! I can’t imagine (yet) posting a video of me playing harp on You-Tube like you did. With a performance, it’s one go and it’s over, and people will forget it. With a video they can watch (and see my mistakes) again and again! I saw the blog announcement on VHC but I’ve not read it yet. Thanks for the heads up!

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      1. I can understand that reluctance to put up a video, however a live performance would make me a nervous wreck. And I don’t know who is critiquing me when they watch on YouTube anyway…so let them. I do think it helps when we share that we are on the journey….

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      2. I did not consider the delightful factor of being anonymous while performing. They can’t see me as I’m playing, and I can’t see them watching me. Might have to reconsider the video possibilities!

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  5. I am inspired by your devotion and courage to your music…and by your anti-procrastination. I bet you sound great. Your spirit shines through you know, and your spirit is very bright. 🙂

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