Fear- Performance Anxiety

The word itself creates a certain uneasiness, a topic that is best left for Halloween and Jamie Lee Curtis. Most of us would rather not talk about our fears, and yet, to deny we have them is to deny our own humanity.  A healthy dose of fear is a good thing, is it not? We all need to know our limits, what is safe for us, what is not. Fire burns, and heights can be scary, for gravity is a physical law that only aliens have mastered. (they are here, you mark my words!) So fear isn’t really good or bad.

It’s a heightened state of awareness, that surely serves us well in certain instances. In other situations, perhaps not.

I want to talk about the kind of fear we might experience as performers. Stage fright, a bad choice of phrase I think. I’ve been on a few stages when they are empty, and wasn’t the least bit scared. So maybe we should call it Audience Fright, for surely that’s what the issue is, not the actual stage. Performance anxiety. What is the real concern? Why the “fear”?

Isn’t it tied up in our concern over being good enough, not screwing up?

And what does that mean, because often my feeling about a performance is not at all what I hear later from someone in the audience. So much of the concern is what we tell ourselves, before, during and after a performance. Fear could provide the incentive to prepare, which is good, right? But what if we are so worried, we practice too much, and leave our chops tired, not healthy enough to actually do our best. Or so concerned that we can’t sleep, can’t eat? Surely this is not in our best interest.

So let’s take a second and try to take the label, fear, and rename the feeling. Isn’t that what it really is, what we feel and experience in certain moments of life?

When I got married, I was shaking like a leaf! It was a “big” moment. Big moments in life, certainly a heightened experience. Roller coasters, watching your team play a big game, weddings, lots of big moments in life. Recitals fall into that category, I’d say. But if you close your eyes, and try to recall any such moment, what is the actual feeling? Faster heart rate, dry mouth, sweaty palms, a funny feeling in your stomach. But those can happen when you watch a big game, or wait in line for the ride at Disney. Are all those situations fear based? Is a better word, perhaps, excitement? Would we really want to live a life without those moments?

In some cases, we actually search them out, wait in line for them. Escape rooms are a thing, but why would we actually pay for that experience? What we want is a “safe” way to be excited, perhaps. But lets go back to a  big performance. Are we afraid because we aren’t safe? Whats going on here? What are we telling ourselves in this moment? We have certain feelings, there is no doubt, but we attach the label fear to them, right? What if we said instead of, I get afraid to play in these heightened moments, we said they are exciting? Does that label change our relationship to these moments? Maybe, I guess you’d have to see if it makes a difference. You may still have sweaty palms, but it feels different now. Maybe you can realize, it’s not life or death, chill out! It’s just a concert, and no one is gonna get hurt. Driving a bus through a crowded city, performing surgery, fighting a forest fire, now that’s quite different! We’re just playing trombone. We aren’t unsafe. No real danger.

So ok, I have these feelings, and they won’t give me any permanent damage. So what if I “mess up”? I do my best, and rest confidently in the knowledge, that’s all anyone can ever do. I think we all have a gift, and it’s my opinion that not everyone got the same skill set at birth. (stand next to LeBron James, tell me we all got the same tools!) So you do your best, every day. Try not to look around at others, and measure yourself by their standards. If you played your best, wasn’t that the real goal? I’ve left the stage feeling unimpressed with myself, only to have someone from the audience highly praise the same performance. Our perspective is often the most harsh. Prepare, try your best every time, practice like it’s the performance, and let it go. Great, awful, or in between, you did your best. Was there something else you were supposed to be able to do? If you never got the high D in Zarathustra more than half the time in the practice room, were you rolling the dice that you’d get lucky this time? Casinos make a tidy living off folks that think they’re gonna get lucky.

So relax, you’re not a bus driver. You just play music. Few have been harmed while playing or listening to music. Do your best, let it go. You can do no more. And try to enjoy it. It’s a gift to play music. When you tell folks you’re a musician, aren’t they almost aways impressed? It’s an honorable craft. It’s not easy, it takes some amount of talent, and dedication. If you think about it, you add to the world in a very special way, you’re adding your gift, adding beauty.

Do you compare trees in the forest? Which is the best? Aren’t they all wonderful, regardless of what they look like? What amazing things are trees! They stand against the sun, rain, snow, and provide shade, oxygen, and beauty, all for free. For whatever reason, they exist. I wonder, if you could “hear a trees’ thoughts” would they be thinking, “Hey, that tree is taller, greener, I like that hillside better, why wasn’t I planted over there? I should have been a fir, not a pine tree!” Somehow, I see trees as less judgmental. Maybe it’s just me.

So bloom where you’re planted, do your best, relax, enjoy it. The most famous trombonist in the world can walk down the street and be anonymous to 99% of folks. It’s just music. That feeling you have when you play, you can decide what to label it. And would you really rather go through life without ever having those feelings? Now that sounds a bit boring, to me. Oh no, there I go again, putting a label on a feeling! Maybe I could call it something else…like solitude, or even serenity.

And if all else fails, remember what someone said long ago…this too shall pass. And oh yeah, don’t forget to breathe! There’s still plenty of free oxygen, thanks to those gorgeous, amazing, non judgmental trees.

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