Recently, I gave a performance of a few opera arias with David Thomas, the principal clarinetist with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, and pianist Orlay Alonso, piano faculty at Capital University and half of the Alonso Brothers Piano Duo. You can listen to our performances in the unedited audio files below.
The fact of this performance is, in itself, not really news. But what is potentially of enough value to be shared, is what I learned from giving this performance about dealing with performance anxiety.
The stage can be a cold and lonely place when you know you have it in you to perform well, but can’t manage to get the best of yourself out before an audience. I know this feeling well. And while I make no claim to be any sort of expert in managing performance anxiety, I do claim to be an expert in my own experience with performance anxiety. Hopefully, sharing what I’ve learned about why debilitating performance anxiety happens and how to deal with it can be of help to you and others.
I’ll cover various topics related to performance anxiety in a series of posts published over the next several weeks. In this installment, I take a hard look at the roles of fear and its demon spawn, perfectionism.
Fear: Acknowledge It. Then Request That It Kindly Go to Hell.
It’s my belief, though not mine alone, that performance anxiety has its roots in fear, and often some kind of extremely deeply rooted fear that goes way, way back to our childhoods. I’m by no stretch a psychologist, but common sense dictates that it’s important to look those fears straight in the eye and deal with them. Some seek the guidance of a licensed psychologist for this, others choose not to. But if you’re going to open the Pandora’s Box of your psyche, then be prepared for something strange and probably hairy to fly out at you. And if being “prepared” means that you enlist the use of someone’s professional chops to supplement your own moxie, then that’s what you do.
In the sense that fears are realities in our nervous systems and in our lives, all fears, especially deeply rooted ones, are legitimate. When we’re kids, we develop all kinds of fears because we have few, if any, emotional and intellectual resources to deal with the various and sundry thing about the world that we don’t understand.
Sometimes fears developed in childhood become patterns of belief, habits formed (maybe in an effort to give the rational mind some “reason” why a deep emotional wounds have happened) that we hold onto as we age and even take with us into adulthood.
Here’s a common narrative among creative types, including performers like musicians, dancers, and actors: You were a shy, quiet kid and not exactly Mr. or Miss Popularity with the kids at school. You grew up thinking that people don’t like you. And even though you’re now an adult with a spouse or significant other, with a family, with friends, with good professional relationships, there might still be this little voice that taunts to you in, as Yeats called it, the deep heart’s core: “People don’t like you. They don’t like what you do.”
Imagine trying to step out onstage and dazzle a crowd of people when you’re carrying with you the idea – the fear from long ago – that people don’t like you.
That’s just one specific example. But if I had to guess why so many well-trained musicians and other types of performers are completely derailed by performance anxiety, I might guess that they haven’t ventured down the rabbit hole of their own psyches and debunked the myth that they can’t be appreciated just as themselves, without having to earn affirmation by performing, like a trained monkey, tremendous feats of derring-do.
Perfectionism: That’s Kind of Unreasonable, Don’t You Think?
Anyone who performs in any sense – including giving musical performances, dancing, delivering speeches, litigating in court, speaking up at a staff meeting at work, etc. – knows that it takes a phenomenal level of skill to “wow” an audience.
So if you’re a musician, achieving this “wow” standard can, if left unchecked, result in the compulsion to spend insane amounts of time in the practice room. If you’re a dancer, you might train yourself to the point of physical breakdown.
This kind of drive to perfection can also result in a debilitating sense that, unless you deliver a “wow” performance every time, you’ll never be able to hack it, whatever “it” may be.
Let’s look at why you believe you must deliver only “wow” performances. Let’s say you were the kid who decided to believe early on that no one liked you, and then discovered that when you played the trombone well, or danced well, or did a great job in the school play, people actually clapped for you.
See the connection? You’re trying to overcome the myth of your own social inadequacy by way of performance success. Essentially, you’re trying to succeed your way into being loved. Only for a little while will you be able to trick yourself into thinking that you’re getting what you need. But applause for a good performance does not equal the kind of genuine appreciation and respect – love, really – that the inaccurate tiny voice within you is telling you you’re not getting and won’t get. Eventually this approach will completely break down until you deal with the limiting belief at the root of your compulsion.
Musicians, dancers, and others in ridiculously competitive creative fields frequently say (and believe) that they must deliver “wow” performances every single time because there’s always someone waiting in the wings to step into their spotlight. If the only thing you consider is the numbers game involved in any competitive field, that well may be true.
But equally true is this: You have the right to decide how and with whom you do your business. Surround yourself with collaborators who will respect what you bring to an enterprise – your skill, your artistry, and most importantly, your human dignity. People who respect your personhood won’t subtly or not so subtly guilt or threaten you into burning yourself out or working yourself to the point of physical injury or emotional harm.
Seek out supportive colleagues who have a desire to work only in the realm of positivity. Mentor each other to be the best you can be. Let the joy that comes from working in that kind of creative freedom exude through your performance and infect your audience. That’s a “wow” performance.
Many years ago I spoke with a sports psychologist who had worked with one of the U.S. Olympic ski teams. The team had convened for training, and the psychologist asked them to watch videos of several downhill ski runs skied by other elite athletes on the international circuit. He then asked the skiers to critique what they saw. Not one of the assembled skiers saw a single “perfect” run among the batch of videos, among the elite skiers who had won many major international events year after year, and whose game they were trying to best.
The moral to this story: Be reasonable with yourself. If the thrill of chasing unicorns really does do something positive for you to help make you the very best version of yourself that you can be, then persist in your drive for global musical/dancing/public speaking domination. But if trying to give the perfect performance every single time is turning you into a frustrated, neurotic mess and getting in the way of your being able to deliver solid performances that are representative of your abilities and that you enjoy giving, then please, for the love of God, stop it.
The perfect is the enemy of the good, of the very good, and certainly of the excellent.
Next week we’ll talk about asking permission, something a happy performer never, ever does.