Reclaim the Stage: Conquering Performance Anxiety – Part One: Fear and Perfectionism

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Photo: Lee Adlaf (Creative Commons/Flickr)

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 wont 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.

“Baby Buggy Boogie-Woogie” Featured on WYSO Public Radio Program and Podcast “Conrad’s Corner”

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Photo: Patrick Breitenbach/Creative Commons/Flickr

Reading a poem is one thing, hearing a poet read his or her poetry can be quite another.

We live in an exciting time, when audio recording technology, radio, and the Internet allow our voices to be in many different places at once. Although poetry as a performance art has been around since cavemen acted poems out to their families. Now, radio and podcasting allow poetry to be everywhere at the touch of a button.

I was thrilled to have my poem “Baby Buggy Boogie-Woogie (Homage to Piet Modrian)” featured recently on Conrad’s Corner, a production of the NPR affiliate WYSO, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Thank you, host Conrad Balliet, for featuring my poetry on your program.  And thank you, Third Wednesday magazine, for first publishing the poem last spring in Vol. IX, No. 2 of your journal. Listen here to my reading of “Baby Buggy Boogie-Woogie” on the Conrad’s Corner podcast.

As the poem’s title suggests, I took inspiration for “Baby Buggy Boogie-Woogie (Homage to Piet Mondrian)” from Mondrian’s famous 1942 painting Broadway Boogie-Woogie, which shows red, yellow, and blue squares bebopping along in a New York City street grid pattern.

I thought it could be nifty to juxtapose the jazzy urban energy of Mondrian’s painting to the realm of suburban busy-ness. The more specific image of a suburban mom pushing her baby in a buggy while taking her power walk came to mind. I wanted to capture the jazzy feel of Mondrian’s painting and so relied on my ear to create syncopations in the rhythm of the language and to make the surface sound of the language crackle with alliteration and assonance. I also coined a couple new words (“mothersome,” “babyescent”) to give the poem a whimsical feel. The result is a poem whose music lends itself well to being heard read aloud.

I hope you enjoy the poem and the podcast. Drop me a line and let me know.

Meet My Inner Voices

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Photo: Jennifer Hambrick

There are a lot of voices out there. The voices of Madison Avenue hucksters hawking the Next Big Thing. The voices of politicians doling out demagoguery left, right, and (rarely) center. The voice of your mother. Your father. Your older brother, who once shaved your eyebrows off while you were asleep. Sister Mary Margaret, your fourth grade math teacher, who, because of your lousy recitation of the multiplication tables, told you you’d never amount to much. Your boss. Your yoga instructor. Your spouse.

Some of these voices are for the helpful (imagine the vocal effervescence of Glenda the Good witch), but some are not. The sum total of all of them is a certain cacophony that threatens to paint over your own voice, to mow down what you think you need to say.

As a musician, poet, and broadcaster, my own voice – metaphorically and literally understood – has found many ways to make its presence known. Like all writers, I am sensitive to the figurative notion of authorial “voice,” the special way a writer makes words foxtrot across the page or screen. As a singer and broadcaster, I pay great attention to the voice as a literal thing – a body part to take care of an instrument to master – in my daily work.

In naming this blog Inner Voices, I am honoring the special resonance of voice broadly construed and borrowing from musical lingo, which is so beguilingly expressive. In musical parlance, an inner voice is a line of music that is neither the melody line nor the bass line, but rather a line buried, as it were, in the middle of the texture.

Far from serving as merely a supporting actor, an inner voice gives a musical work depth, richness, and texture. Good performers will always know when and how much to bring an inner voice to the fore. And when an inner voice has its moment in the sun, magic can happen.

Here, on this website, I bring forth the inner voices of my own life as a poet, writer, singer, broadcaster, and voice talent to share with you. I hope you will feel free to make your voice heard, too, and drop me a line now and then. But please be sure to speak up, so we all can hear you above the din.