RealTalk Dictionary: Performance Anxiety

Through the RealTalk Dictionary, Palaver members try to understand words that we often use, but that can sometimes seem to lack real meaning. Today’s installment is “performance anxiety”.

Performance Anxiety - (n.)

Here’s an introductory definition of anxiety that Dr. Noa Kageyama provided in a blog post titled “What is Performance Anxiety?”:

“a negative emotional state with feelings of nervousness, worry, and apprehension associated with activation or arousal of the body.”

Dr. Kageyama goes on to outline the 3 Components of Anxiety (physical, mental and emotional), the 2 Types of Anxiety (state and trait), and eventually a 3-pronged Strategy. If we want to understand what is happening to a person with performance anxiety, this is what we need. The science is logical.

Now, here is a rough transcript of my thoughts in the first 30 seconds of my masters recital:

“Okay. Here I am. Breath in, breath out. You can do this, really - just feel the music. Here we go - remember, slow bow. Now. Beautiful. (dontmessuptheshift)(DONTTHINKTHATJUSTNAILIT!) Noooooo... I really did not want that to happen - the audience knows I suck. God I hate this. Let’s get this over with.”

I suffer, and have suffered, from performance anxiety, and I can tell you now that it is awful. By the time of my masters recital, I no longer suffered from sweaty hands and uncontrollable shaking, but the mental “negative emotional state” was still very strong. I self-diagnosed about 6 months ago, after a conversation with my friend John Beder - director of the upcoming documentary “Composed” - which focuses specifically on the performance anxiety in the classical realm. Turns out, many many classical musicians have experienced performance anxiety, and many turn to prescription drugs to cope.

After I allowed myself to identify with performance anxiety, I started to wonder - why? Why do I refuse to play for friends and family? Why do I spend so much time wondering what my colleagues think of me? Why did I hate my recital so much? How did I get here?

As I thought about my education, I realized that my whole experience of becoming a musician was focused on learning skills. Each performer masters many hundreds of skills: learning to put your fingers in the right place to play an F, playing that F (by striking, plucking, bowing or blowing), playing that F in tune so that you match the F that other people are playing, etc.

One summer I was particularly proud of practicing a scale every day, holding each note for 20 seconds to improve strength and stability in my bow arm (...still proud of that skill!). But the rest of my time was spent thinking about things I could not do (I can’t play that note in tune, I can’t make that shift, I can’t play that phrase legato, I can’t play marcato accents). I began to believe that being able to hear and understand what I was not doing well was the key to my future success. Compiling an accurate and complete list of all the skills I lacked was a mark of my intelligence, my insight, my humbleness…

This was my downfall. My “critical listening” became an obsession with my own weaknesses. My practice sessions became unproductive and painful as my list of faults grew too long to address calmly in the allotted time. I listened to music - recorded performances or live concerts, to exercise my “critical listening”, which was actually an addiction to hearing other people's mistakes. In rehearsals, I used my “critical listening” to scoff internally when others made mistakes. In my solo performances, my “critical listening” turned into silently berating myself.

I had forgotten, and I was not alone in forgetting, that we do not call music a skill! When we learn music we must assess the skills required - but our audiences don’t attend our performances to appreciate a list of skills mastered. Music was not invented as a means of judging or comparing people. We listen to the radio in our cars, we dance at parties, and we go to concerts and we experience music. Our ancestors celebrated with music, worshipped with music, and mourned with music, because music is not hindered by words, and connects directly with the human spirit.

I had forgotten, and was not reminded, that my work was Art (capital A!) - and thus I was an Artist. My belief in what I was doing, the music I was making, the art I was creating, was just as important as my technical skill. If I believed in my artistry openly and honestly, I could connect more deeply with my audience. If I was stressed, the audience was stressed - and if I felt beauty, the audience felt beauty.

My experience of anxiety in performance came from a misunderstanding of what was important. And so, I’d like to offer a new, personalized definition of Performance Anxiety -

Stress and tension resulting from a deep seated belief that Skill is more important than Artistry, and the incessant and unnecessary negative thoughts resulting from that belief that get in the way of enjoying one’s work.

Maybe this definition won’t work for everyone, but if you are a classical musician, or someone who has suffered from any kind of anxiety, I would love to hear your thoughts - please do get in touch!

I believe that this is the time, here at the beginning of 2016, to bring more attention to the balance of Skill and Spirit. This new year, I invite you to join me in practicing Joy and Creativity in your work. Soon, that practice will turn into a Joyful and Creative presence wherever you go - and who knows what that kind of energy might spark.

Nate Martin

Bassist, Co-Artistic Director of Palaver Strings
natemartin88@gmail.com