Performance Anxiety

How did I get into this? As a kid that was the inevitable question of concert day. I still ask it now and again. One of my colleagues, to be heard on violin with your Musical Patriot at the organ on All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London will often acknowledge his own anxiety before a gig by reminding himself that being nervous is better than being bored. But I’m not always so sure.

Growing up you practiced for weeks on the piece or program you had to play. Countless hours were spent building up fundamentals of technique. Your teacher assured you that your (or perhaps her) interpretations were finely tuned. You ran the repertoire countless times at performance tempo. You then slowed things down to glacial pace so that the fingers had time to doubt their next step. Wherever they faltered, you drilled the spot again ten times. You played the piece in sections out of order so that in case of momentary setback the forces could be regrouped quickly rather than routed.

These and many more training exercises helped one to resist the natural inclination to throw down the flag in the heat of battle and run for your life, leaving Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms face down in the mud behind you.

On concert day things were—and are—always worse before the performance than during it.

When I was a teenager my teacher enrolled me several times in an annual piano competition for a small scholarship sponsored by the leading Seattle piano dealer. The event was always held on a Saturday afternoon. My organ lessons happened on Saturday mornings, so that when the day of the piano contest rolled around I always had several hours to kill. I would wander around downtown Seattle for a what seemed like unbridgeable expanses of time, then at least seek refuge in the old public library where I would sit miserably in a carrel, imagining I was at a piano and running my pieces through in my mind. I don’t know if that mental exercise, which could as easily sew doubt as build up confidence, helped me in performance, though I can’t recall now any major crashes. Perhaps that rosy picture is itself a service that the brain provides, letting all, or at least most, of the botched bits, embarrassments, and disappointments slip from memory.

During the seemingly endless hours of waiting before the performance, time slowed down so much it seemed not to be moving forward at all. Aside from these agonizing stretches in the library, the nerve-racked me liked to keep moving. Even though I’ve stopped getting too nervous, if only because I’m usually too busy for it, I still prefer to walk to a concert that I’m playing. If the venue is too far to reach on foot, I always try to take the air just beforehand, rain or shine.

After accepting my fate and going ahead with the performance rather than taking to my heels, I usually experience a hugely heightened sense of awareness—stand and fight, rather than fright and flight. I seem to hover outside myself, watching and listening as the music unfolds as if in slow motion. It is exhilarating and dangerous to cling for too long to that feeling because you risk drifting too far from yourself. When that happens, things can go badly wrong very quickly. For me, it’s best to be slightly detached but still crisply engaged, focused in a way I’ve experienced only in musical performance.

As of yet I have not died in performance, either figuratively or literally. But waiting for, and playing in, my own concerts seems increasingly with the passing years ever more like a kind of rehearsal for death. After being mired in the thick, gooey, immovable time leading up to the program you suddenly find that you are making music. The event—the feared and yearned-for thing—is actually happening. You are both in the experience and outside of it. And then, almost miraculously, it is over.

The so-called responsibilities of adulthood have cut massively into the undisturbed hours of youthful practicing. It is that formative experience that now gets me through the still occasionally terrifying test of a concert.

A concert is nothing to die over. The world will go on even if you flounder and fail. But rational thought can never truly allay these elemental fears. Yet in some of the best moments of live music atavistic panic is coupled with intense concentration. There must be something chemically addictive about being in that state, otherwise why would one find oneself asking yet again just before taking the plunge into performance: How did I get into this?

Having been introduced to music by my parents, I told myself that my own children should have the same opportunities. Lessons were begun. Practice was encouraged, then enforced until the kids seemed to enjoy it without too much cajoling.

You then make your children suffer the awful nervousness of concert day. You visit the ordeal on them even though you know it is a form of torture. You watch them go pale, turn away their food. They wonder out loud why it has to be this way. Yet they accept their lot.

You convince yourself that it is good “life experience”—excellent training for the school presentation, public speaking, standardized tests. But in the end the only thing that keeps them from revolting from this bizarre ritual is that after the concert is over they claim to have enjoyed it. The memory tested in the performance has already forgotten the preceding agony, overwritten by the euphoria of riding the knife edge between disaster and what might be called a kind of momentary glory—and living to tell the tale.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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