When I was in seventh grade, I performed the second movement of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto at my local Solo & Ensemble festival.
On that cold February morning, I remember sitting in the warmup room feeling uneasy about my fate. Within the hour, a judge would hear me perform, comment on my work, and give me a rating.
I was surrounded by other musicians far superior to me, each ripping through their rep with ease and confidence. With each sound, I was reminded how ill-prepared I was for my upcoming performance.
I remember thinking, “Maybe I should cut my losses, pack up my instrument, and leave before the judge hears a note.”
My inner monologue and warmup were interrupted by a celebration. The person who performed twenty minutes before me burst through the door with joy, screaming that she had just scored a superior rating on her performance.
In my head, I thought, “She is obviously far better. Why am I doing this?”
After a few more minutes of warming up, the cacophony of sound died down just in time for the room monitor to let me know the time had come for me to perform.
Reluctantly, I got up and started my long walk of trepidation to the room where my performance would occur.
In an instant, I was performing.
In the middle of a phrase, the voices in my head shouted out, “You are an embarrassment. Why would you think you could perform THIS piece. HOW COULD YOU MISS THAT NOTE?!”
After about eight minutes my solo was complete. Then came the comments from the judge.
Judge: “Nate what a beautiful vibrato you have.”
Judge: “Do you know what a vibrato is?”
I was so nervous that I had full body shakes during my performance, the byproduct of which was a professional-sounding vibrato.
The judge was impressed.
I was still shaking with nervous energy.
After a few more bits of feedback, I was released to the warmup room where I awaited my fate. Certainly, the judge would have mercy on me and give me a rating of “solidly average” rather than the failure I felt like I was after that performance.
In minutes, the results were in.
A superior rating!
I was in shock. Maybe they gave the score to the wrong person? Certainly, I didn’t deserve a superior rating.
The written comments from the judge were proof that the rating was legit. He said that I was “incredibly talented” and that I “should keep making beautiful music.”
You would think that such a positive response would solve the anxiety I had around public performance.
It did not.
For my entire career as a performer, I dealt with the cognitive dissonance that came from receiving accolades and advancement on my instrument while simultaneously suffering from crippling anxiety around my performance.
Beta-blockers helped and, for some time, I took them religiously before walking on stage. However, my best guess is that I never performed better than 80% of my ability on stage compared to what I could do in the practice room.
To be fair, 80% was good enough to win several auditions, perform at a high level on recitals and win a collegiate teaching job, but the toll that it took on me was immense and unsustainable.
I remember confiding in my father one day about how nervous I got when I performed. He was shocked, partly because he didn’t realize I suffered from performance anxiety, but also because he had never once felt any nervousness around performance in his career.
He had given hundreds of performances on clarinet and he always felt cool and calm. Meanwhile, I always felt like a scattered mess, even when things went relatively well.
That conversation was profound for me. I always assumed that everyone felt the way I did, but they just did a better job of hiding their nerves. To know that there were individuals who could perform without fear, anxiety, or nervousness was both illuminating and baffling at the same time.
When I finally left full-time teaching, an active recital schedule, and positions in two orchestras, my anxiety around performance was at least a part of my decision-making process.
I am simply not built for the concert stage. At least, not in the traditional “high-stakes” performance way that my colleagues in similar positions seemed to be able to navigate.
I also wonder if my career would have been any different if the goal of constant perfection was replaced with a goal of constant beauty.
The reason I fell in love with the bassoon was because it was my vehicle for self-expression and joy.
Looking back, I think that the anxiety around giving public performances mostly had to do with my fear that someone would hear me perform and somehow be disappointed.
The thought of someone judging my creative outlet (something our field is based upon) too often resulted in my scattered mind and intense negative talk during performances.
I am thankful that our field seems to be addressing performance anxiety more freely and I’m hopeful that these conversations will continue to be normalized in the way that other discussions seem to be happening in our profession.
I do not write this post to gain sympathy. I chose to leave a career rooted in performance over a decade ago for a number of reasons. The work I do now in support of others and to build community around this art I care so much about has become my life’s work.
I AM writing this for those who continue to struggle with anxiety around performance. You are not alone and there are incredible resources available out there to help you not only survive but thrive, as you pursue YOUR life’s work.
Take advantage of those resources, have conversations with others about your state of mind, and support others who are in a similar situation.
Thanks for reading.
Photo Credit: Manuel Nägeli
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