Monday, May 02, 2005


We had our concert. I think it went pretty well -- a number of people said that they thought it was one of our best yet. That was nice to hear.

I used to have major problems with performance anxiety. There were a lot of reasons for this, most of which I won't go into. But I really really wanted to get over this anxiety. Performance anxiety is such an awful state that when you are in it, you think to yourself, "why did I ever think this was a good idea?" You can no longer even imagine what it could possibly be like to enjoy performing. So, why did I really really want to get over it? Why didn't I just give up then and there?

Part of the reason was that I remembered a time in my past, when I was much younger, when I learned that "all I had to do" was "center myself in how much I loved the music," and I'd be fine. After a very long break from performing, I looked back on that early me and simply marveled. How could I have been so wise then? Of course, that is exactly the right attitude! How could it have worked then? Because it did! That one time! A long time ago.

Now, years later, trying to bring music back into my life, trying anew to reclaim and establish a musical identity for myself, I found myself starting all over again. In so many ways in life, I had gained confidence and learned to conquer so many of my fears, but in this dimension, my musical life, I was back at the very beginning. Why? I even knew that that earlier self had it exactly right -- but even knowing that, it wasn't working for me any more. I could not just will that state of centered calm I had experienced way back then.

Again, the reasons are complex. I could refer to moments of my past to explain. I could say more generally that musical performance on wind instruments in a formal concert setting just is a high-intensity kind of performance experience. Both of these kinds of explanations would get at what was going on, and my coming to terms with these issues has been an important part of my journey.

But what is most remarkable to me now is realizing that this has been a journey of slow but steady progress. Unlike my earlier experience, where I had a "revelation" that helped me to switch from high anxiety in one peformance to complete centeredness in the next, this time the journey has been a more gradual one over many performances over a number of years.

And I realized this because I found myself adopting an odd practice I never would have predicted would actually be useful to me: a practice of rating my own performances. At first I didn't realize that this practice would help me with performance anxiety. I'm not even sure why I adopted it. In many ways it ran counter to my entire philosophy of education and philosophy of self-improvement! (In general, I think we are much too obsessed with numbers, in all the wrong ways, in our culture.)

But, oddly, this practice worked very well for me. Here's how it worked. Since even rehearsals could be stressful for me, I first applied it to how well I thought I did in rehearsals. After each rehearsal, I'd say something like, "that was 70%," meaning I felt I played at about 70% of what I'm actually capable of. Over time through our weekly rehearsals, this number slowly went up, and then plateaued for a long time at around 80-85%. Once I started this, it was natural to apply this to actual performances as well. In the days when my rehearsal performance was around 80-85%, my performance performance tended to be now about 80% of my rehearsal performance, which isn't great, but wasn't hopeless either. (Others generally thought I was doing pretty well.)

Well, life in other respects became quite stressful and distracting and I stopped doing this as much, but this semester as the concert approached, I realized that my rehearsal performance had slowly climbed over time to very nearly 100%. And concert performances had moved up into the 90s. One concert performance even hit 100%. In that moment, I knew I really could do this -- get to a place in my performing where I felt I really was doing my best with the music, rather than being thrown off by performance anxiety itself. I finally caught a glimpse of how I could really enjoy this!

So, I think the power of this method was not so much the numbers themselves as the kind of awareness this practice cultivated in me. Through this exercise, I was able to detach from all of my emotionally-laden personal issues and see this simple fact: that despite all of that, some times I do better than other times. And so doing better is possible despite the complexities of my personal history and the intensity of my emotional states.

Because I could go from 70% to 80% to 75% to 82% in successive different weeks in rehearsal, I realized (a) I was not stuck forever in hopelessness, and (b) a downward turn doesn't last forever. This meant that the same might be true for performances. If one was pretty good, and the next a little disappointing, that didn't mean that all future ones would get worse and worse -- it meant that I could at least get back to "pretty good" and possibly even get better with experience, over time. And, as time passed, I began to see that indeed the overall trend was one of gradual but steady improvement. All of this helped me to tolerate temporary set-backs a lot better, and to keep striving.

But most important of all was the kind of humility that this cultivated in me. We often think that the opposite of humility is pride, but there is another kind of opposite of humility, and that is insecurity and self-consciousness. For a long time, I wanted other people to assure me that I was at least a passable, reasonably competent musician, fit for modest local performances in front of understanding and compassionate audiences. But in the preparation for this latest performance, I noticed a very new attitude solidifying. I no longer cared what people thought of me as a musician. What I cared about was sharing the beauty of the music to the audience. "See how great this music is?" I wanted to exclaim, through the music. I was now finally reaching 90-100% of my capacity to let go of myself and just be there to let the music through.

So, the "solution" to the problem of performance anxiety is really very simple. All you have to do is center yourself in your love for the music.

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