“Is it rational—is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do?”
They manifest themselves in variations, as Tchaikovsky might enjoy, but there is a nasty, underlying theme—nerves. For some, the jitters are in their fingers, small trembles that only seem to worsen in any attempt to minimize. Some sweat, some are cold, most forget to breathe and I am an odd one—I sniffle.
Performance anxiety, or what is more commonly called “stage fright” and the process leading up to it, is an inevitable part of studying and working in music. In my experiences, there is only a scarce population of the musician’s world that claims to have zero anticipation in the moments preceding a performance. Fortunate folk. For the rest of us, performance anxiety can take over our minds and bodies for hours to days before the awaiting audience is in actual sight of us.
You’ll find these physical symptoms from any researcher in the topic, and at least one in any performer: increased heart rate, hyperventilation, dry mouth, muscle tension, fatigue, clamminess, need to eliminate bodily fluids, shakiness, knotted-up-butterflied-out stomach. (Driskill, Kaz) The way something as humanly emotional as musical performance can propel us into a primal frenzy of fight-or-flight reactions is a fascinating juxtaposition.
But performance anxiety is more than the signs. Its roots are viciously planted, one by one, into our states of mind. We shovel into our ideas of reality with every memory slip and missed note that makes us cringe, cover up the broken dirt with every private lesson that makes us want to cry. And like this, time turns little seeds into out-of-control weeds of self-doubt and fear, and sometimes even of self-loathing. They eat at our understanding of love for our instruments, our performances, and our very selves. These are the real monsters in the depths of our sleepless nights.
Being Okay With Your Being
“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”
In her TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, award-winning author Elizabeth Gilbert discusses the history of creativity and the twisting accomplished by Western thought. It had never been in my knowledge that in Ancient Greece, creativity did not come from human beings, but from divine apparitions called “daemons.” Later on in history, we meet the Renaissance period, a time for the rebirth of creativity. (Damerow) And although creativity was being reborn, humans became the sole, responsible creators. Creativity was no longer channeled through an external spirit, but through themselves as if they were one of the gods. I believe this lack of separation from our art is a sinister ally among all the monsters destroying us today for two reasons.
Reason one. In 2003, internationally celebrated pianist Lang Lang injured his hand and could not touch the piano for a month. He had spent the past sixteen years of his life in complete devotion to his instrument and on a perpetual rise to worldwide acclaim, never having to be apart from his first and true love. In his autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles, he writes about his experience of separation:
“I had to remain active and engaged with the world around me or I’d go mad…But fairly quickly I began to enjoy myself, to panic less about the hours of practice I was missing, to immerse myself in the moment of whatever I was doing…all in all, the experience taught me a lot about myself. I discovered that I liked hanging out with friends, spending time alone reading, exploring the city, and watching movies and TV. I didn’t have to practice ten hours a day to stay sane…The piano is a beautiful thing, but during that month I learned that it isn’t the only beautiful thing. Friends are beautiful. Shakespeare is beautiful. A slam dunk is beautiful. Dick Doran introduced me to the songs of Frank Sinatra, and they were beautiful too…balance is what matters most.”
As a college music major, I have discovered that being in this intense field of study is considerably parallel to being in a serious, romantic relationship. Relationship experts, whether through experience or studies, will tell you that you cannot love and care for someone else if you do not first love and care for yourself. They will also tell you that a healthy relationship consists of “me time”, to continue to get to know yourself as an individual, distinct from the romantic entity that you and your significant other have established. A happy and healthy relationship depends largely on a sense of self-worth separate from, but supported by, the relationship. (Becker-Phelps)
Your instrument is more or less that “unruly participant” in a relationship, in superstar soprano Reneé Fleming’s words. Concert violinist Maxim Vengerov adds in an interview, “To choose an instrument is like to marry someone, to live with somebody. Even with a good instrument, sometimes you just cannot live with each other.” In agreement, I argue that it takes knowing yourself and enjoying life without your instrument to greater foster the brimming potential inside of you. And in that brimming potential is a brilliant performer, and most importantly, a compassionate self. I believe we are more than our instrument and our music—we are about love. And it so happens that music is one place where we invest our love, one outlet for channeling our love to those around us.
Reason two. In the inability to separate ourselves from our art, we have become unable to separate ourselves from the distorted idea of perfection. It is an unattainable societal commandment that nurtures itself into an unattainable personal demand. We forget that there is no such thing, and we most tragically forget to love ourselves in striving for the no such thing. And even if perfection were real, I imagine it’d be so relative to taste and interpretation that there would still be no way to win all the time. It is the fear of giving an imperfect performance—memory-wise and technique-wise mostly for me—that cripples the fluidity of my fingers and the strength of my focus, bringing me to this question. Why?
It is not the inevitable imperfection itself that holds us back, but the apprehension and the shame. We live in a society that expects its citizens to be perfect sons and daughters, perfect students, perfect lovers, even perfect strangers in the way we appear. Why should so many of us live in this anxious way? Every moment has become an opportunity for judgment in this wicked system of operation that has, without surprise, permeated the musician’s reality and corrupted the musician’s idea of performance.
In an interview with Tim Duquette, legendary pianist Abbey Simon reflects on this note. “The greatest disaster for artists was the tape machine, was the edited record, in the first place. Nobody will let you let out a record with a wrong note on it. The whole thing is unrealistic; logistically, it’s not possible for you to sit down and play a piece for a half hour, or at least it’s not possible for me, and not graze another note, not hit another note. If you listen to the recordings of Rachmaninov, of all the great artists who recorded on 78s in those dear old days, I mean, they hit masses of extra notes.”
Maybe if we begin to harness self-compassion, we can begin to find fearlessness in our performances and boldness in facing whatever its aftermath. Self-compassion is: “being kind and understanding towards oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them…This process also involves recognizing that being imperfect, making mistakes, and encountering life difficulties are part of the shared human experience–something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. (Neff)
Let us love better through acceptance of our humanness and forgiveness of any contempt we bring when regarding our humanness. Spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass puts my argument more simply and beautifully in a single question: “How does who we think we are affect what we have to give?”
Back to the Practice Room
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice reduces the imperfection.”
While we let these ideas of self-compassion inspire our work, it is nonetheless essential to come back to the applicable practicalities of pre-performance preparation. In the practice room, we are capable of training ourselves in three facets: technique, mentality, and artistry. (Klickstein)
Renowned concert violinist Sarah Chang talks about the fundamentals: “My practicing routine has changed over the years. I think now I focus more on basics than I used to…I was taught never to neglect the basics from vibrato exercises to scales and arpeggios and études. And I’ve always kept that up. And especially now…I mean—it’s silly to say, but scales are great…I think to play a very simple scale—a scale in Mozart or Beethoven or Bach, that is the hardest thing. Because it’s the simplicity of it.”
How tempting it is to rush into a practice session without warming up—I suppose most of us would rather listen to ourselves play actual melodies than eight notes in step-wise motion over and over. In my several years of observation, it is my peers with a daily vow to scales and beat-up Hannon technique books that deliver with most ease. Scales and arpeggios, although possibly boring and tedious to practice, constitute musical patterns throughout the entirety of music literature. It is vital to be able to play scales and arpeggios with accuracy in a controlled environment before we attempt to tackle them in our scores. In eight notes times four octaves or more, you train your hands to play in correct positions and fingerings, your fingers to move with clean articulation and growing speed, and your ear to hear different qualities.
I believe the ease that foundationally secured musicians play with derives from their usage of hard-earned technique to facilitate musicality. The more prepared we are to play our repertoire with proper technique, the more prepared we are for the performance of that repertoire. In this double-whammy preparation we can find confidence, a self-belief in one’s ability and capacity. And in the unavoidable cases of mishaps despite our devising, The Bulletproof Musician’s Blog explains confidence, as it should be known:
“’Confidence is believing in your own ability, knowing what you have to do to win. My confidence was developed through preparation.’-Jack Nicklaus (golf)
‘I had complete confidence in my ability to carry out the game plan. I studied and accumulated knowledge of the game. I accomplished this in practice by practicing over and over again, hard work.’ -Johnny Unitas (football)
Notice how each of these athletes are saying essentially the same thing.
They all equate confidence with a belief in their inherent ability or capacity to perform at a high level–as opposed to their win/loss record alone. Realistically, they understand that they’re not going to hit every shot, make every pass, and win every race, and they don’t let these ups and downs affect their belief in their underlying ability.”
Now as we acquire confidence through basic practices, we find less of a distraction as we move into mental practice. This morning I had the chance to take a private lesson with former USC piano professor, James Bonn, where he told me something I hadn’t considered before. He compared practicing to chiseling in stone—it cannot be undone. Playing the music under tempo, stop in those hints of hesitation before you actually hit the wrong note, before you even have a chance to feel irritated that you hit the wrong note. Stop, think slow and thorough, then go for the correct note that is now at the tips of your peaceful fingers. Don’t get stuck, he said, be flexible and open, and I add here now, be patient in your maturing with a piece. An affair that takes time.
Yet, time is not the least as important as is focus. I could spend three hours on the piano bench with my fingers trekking across the keys in their muscle memory, my mind on irrelevant matters like trying to remember the name of my friend’s cat, or highly anticipating the tweeting alert of a text, hopefully saying something interesting. If such notions are preoccupying my present being, it will be mightily unmanageable to simultaneously assess and memorize the patterns, sections, rhythms, fingerings, phrases, dynamics, characters—everything in the music that solicits careful consideration and execution each time we convene with our instrument.
To focus takes being in the present moment. We achieve this by being acutely aware of the happenings of right now, every breath and every emotion, without any judgment. (Mead) We enter a zone where the outside world is forgotten, and we are altogether lost in whatever it is we are doing, reclaiming the power to create. Uncovering this magically productive place is not at all a facile project, and will have to include gentleness as we deal with our eager and wandering minds. But as we are on our way to procuring this special skill, we experience three things: increased enjoyment, reduced stress, and getting things done. Leo Babauta of ZenHabits offers a few lovely words to think about: “There are no worries. There is just experiencing.”
Now imagine calling every practice session an “experience”. As we work on knowing ourselves, we learn about the artist in us. What are the styles of music that bring out the best in you and what are the styles of music you want to bring yourself to? I used to believe in music as a selfish pursuit, asking myself, “What can I do for music?” The amount of pressure in those six words brought me to invert my inquiry—“What can music do for me?” Encompassing myself and my audience in the “me” of that question, I recognize the experience aspect of being a performer. Let us choose repertoire that we can experience with fondness, in the practice room and on stage alike, over and over. In this way, we become artists with a conviction, a motivation to practice and perform.
What is Your Performance Philosophy?
“[Musicians] often believe that their work is part of an uplifting aspect of the human spirit. They feel that their own accomplishments were a way of offering the best of themselves to their fellow human beings.”
The time spent in music classes, ensemble rehearsals and individual practice sessions—what are the thousands of hours all for? Why do we embrace a lifestyle that entails so much time and labor without guarantee of much financial reward? Why perform at all? It is essential to know our personal responses to such questions, as USC piano professor Stewart Gordon writes in Mastering the Art of Performance: “To meet the often extreme demands of our performance goals, we need to think about what motivates us and drives our performance lives. This foundation can serve as a stabilizing force for long and arduous periods of preparation, as well as an anchor during the storm and stress of performance itself.”
In an interview with Dr. Janice Park, Chapman University piano professor, I ask her what her personal performance philosophy is.
“I truly think, as a performer, our job is to touch someone. Even just one person’s heart. Obviously we are doing it because we love it; no one has to twist our arm to make us sit there and practice for four, six hours at a time. So we know we love it, but what is the purpose of making this noise and sound for other people to hear? The goal is to transfer something through music. Someone’s brain and heart can work through what they hear in their ears to get healed with good, happy memories. They can cry, smile, just hearing music. We can touch inner emotions. I think that’s our purpose.”
Performance poet and actress Dzifa Benson shares in Philosophy Now, “Performance can fundamentally be said to be a transformation of ideas and dreams and all those other little understood human impulses into outward action…Romantic aestheticians would have it that art, and by extension, performance, is a heightening of the common human activity of expressing emotions to the point where they are experienced and rendered lucid to the performer and audience in a way that is rarely seen in everyday life.”
These are the challenges and allures alike—to perform is to transcend everyday motion, to capture a moment in history and expose an entire spectrum of human emotion, to extend our soft hearts and hard work in all of our vulnerability. How beautiful it is to remember, beyond the uneasiness we experience, that our reasons for a life in music and performance exceed us. With this understanding and direction, I come closer to peace with my instrument, my performances, and myself.
On Our Way
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
We now continue onwards with the constant journey of our musical progress. As we learn to blossom in self-compassion, maximal practice strategies, and inspirations for our studies and performances, let us put our restlessness to rest, pressing on with our minds not “in terms of success and failure but of effort and adventure.” (Holt)
A Conversation with Abbey Simon. Dir. Tim Duquette. Perf. Abbey Simon. 2011. Youtube.
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Linda Zhou is a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance candidate at Chapman University. She has been a serious piano student for sixteen years, and a piano instructor for children and teens for three years. Her love for music has kept her performing and competing throughout California.
In this manifesto, she intertwines her interests in music performance and self-compassion with the hopes of inspiring self-love in herself and her peers. She explores what she believes as the roots of performance anxiety and the values it takes to overcome them. This work is meant mostly for her fellow peers, college music majors in the Western World who experience the frustrations of nervousness and are looking to actively and positively change that. However, the ideas presented are also applicable to those dealing with general performance anxiety and struggles with self-compassion.