If you’ve read my bio, you know I experienced severe stage fright around playing the piano until I was 35.  I was unable to perform at a level commensurate with my abilities and even in casual settings couldn’t even bring my full self to bear.  It took many years to begin to untie those knots.


Thankfully now I can perform without having a breakdown!  I do, however, still get very nervous before performing.  That doesn’t bother me, because it’s a normal, generally healthy reaction to that kind of situation.


As I write this, I am a few hours away from participating in an afternoon recital with some of my colleagues.  Many of my students will be there with their parents.  Although I am only playing a short movement from a Mozart sonata, I am feeling the pressure.


Last Friday, though, something happened to change the balance of the equation.  I was opening a folding door and the third and fourth fingers on my left hand got caught.  The third finger was jammed and swelled up so that it wouldn’t really bend.


Over the course of the day, the injury retreated enough that I was confident I could still play the recital.  However, it was uncomfortable and I was no longer certain I would play well.  This setback turned out to have an interesting benefit.


It seems being worried about more isn’t actually worse.  I discovered to my fascination that now that I was pre-occupied about whether I’d be able to play through my injury, I was thinking less about how well I’d do artistically.  The single-minded panic of that one issue was moved into a much more manageable global concern with my ability to play at all.


It seems that, if I am highly anxious about something, increasing the number of things I am anxious about might be the way to go.  I have a limited capacity to process worry, and each thing I worry about will divide the anxiety into more and more manageable pieces.  The sum total of my anxiety might be the same, but no one thing will overwhelm me. 


So, next time, rather than smash my finger, perhaps I’ll divide my worries into several categories:  technical, artistic, presentation, getting there on time, post-concert interactions.  Yes, it’s more to worry about, but it might keep me from obsessing about any one thing.  For that matter, all of these aspects are important and part of the performance, and keeping them in sight ensures none of them get neglected.


This may be a strategy you are already using as a performer, perhaps without knowing it.  I wonder also if writers who experience writers’ block from the terrifying experience of staring uninspired at a blank page could also mitigate their feelings by finding more things to worry about.  Once the writers’ terror is minimized, it might be easier to break that ice.


Is this a strategy you’ve ever used for your performance anxiety?  Do you recognize this as a technique you’ve been applying?  Can you see yourself making it work?


Adam Cole is a music educator, author and Guild Certified Feldenkrais Instructor living in Atlanta, GA.  His weekly blog can be found at www.mymusicfriend.net


Adam Cole October 30, 2017 @06:31 pm

Thanks, Darcy and Griffin! Yes, the recital went well. I'm always happy to know more about dealing with stage anxiety. And that story about Tatum seems accurate, even if it's not necessarily true!

Griffin Bell October 30, 2017 @11:35 am

Adam: Glad nothing serious with the ol' fingers. It was wonderful seeing and hearing you play recently. Was it Art Tatum who seventy years ago was criticized as being "all right hand" so his next gig did his whole performance only with his left?

DARCY B HAMLIN October 29, 2017 @08:14 pm

Two books that really helped me with my performance anxiety are Psychocybernetics (Maxwell Maltz) and Wherever You Go, There You Are (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Both helped me understand my perfectionism (=fear of making mistakes), self-doubt (can I do this? do I even belong here?) and losing my focus. They also helped me flip the mental switch between practicing (conscious work, fixing) to performing (relaxing, tapping into the mind's creative mechanism and letting it work unimpeded). I have found mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn's specialty) to be especially helpful when I'm experiencing anxiety or a bad headspace on stage. I breathe, focus on the way the breath feels, where it's going. I check in with my body and give the tense parts permission to release. I focus on the sights, sounds, smells, sensations I'm experiencing on stage. It never fails to ground me, to bring me back into the present moment. Most of all, though, performing regularly and as often as possible helps loads to relieve performance anxiety. The more you do it, the more successful performances you have in your wheelhouse. That is what builds confidence! :)

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