I will never forget my first memory slip. I was six years old. It occurred in my piano teacher’s studio. I had composed several short compositions and was recording them.
This is what I remember. I lived in New York until I was 4 years old. My parents gave me a little white toy piano with 24 keys. I composed melodies on my beloved white piano. When I was 6 years old I started taking piano lessons. I also got my first full size piano with 88 keys.
By this time, my mother and I lived with my grandparents in another state. My parents had divorced. I never heard from my father again. I started piano lessons with a sweet lady who owned a cuddly dog – a Pekinese I believe. The dog drank coffee (with cream) during my lessons from a saucer which was on the floor under the piano. When you walked into my teacher’s large old house, her studio was on the left side of the front hallway. I think it might have been a dining room that she converted into her piano studio. The tape recorder was placed on a table next to the piano.
I called the recording a “forever recording” because I believed that whatever I played could never be changed or erased. I could not make any mistakes. My playing and my music would be etched permanently on a shiny black disc – forever. My teacher told me that she would nod silently for me to begin after she started the machine. When I got the cue from her I began to play.
Not long after starting one of the pieces I had composed, my mind went totally BLANK. I could not remember my own music! I felt panic! Desperately not wanting my memory slip etched on the “forever recording”, I whispered as loud as I could, “Stop the record!! Stop the record”!! Either my teacher did not hear me or she ignored my distress and my pleas. This was my first memory slip. It occurred on my “forever recording”.
There was nothing I could do. I think I continued to play – something, anything…details are blurry. Through the years, I have come to better understand those feelings. Now I can give them names.
Shame. Embarrassment. Humiliation. Anger. Loss of control. Rejection. Loss of love. Abandoned.
With distance from childhood and deeper understanding of myself, I realize that my forgetting and panic was a child’s expression of performance anxiety. What did a giving “perfect” performance mean to me when I was 6 years old? I know now that it was more than playing the piano. Perhaps I had a fantasy that I was imperfect and caused my father to leave. Did I worry about a “forever recording” because I feared he would be gone “forever”?
“Forever recordings” are permanent; so are losses. Young children think like that! Young children have powerful feelings but cannot understand them. Performance anxiety germinates in our life history off stage and has deep roots in childhood. My fears about memory slips, forgetting my music, and being forgotten were related to early losses in my young life. They were not specifically connected to the piano but symptomatically expressed there.
Playing the piano was a soothing and pleasurable activity that had emotional attachment to my toy piano and to both my parents. The mind is clever and can play “tricks”. Psychological pain becomes buried deep in the mind. Buried hurts and fears return as unwanted symptoms when under a stress like performance. Memories and feelings that have slipped outside our awareness can brazenly announce themselves as dreaded memory slips. Feeling loved became connected to the notion that a perfect performance would guarantee that I would never be forgotten.
My father was the winner of 3 Gold Olympic Medals and skated his way to stand on the podium under the Five Golden Olympic Rings in the history books. He was perfect on the ice.
Performance anxiety affects people of all ages, experience, and family backgrounds. It plagues a broad range of occupations. For many years I have worked with public speakers, executives, academics, athletes, actors students, writers, physicians, musicians, and socially anxious individuals. These talented people typically discuss dashed dreams, abandonment, lack of self esteem, fantasies they have caused harm to others, as well as losses (particularly those from childhood).
Many performance anxious people believe that a perfect performance will win gold medals – love, approval, security, applause, never feeling rejected or alone. Formative experiences cast a long shadow. The impossible quest for perfection we demand from ourselves and from others raises anxiety. There are no perfect families or performances.
Performance anxiety is lowered by appreciating our intrinsic worth and trading the race for perfection into pleasure about our resilience and competence. Never forget that gold medals exist inside all of us. Forever.
Perhaps you recall experiences that may have contributed to your performance anxiety.
You are invited to leave a reply, circulate this blog to your colleagues, and/or send me an e mail. Stay tuned for the next installment about performance anxiety.