What do you think about when you think about performing?
Take a few minutes before reading further and write down your thoughts.
I am listing below some frequent responses about performance that I have heard from teachers, students, and non musicians as well (performance anxiety is universal!!):
*I am afraid I will make mistakes.
*I will feel embarrassed if my performance does not go perfectly.
*I freak out about having memory slips.
*I worry that the audience will not like my playing
*I am concerned that my technique will fall apart up in public when I get nervous
*My friend plays better than I do.
*I do not want to disappoint my teacher and parents.
Do any of these comments sound familiar to you? No doubt you have surmised that these types of thoughts indicate worry about “what if” something goes “wrong”, and how the performer will be judged. This kind of thinking points to a potential (or perceived) performance catastrophe and feelings of humiliation.
Focusing on the scary thoughts of “what if” fuel stage fright and are virtually guaranteed to raise the performer’s anxiety level. Self-doubt is a master saboteur of competence, ability, self-esteem, and performance. Such thoughts typically do not lead to enjoyable performing and happy performers.
Perhaps some of you listed your thinking about performing in a different way such as:
*I have prepared and practiced and there is good reason to believe I will play well.
*There is no guarantee everyone will like my performance, even if I play my personal best.
*I do not need to compare myself with anyone else.
*The audience is not coming to judge me.
*I can recover from mistakes and keep going.
*There is no such thing as a perfect performance.
These self-affirming thoughts, despite experiencing performance anxiety, have the potential to raise self-esteem and result in more satisfying, less anxious performing. Performing is not only about playing the music, giving a speech, or taking a test but also reveals thoughts about yourself which, in turn, have an impact on your comfort and competence.
In our emotional lives, both unhelpful and helpful thoughts (Note: not good and bad thoughts) that accompany performing are more complex than the ideas listed above. Yet thinking about performing typically focuses upon the task of performance itself, perhaps more so than a focus upon what you think about yourself, and the intrinsic satisfaction gained from sharing your ideas. Often overlooked is the idea that all your thoughts have powerful effects on your feelings.
“I think, therefore I am” is a well-known statement by the famous French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596- 1650). As a psychologist, I offer a variation on Descartes’ powerful observation by adding, I think, therefore I feel. Thoughts lead to feelings.
Some thoughts will raise anxiety and inhibit performance, and other thoughts will help manage anxiety and make anxiety a helpful source of energy and excitement. Bottom line: it is important to become aware of what you are thinking and feeling. An enormous amount of ego (i.e., yourself!!) is invested in offering your talents in public.
I thought about my thinking when writing “Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers”. Writing a book is akin to a performance in many ways, particularly when it is read and reviewed by others (the audience). A book is also somewhat autobiographical although that is not what is intended overtly. In the book, my words, research, and thoughts reflect my experiences and education as a young music student, a piano teacher, a nervous performer, and a caring psychotherapist. One’s ego certainly is on the line through one’s words.
People often ask me how long it took me to write “Managing Stage Fright”. I formally began my book, unknowingly, in my childhood when I began my piano lessons and started playing in recitals. This is an awesome realization about the years of personal involvement involved in performance, whether that performance is musical or literary. Music lessons and our thoughts and feelings about ourselves begin in childhood. Our thoughts and feelings are mental windows into our self-esteem.
My own thoughts about writing and thinking were highlighted in an unexpected way when I received a comment from an experienced teacher/performer whom I had asked to review my pre-publication manuscript. What pleased me the most was the reaction I received:
“ Reading your book made me think. I understood some new ideas for the first time and reconsidered many of my own long-held ideas.”
This comment was more meaningful to me than “I liked your book”. It spoke to my sense of reaching out to other people and having them learn something new or verify/reconsider an old idea of their own. The thought that I communicated something meaningful to a reader brought deep personal satisfaction to me. I felt happy about this. Music (and other types of) performance can bring pleasure and satisfaction for the music performer, writer, reader, and listener.
I invite you to think about your thinking about performing. You may be very pleased to realize how you can enjoy the entire process, even the hardest and most challenging parts, as you become increasingly tuned in to your thoughts and feelings.
I would enjoy learning about your thinking about your thinking. Please leave a reply below.