While this blog is about a recent experience of mine, it feels somewhat self-serving in light of the trauma that is being lived currently by the parents and children who are separated at the US border as well as the soccer team in Thailand waiting for rescue. My heart goes out to these brave people. I hope that what I say about my situation will speak to you beyond my immediate dilemma and encourage you think more broadly about the resilience that abides in all of us when we must summon it.
I could not make this up. The following is what occurred when I presented a talk recently at the Music Teachers Association of California Conference.
I do not get nervous about making presentations and talking with audiences. I enjoy preparing talks which includes making Powerpoints, many with sound, and You Tubes to emphasize main points. Like many of you, I suspect, I have had my share of glitches with computers and technology at various conferences. While anxiety arousing, the technical issues of connectivity or using a special cable for my Mac typically are solved relatively quickly, although there is an elevation of anxiety and blood pressure, especially if the audience is seated and I am fumbling with my computer. I always try to prepare and to allow for this almost predictable uncertainty – in fact, I anticipate it. I meet with the Techs in advance and do a run through at every venue where I present. I adhere to Boy Scout advice, “Be Prepared” – for me that includes being prepared with content, computer, and my own emotions.
Such was the case in California. At 7 p.m. the night before my presentation at 10:15 a.m. the following morning, I met with a wonderful Tech support person in the room where it was going to “happen”. To the Conference organizers’ farsighted credit, they hired a special Tech Team just for Conference presenters, advisedly not relying on hotel personnel who may or may not be adept with unexpected glitches or with computers at all (especially Macs).
To my delight everything went so smoothly that it was too good to be true. I should not have relied on that thought – but, frankly it is magic thinking to believe what you “think” will “make it happen” – so I believed I was all set for the morning. I relaxed the rest of the evening and approached the next day with excitement. I had prepared many new Powerpoints and YouTubes. I couldn’t wait to use them to creatively express my message.
Fast forward to the morning. I was delighted at the size of the crowd who came to hear about performance anxiety. I was introduced graciously, and I began to offer a few thoughts to orient people to some main ideas. My first Powerpoint had a great music example to set the mood. As I clicked on my computer to play it………….
Murphy’s Law became my nightmare.
At first I thought that I could speak with the Tech, who was in the room, and the issue would be resolved momentarily. After a few minutes, both the Tech and I realized this was not going to be a quick fix. The audience was seated and witnessing the entire process. When you hear an experienced Tech utter the words, “I don’t know what is going on”, you know you are in big trouble. Given the “dress rehearsal”, both of us were puzzled.
Somewhere in my mind – although I was unaware of the connection at the time, I must have recalled childhood experiences where those on whom I depended for support were not able to give it. I also must have silently summoned up the awareness that I could deal with it – even if it was difficult.
The audience continued to observe how I handled this crisis and how I reacted. I realized my time to present was limited by the clock, since, typically at Conferences, there is another program immediately following the previous one in the same room. Time was fleeting as were my rushing feelings and thoughts.
No one got up to leave. I decided (I cannot say this was a conscious decision) to proceed somehow – to improvise. I began talking with the audience about what they were missing on the Powerpoints – describing the music and action that I wanted to share with them. I outlined major points and elaborated on some of them verbally instead of visually.
People began to ask questions, and we actually began to have an engaged dialogue that I experienced as a budding relationship. The audience was “with” me. I felt their support. While frustrated and feeling internally flustered, I became resigned to the idea I may have to “go it” alone all the way – without notes or my carefully prepared video examples. Deep down, I knew I could do that.
I was aware that my mind was working on various levels, and through the corner of my eye, I saw three Techs come to my computer sitting idly on the podium. They began to do something with it. My heart sank – I kept talking with the audience – but also asked the Techs what they were doing. They said they were going to transfer my program to their computer and show it from their machine.
I must tell you, I became quite anxious at that moment to think my program would be transferred – my LIFE is on my computer – my two book manuscripts are there, many blogs, my website, some articles I have written which are in press, all of my Clavier Companion publications, personal addresses, e mails, and phone numbers, photos, and many Word documents.
While everything is backed up, this idea was not reassuring to me at that moment. Suppose something went wrong – or worse got erased. My gut feeling was a fear of loss, and worse, having everything get messed up. Experiencing loss is familiar to me – I have worked in depth on that feeling psychologically to help me understand my growing up years. I made some comment to the audience (probably with some panic sharing how my “life” was on my computer), but kept on track dealing with the task at hand. It was clear that both my ability to keep the session moving forward AND my anxiety were joined in my awareness.
However, performance anxiety, the topic of my presentation, became MY issue in front of the group. They saw me experience it unexpectedly and deal with it through improvising through a situation I could not control, despite being fully prepared. I realized later that my preparation also consisted of working through, over many years, issues beyond my control that resulted in anxiety for me as a young child – Now I was practicing what I was “preaching” to others. I wasn’t only teaching through music but by personal example.
The Tech “solutions” of transferring my data did not solve anything. Things only got worse – the Techs took my computer OUT OF THE ROOM to work on it. It was like taking a child away from a parent. I had to trust that a treatment and cure would be found. Fortunately, not long after removing my computer, four Techs arrived back in the room with it. I made a pale “joke” to the audience (not very funny to me at the time ) about “how many Techs does it take to fix a computer?”
People laughed – probably an anxious laugh but also conveying supportive empathy. Relief came when the Techs announced they had fixed the glitch, and that I could proceed with the presentation on my own computer.
You can only imagine the relief that I felt much less the reaction of the audience who had lived through what seemed like an endless nightmare – which, in real time, probably took approximately 20 minutes out of my hour presentation. In that time the audience had become my partner in this emotional search and recovery process. One woman asked if we could go back and see the Powerpoints that I had described verbally – she said that I made them sound so interesting she could visualize them in her mind. The group agreed and so we went back to the beginning – it was therapeutic for all of us.
A man noted that nothing was scheduled in our room after my presentation and asked would I be willing to stay on and complete the entire thing for those who did not need to be elsewhere (rather than shortening my program). I was delighted to do this. When time came officially to end my session, most of the attendees stayed – questions flowed, I felt restored and energetic. The show must go on – and it did.
Afterwards I was flooded with good comments and compliments – not only about content but also about how I had dealt with something unexpected and anxiety producing in public – stage fright. People noted how I had kept my composure and focus yet shared my fears as well. They noted that I managed my own stage fright in real time at the same time I taught them how to do the same thing.
Although I had strong feelings about what was occurring, I had not been undone by my intense emotions and the possibility of an entire presentation being ruined. I found internal resilience and the ability to continue in the face of my preparation being undermined by a machine that had worked perfectly not only the night before but also in a run-through, a couple of hours previously, in my hotel room.
Compliments greeted me almost everywhere I went for the remaining 3 days of the Conference. People actually saw stage fright both in action and in a coping attitude. They appreciated that when under unexpected pressure, one could deal constructively with emotion. While I was flummoxed, I also knew deep down that I had the ability to change gears and offer my presentation a different way. Being prepared both with content and a sense of oneself are invaluable at times like these.
So – what went wrong with technology? The wonderful head Tech later told me that the four Techs gradually realized all they had to do was turn off my computer, re-start it, and everything worked fine. They never really figured out what caused the glitch. Puzzling at first, but in the end it was simple!
If only emotions were simple! I never believed there was something wrong with my computer. I did not doubt myself. I was puzzled and was discovered I could rely on myself to find an alternative. Not easy but not impossible. Frankly, despite my discomfort with multiple emotions I experienced that morning, what pleased me the most was to illustrate in vivo, for what seemed like an eternity, the exact lesson I had so carefully prepared to present.
I believe that we all have the capacity to cope with unexpected and unplanned situations that occur both on and off stage, both in life and in performance. With appropriate help (psychological, pedagogical, parental, and, in this situation, technical from computer Techs), we can find strengths deep within ourselves that we did not realize we possessed – until tested. Perhaps a live performance is the best instructor both to initiate and remind us of that. Learning to manage stage fright clearly offers valuable life lessons.