As I wrote in my last post, here I was, chugging merrily along, learning a new piece on the piano. And making progress. Then, suddenly, it all went haywire. Passages I had gotten “down” suddenly became impossible to play. Phrases that I had been playing unfailingly suddenly became a mishmash of mistakes. I couldn’t get it right, not at home, not during my lesson. It was still my fingers. Still the standard keyboard. After thinking it over, I realized what had changed. I had committed to performing in the music school’s upcoming adult recital. Just making that commitment had triggered performance anxiety, that, paradoxically, wrecked my performance–months ahead of the actual event!
As far as I can tell, all performers (including sports figures and those in any testing situation) go through this. I’ve read or heard tales of actors throwing up before going onstage each time. In BBC Music Magazine, Soviet pianist Emil Gilels is quoted as calling the walk onto stage the “journey to Golgotha.” Part of training is finding ways of combating the crippling effects of stage fright, or, even better, finding ways to make it work to one’s advantage.
My wonderful piano teacher and coach, Abram, had a few suggestions. “Think of yourself as “sharing” this wonderful music with others, rather than performing.” And, “focus on the music, not on yourself.”
Writers can also suffer from “performance anxiety” which sometimes takes the form of “writer’s block.” We writers at least get to make our mistakes in private. They’re called first (or sometimes, tenth) drafts. When we finally send out work out to our audience (reader, editor, whoever) we’ve had time to polish all the mistakes out of the “performance” that we now present to others. Yet, just as even the best musicians, despite hours and hours of practice, will occasionally make glaring errors on stage, sometimes the instant we hit “send” we discover previously unnoticed and egregious faults in our manuscript. The well-schooled musician will recover and carry on, just as the champion tennis player will immediately forget the last misplaced shot and focus on making the next shot a winner. So, instead of wallowing in chagrin, we just chalk it up to “oops” and get on with our next masterpiece. As the saying goes, we don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, or stop us from continuing on our chosen path. At least I don’t, and I hope you don’t either.