In a recent post, I asked what topics people would like to see covered in my blog. When "combating performance anxiety" came up, I wondered whether I would be qualified enough to write a blog on it and whether people would even want to hear what I have to say on the subject. Then I thought, everyone who knows me is aware that performance anxiety is something I've been battling for the past four years and it's something I've been working really hard to manage. So, in a two part post, I want to share with you what's helped me over the years from a completely honest and open point of view. I'd love this to become more of an open dialogue so anything you guys think might help a fellow musician then please comment and share below.
Back in 2015, after a rather difficult study period, it's safe to say my performing confidence was at an all-time low. I had zero self-belief and for someone who dreams of a career full of performances it leaves you stuck in a catch 22. When it came to performances, masterclasses or lessons, I would have already convinced myself it was a fail and although through practice and hard work my cello playing got better, my performance skills were left far behind. I remember, my boyfriend at the time saw me getting so worked up before a performance he afterwards said, "if it causes you this much stress you should quit, you clearly don't enjoy it." Performing is my absolute life, I live to perform so to hear that this was the impression my anxiety was giving broke my heart. I decided enough was enough, I have to do something about it.
Now, you'll be pleased to know I've thrown the book at my anxiety so at least we know these pieces of advice have been tried and tested. What I will say right from the start is that I was and still am desperate to manage this anxiety naturally. A popular solution is always beta blockers and I'm never going to lecture someone on their use but it simply wasn't for me. I needed to fix the cause of my problems.
1. Talk to a Professional
This is number one because ultimately this was the most helpful process in my case. Talking helps you rationalise the thoughts in your head, put strategies into place that allow you to stop or manage destructive thought patterns and keep the negative committee that meets in your head sitting down and shutting up (a saying stolen from the best postcards I've ever had). In my experience when working with a professional; find one that is right for you. I ended up going to my college counsellor but before her I'd worked with two others and from that it was clear I needed someone in London where I was performing and someone who let me rant. Be patient, everyone is different and your length of therapy will be different from the next musician. You may need just a few sessions every so often or a longer period of weekly sessions. I had about two months of sessions but then always returned for top ups when I needed them. Be prepared for hard truths. You're there to face the root of your problem, this is not going to be a walk in the park but it's the only way you can get back to doing what you love the most.
2. Read about it
Thankfully we're living in a time where talking about mental health is slowly blossoming into the norm and people are brave enough to talk about their struggles. Some of those incredible people were even clever enough to write their experiences down in books, far more helpful than this first-time blogger. Reading about anxiety and learning about the science behind it, helped me to normalise it and see that I'm not alone and that it's not something to be ashamed of. There are some incredible books about it: "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway" by Susan Jeffers, "The Chimp Paradox" by Prof. Steve Peters and "The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck", "You do You", "Get your Sh*t Together" and "Calm the F*ck Down" written by the Anti-Guru herself, Sarah Knight. Safe to say I ended up reading all of these but I got particularly addicted to Sarah Knights' writing. Her comical, no frills, no nonsense, let's get this "Sh*t" sorted, truly made me laugh at myself again. A trait I've always loved but had lost due to taking myself too seriously trying to hide the anxiety.
3. Perform, Perform, Perform
The only way any performer gets better is through practice. We know this, we've been told this day in and day out by our music teachers. But how many of us actually practice performing? So many of us practice it as an afterthought and then when things go wrong on stage we wonder why. Luckily my college gave many in house performance opportunities and masterclasses that I could take advantage of and with orchestra, quartet and solo/ duo performances I was performing every two weeks. I really urge you to perform so often it becomes second nature and you begin to start feeling at home on the stage. This doesn't just go for concerts but auditions as well. Make a panel of friends, teachers, colleagues. Do extra external auditions so that you're learning from them all the time. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there. It's all for your own development.
This is a journey, be kind to yourself.