Performance Anxiety

Always Do What You Are Afraid To Do EmersonI’m so excited about doing this. I can’t do this. I have to do this. I don’t want to do this. I guess I’ll do this. Excuse me while I throw up in my purse.

Stage fright is, ultimately, a kind of narcissism. (And if you’re thinking of navigating away from this post because you’re not a stage performer, you’d be wrong, because stage fright can affect everyone, even if the only stage you’re on is in a metaphorical one in your mind.) It says that my emotional state is more important than your satisfaction. It says that my nervousness as a performer deserves a bigger slice of pie than your getting what you came for as a viewer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a singer, dancer, baker, or mother of preschoolers.

As a pianist in a small-town church, I worked with any number of singers and musicians, from trained professionals to children whose parents alone believed they had some special skill. (Most parents think this, some more than others. Usually, there’s an inverse proportion involved.) Maybe I’m overestimating, but I find that the church environment, with its family-like sense of acceptance is a good one for everyone, really, but especially beginners. Personally, I find this amazing. After all, most people at least listen to the radio, where the marvels of studio technology can render all but the most incompetent into some degree of listen-ability. Television shows like “American Idol,” where even the truly talented can be discarded every week like so much post-party confetti, have turned many people whose own singing in the shower makes Rebecca Black look like virtuoso into armchair critics harsher than those of the New York Times. So hearing genuine applause for the wavering tones of a grandmother of seventeen who just finished three rather off-key verses of “How Great Thou Art” is really lovely, if a little surprising. I’m glad for that, because it’s that very level of acceptance that allowed me to support myself for several years as a professional musician; something I could never do here in Milwaukee.

But even I have limits. I once worked with a man, a grown-up man with children, who was a very nice singer. Not ready for Broadway, but quite nice. He loved to sing, and people really enjoyed hearing him. He came from a musical family where almost everyone sang nicely, so he got a lot of support. He’d come up to me after a service and tell me about how excited he was about this particular song, and how he’d like to sing it at an upcoming service. Sometimes he would mention how he felt like God wanted him to sing this number, and how wonderful it was to feel this way. He would practice on his own, and then we would usually have a practice session where he would come in with the other musicians and the pastor for our weekly run-through. He was fine. But almost inevitably, on Sunday, he would climb up the three steps to the podium, stare out at the fifty to one hundred people in the seats, gulp (almost audibly), step away from the podium, back down the steps, and rapidly walk out, usually all the way to his car, where he would either sit for the rest of the service, or just start and drive away.

The first time this happened, I was amazed. What on earth?! Scanning the crowd from my piano bench at the front of the church, I could see a number of people who shared my emotion, but maybe more who seemed to take it all in stride. Later, I found out why. Steven (not his real name) was so paralyzed with stage fright that if he actually made it through a song, it was practically miraculous. If he didn’t actually leave the service, he would come up (again) afterwards and stammeringly apologize to me and the other members of the worship team. Afterwards, he would say something about how it was so amazing to him that none of us ever got nervous, and how that clearly proved that God didn’t really want him to perform after all.

Which is quite possibly the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I told him that. He didn’t believe me.

I explained how even though I played every single week before the same accepting crowd, I still got nervous (though it did get better). He still didn’t believe me. (He’ll never believe me.) I also sang for bishops. Often in Spanish. I got really nervous. I also threw up once as a novice baker when trying to get a large batch of glazed doughnuts ready for a demanding customer. I was weirdly nervous. In no way does that mean that I got to leave. And neither do you.

First, if you give a rat’s ass about what you’re doing, you probably also want other people to care. And if you want them to care, you’re going to be nervous. Second, God has nothing to do with it. (Well, God does have something to do with it, but I’m not getting into that today.) I understand that even the fantastically talented Adele is routinely given to throwing up before her concerts because she’s just that nervous. But she doesn’t just walk off! And new parents (especially fathers) are often nearly paralyzed with fear that someone they’re going to hold their new baby wrong. But they don’t then leave the hospital, hoping some other kindly but obviously more accomplished person will come along to rescue their newborn. Of course not. They just muddle along bravely. And you know, they’re fine (well, at least until the therapy bills come rolling in, but that won’t be for years).

Ultimately, life is about showing up and performing. There is no dress rehearsal, and all the performance anxiety your mind can muster will not allow you to leave the stage early.

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