Gigging stories: How I handle the nerves of performing without beta blockers

Bob Woody has recently asked for responses from performers about how they deal with anxiety. (You should follow him on twitter @Bob_Woody and see his excellent blog here.) I would like to continue some thoughts that I began to develop here. In specific, Buber suggests that “the primary word can only be spoken with the whole being.” The problem is to flesh out what that means in terms of practical experience. I first stumbled upon a solution for anxiety at my Masters Composition recital.

I was in the process of transitioning my principal focus from being a performer to being a composer and a scholar. As my recital approached, I found that the best solution for presenting an entire program of works would be to play many of them myself. Things had changed since I had been primarily focused on performing. I was now married. I also had a two year old and an infant. I was under the brutally demanding musicological and theoretical challenges of a graduate student. (I’m still grateful Dr. Reynolds and Dr. Mayer-Martin (R.I.P.).) I found that reading at least 1000 pages a week along with my other responsibilities left few hours for the joyous solitude of practice. As the concert approached, I found my anxiety increasing. I was thinking in particular of a concert from some years before when I hadn’t prepared properly. A nasty Bach Partita snuck up behind me, and the piano wire was around my neck before I could defend myself.

In one of the few hours that I had to practice, I was attempting to come to terms with the plain fact that the music I needed to present simply couldn’t be performed at the level that I wanted within the time frame that I had to prepare. Also, I had never played a concert wearing a wedding ring and the stupid thing occasionally clicked on the keyboard. Bad technique visited my hands as an uninvited guest during the hours when I was changing diapers instead of practicing. I was frustrated because the obligations to my family were preventing me from presenting a program that met my standards. My wife and children were holding me back from my potential.

As soon as the thought formed in my mind, I realized it was wrongheaded. I was not speaking with my whole being. I had partitioned off my artistic life as if it was something separate from the rest of my life. I needed a new approach to public performance. I was married and a father. Part of what that means is that I do not have the same amount of time to practice as people without the same obligations and responsibilities. It also means that what I have to express is something unique. Suddenly, I was not afraid to play a wrong note. A wrong note was the expression of a diaper changed and the love of a small child. The click of my wedding ring became an expression of my love for my wife instead of something annoying. As I spoke with my whole being, I found that my anxiety melted away. I was no longer concerned with whether the audience heard every note played correctly. I was concerned that we would have a shared experience of music coming from the center of my being instead of the periphery. To use Buber’s words, I had switched from an I-It relationship to an I-Thou relationship with the listener.

Now, be careful lest you abuse the point. Like anything worthwhile, this is not a magic trick that can be learned at a seminar. It can be misunderstood and mocked. Think of the beginning of The Importance of Being Earnest where Algernon says, “I don’t play accurately – any one can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte.” I think that it is also important to be careful about thinking of this approach as a “technique”. It is, and it’s a helpful one. Since I have adopted it, I have only experienced one or two occasions of vicious nerves in performance. However, Buber rightly says that for the event to occur, we are dependent on an act of grace. Sometimes, I simply cannot prevent myself from partitioning off parts of my being in concern for what certain members of the listening community will think. However, I know that the mindset that I achieved at that recital is the starting point. From there, I can of wait for the act of grace that allows a free communication of my whole being with the community that listens. Will you wait or will you partition?