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Performance Anxiety by Shelley


When I successfully auditioned for a classical performance music degree, I did not expect that I would develop such a struggle with performance anxiety. I had always felt nervous before a performance exam and playing in front of people as a child but I assumed that as I got into my later teens it would gradually subside. I always knew I got a little bit more nervous than most people but I dismissed it as being something that could be treated, I  actually made the critical mistake of believing it was a blemish on my own character and I criticised myself for it.   I thought that my anxiousness was a personal flaw that I simply had to live with. Unfortunately, like many people that suffer from performance anxiety, the overwhelming feelings caused me to start translating these symptoms into negative self-perceptions such as “I feel this way because I am not good enough”, or the awful “I am incompetent”. I certainly dealt with irrational and destructive thoughts for many years without realising there were ways to overcome them. 
 
The anticipation of performing could at times be worse than the performance itself. There was a feeling of dread that would last for weeks; I would feel nauseous and sick as the date approached; lightheaded and shaky when thinking about what I needed to do, and as the day got closer I would get sweaty, flushed, extremely unfocused and get a dry mouth or salivate too much, and I needed to go to the toilet too frequently which was quite unpleasant!  During a performance I would lose control of my fingers and mouth, this would affect the sound I had worked so hard to make, the notes would come out a jumbled mess and it felt like I had completely lost control of the actions of my body. Sometimes I could barely breathe which made playing a woodwind instrument impossible! It was utterly embarrassing when all I wanted to do was demonstrate all the hard work I had put in. When my performance anxiety reached its worst, I felt so humiliated and silly on stage that I just couldn’t hold back my tears. It was awful having a classroom full of my peers looking at me, many of whom were very competitive, and many who didn’t suffer from performance anxiety, not to mention the examiners up the back of the room. I felt judged and ridiculous even though as I look back now I am sure that the judgment was not as harsh as I perceived. 
 
There was more to my performance anxiety than humiliation and embarrassment, there was emotional pain, hurt, disappointment and a sense of failure as well. I had spent hours and hours each day on my instrument perfecting my repertoire and the semester examinations were the crucial chance to show off my abilities. After spending years working on something so intensely I cared very much about, it hurt deeply when anxiety interfered with the process and results. Performance anxiety led to a vicious cycle for me as I began to believe it would happen during every exam and every performance. I started to feel that I was worthless and simply not cut out to be a ‘real’ musician despite my efforts. I was in a very unhealthy and unstable place with my self-esteem. 
 
I tried various different methods to ease the anxiety. I tried eating bananas before performing, depriving myself of sleep so that I was exhausted, supplement tablets, beta blockers and valium prescribed by the doctor and then finally in one desperate attempt, alcohol, which did not turn out well! By that point I had become quite cynical about myself. These methods for me did not work because they did not target the emotional content surrounding the anxiety that I was suffering. I needed to work through the thoughts that would consume me when I performed. I often had an intense worry of what people thought I looked like on stage, that people thought I was wasting their time by being there and that people were only there to notice my flaws and incompetence. I was consumed with the idea of being negatively judged. As I write this now, I can see how irrational my thoughts were, but I think it is important to be honest in my confession of performance anxiety so that others can feel less alone. As I reflect on my experience, I can see clearly that I was a young woman with terribly low self-esteem trying her best to fit in and do well. 
 
I benefited greatly from regular sessions with the university counsellor and then regular sessions with a psychologist for another 2 years. I did have many issues that needed attention but having these mental health professionals in my life was absolutely invaluable and I am very glad that I persevered under their assistance. I gradually began to change the way I thought about myself, the people around me and the world in general. I started to learn how to put things into perspective; did it really matter if I made a mistake on stage? 
 
Did it really matter if I didn’t perform to perfection? Are people only there to criticise my appearance and the way I look? Are people only there to listen out for what sounds bad? Are people only in the audience to put me down? Do my teachers and examiners really want me to fail? No, no and no! I started to focus more on the reasons for being a musician, to convey a deeper message through performance.  I wanted people to enjoy music as much as I did, I wanted people to feel an emotional response from beautiful music; I was not performing to be perfect! I stopped caring about things that did not matter and amazingly, my performance skills improved. Much of this may sound very simple, but it was a process that took a lot of hard work and persistence, a lot of trial and error, but it is well worth the effort when you make it out the other side. 
 
When you feel anxious it is easy to lose yourself and forget the reasons why you are doing what you are doing. I got so caught up with worrying about what other people thought that I forgot what I really thought; what I really cared about and why I was really there. I try very hard now to focus on my own expectations and not the expectations of others. I try to focus on my own sense of self, my own feelings, and my own enjoyment surrounding what I do because that matters! Remember why you are doing what you are doing, remember why you care about it, remember the message you want to convey to other people and remember that you have a special skill you are demonstrating to people. Focus on what matters to you! You have a voice that can be and deserves to be heard!
 
By Shelley – ADAVIC Volunteer
 

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