Does the sight of this make any other pianists break out in a cold sweat, or is it just me?

I am generally an abysmal performer. I say this with no false humility, as I also believe myself to be a decent musician. But the performing part—oh dear. My entire adult life I have suffered from the sort of performance anxiety that manages to wipe hours of piano practice and study from my brain as if they never happened. No amount of preparation, no amount of attempted mindfulness can save me from it. If I am playing by memory, entire pieces that I knew literally back to front will be erased from my brain. Playing with music is a little better, though it lends itself to spontaneous second-guessing (how is it that accidentals seem to dart around on the page or suddenly just appear from nowhere in performance?) as well as periods of sheer technical failure (never before has a simple run felt as awkward as it does when you idiotically make the decision to try out a new fingering during a performance).

I was not always this way. As a child, I performed joyfully and without fear. Fancying myself a future ballerina, I lived for my limelight moments in The Nutcracker. Piano recitals, which were held in a church, not on a glamorous stage, and were thus considered to be much more humdrum events, were a breeze. I was cute and I had promise, and I knew this, and at that time, that was enough for me to adore showing my stuff. Then adolescence hit, and with it a self-awareness that ruined my ability to perform. I wasn’t that cute anymore, and cute wasn’t really enough, anyway. Now I needed something to show beyond promise, like actual skills, perhaps, and the importance of every performance was grotesquely inflated in my head. I no longer enjoyed performing. At all. And it showed, of course. I stumbled and fell out of turns on the dance stage, and could not express any musicality on the piano so intent was I on keeping it together to the end of the piece.

This did not improve through young adulthood. Once my ballerina dreams faded, as ballerina dreams have wont to do, I went to college and had a chance to really find my niche. So I decided to…focus on piano? There was no good reason for this, other than I have an Icarus/sun relationship with performing. Anyway, despite the fact that my performance anxiety only got worse through college and into my twenties, I pressed on, and managed to fake it, if not enough to make it, exactly, then enough to graduate and find music-related work. Once I hit thirty, the anxiety gradually started to improve. Very gradually. At this point my brain no longer categorizes every stint at the piano where other people are present as a “performance” (brain code for “shut down and refuse to send relevant signals”), which has been helpful. But it still frequently and without warning jumps into “performance” mode, even in seemingly comfortable situations, which makes it frustratingly impossible to predict what quality of music I’m going to produce when I sit down on that bench.

The closest I’ve ever gotten to basking in the performance sun without crashing and burning was a few years ago. My twins were six months old, and I was just reaching a point where I felt a will to live again. I was accompanying a flutist at a small recital. The music was not hard, which was good, because I hadn’t really practiced it. And I didn’t even particularly like this music; it was just okay.  But somehow, at that recital, I achieved the level of flow that I’m always looking for in performance but rarely achieve. The notes on the page were friends, the keyboard was a friend, the flutist (a colleague I didn’t know very well) was a friend, the middling music itself was a friend, and I was really, really happy to be playing the whole time.  I knew that no one was going to be able to bother me until I had turned the last page and played the last note, and that was liberating in a moment when I really needed an excuse to not be bothered. This was a tiny achievement, but it was a great half hour while it lasted.

I have had a hard time recreating the circumstances of that experience (I think it had something to with a feeling of escape after six months of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression, so I don’t really want to, anyway), but I don’t (usually) totally crash and burn anymore, either. Instead, I fly precariously at an altitude between success and failure (the wings get hot, a little mushy maybe, but they don’t quite melt), as I did the other night while I was accompanying a choir concert. Even though this was technically a performance, there was no logical reason for my brain to jump into default “performance” mode. The concert was in a space I’ve played in many times, and the music was familiar and not difficult. But as soon as I began playing the first piece, I got a panicked feeling, because I could feel my brain starting to blip out; I could feel my logical mind losing control. I was noticing weird new things in the score and getting distracted by them, my hands were going on autopilot (which works fine until you start to think about it—it’s like Wile E. Coyote noticing he’s walked off a cliff), and several page turns had me in a cold sweat.

Somewhere in the middle, though, I decided I just wasn’t going to let it fall in chaos. First off, I used shame. “You’re almost forty years old,” I told myself, “you’ve done this same sort of thing about a million times, and being this freaked out about turning two pages back for a D.S. is ridiculous.” (A D.S. in written music means you have to go back and repeat a section. Usually it’s followed by al coda, which means that somewhere within that repeated section you have to skip forward to an ending section. All that page turning is a pain in the ass, and also, terrifying). I didn’t think this sort of brain talking-to would work, because in that moment I felt like my life depended on turning the two pages back successfully. But it sort of did work. My brain, embarrassed at its lack of discipline, chilled out and refocused. The page turn went okay, and the piece ended without any huge incidents. During the next number I remembered a funny story my husband had told me, about how three of his friends had recorded a karaoke version of “Tears in Heaven” at a kiosk during an elementary school trip to Busch Gardens, a cassette tape of which still exists somewhere, and though that sort of distraction is dangerous and probably not advisable, the song I was playing at the time was very easy and had no tricky page turns, so remembering the story was just enough to make me smirk a little and remind me that my brain could do emotions beyond panic, and I did okay after that. This was not a flow experience. But it was a space of relative calm and control. Which was fine. Sometimes not bombing the concert is enough.

Something in me will always be mesmerized by the sun of the live performance. Some part of me will always want to figure out now to nail it every time, to make the performance a culmination of all the time and effort that went into preparing it. This is the ideal, and of course it rarely happens—for me at least. It is difficult not to regret what feels like time wasted on preparation. After having drilled the fingering on a single measure fifty times only to mess it up in a spectacular new way the one time you ever plan performing it, it seems logical to wish you spent that practice time doing pretty much anything else. I mean, if I knew I was going to bomb bar 101 anyway, I could have just left it alone and maybe cleaned my oven or something.

But here is what keeps me in it: the experience of the day to day. The repetition of a certain phrase from the piano reduction of Swan Lake, just because I can’t get enough of it, the trying out a new chord progression while accompanying a dance class and the managing to find a graceful way out of it when it goes awry, the putting an accompaniment together with an instrumentalist or vocalist for the first time, the making myself hoarse singing the baritone part with my church choir and hoping that my baritones will follow me. These situations are not lofty, they are not without mistakes, but they are part of the everyday work of living a life where beauty matters. I don’t need wings for this sort of thing, I don’t need sun-like aspirations, I just need a willingness to get up in the morning and do it. Performance is an extension of all this, but it is only that–an extension. Which helps to put it into perspective, as long as my brain isn’t already in a mid-concert meltdown.

Incidentally, writing is, I have to say, easier to stomach in the respect that it does not depend on the precariousness of live performance. There is still invisible work that will never be perceived. So many words deleted as soon as they’re typed, so many drafts, so much editing. Lots of submitting, lots of rejection. But in writing, I feel a lovely control in knowing that I can decide what version I want to present, and that no amount of anxiety or nerves is going to suddenly cause my three best paragraphs to be deleted as soon as I hit submit. It feels less like flying rashly towards the sun and more like actually having a chance to get the damn wing design right. So there’s that.

For those that are interested, I linked my own recording of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major in “Long Winter Intermezzo.” It is poor sound quality, and, well, I won’t comment on the skill of the pianist, but I got it in my head I wanted it in there, so there it is. In case you wonder, my brain does not view recording as a performance, but it does view it as a nerve wracking exercise in not screwing up. One little bobble and my mind just gives up and is ready to start over. Again and again. Until time runs out. Anyway, in this particular recording, I had a bobble in the middle that, upon review, was not very noticeable, but because of it, I rushed to the end. So there you have it. Don’t rush to the end just because the middle seems a little messed up. I’m always learning new lessons that should have been obvious to start with.

Also for those that are interested, my essay, “Thrive,” appears in Issue 21 of Mom Egg Review (available here). It’s another take on pumpkins. Sorry, folks. No more pumpkin essays, I promise. At least until October.

I also have a short story, “Dragon House,” forthcoming (this, like debut, is one of those literary words one is supposed to use; it seems that one does not say “coming soon” if one wants to be taken seriously) in Little Patuxent Review sometime this summer. I’m especially excited about this one; it is a fantastical little thing inspired by my children’s love for imaginary beasts and my own existential fears.

Thanks for reading!

8 thoughts on “Performance

  1. Icarus wasn’t just a failure – we have to remember that he also flew. (Stole that from a poem via a different blog!)

    Love all this ~


  2. Ashley,

    Love you! And I know that performance anxiety myself very, very well. Too well. It makes me do crazy things like tell people no I absolutely won’t perform for you, why are you asking me. Which is kind of the opposite of what I want to do. And it makes me screw up in my own private playing, the moment it occurs to me, hey this is going really well I could perform this for peo– damn. I can usually breathe through it in an actual performance, but it’s hard and doesn’t always work. I had a similar experience to what you describe in my senior recital as an undergraduate, I could feel the anxiety building during the first half, suddenly a baby started crying in the audience. No idea who brought the baby. But it was a blessing, and I realized it in the moment, because it was enough to break the tension for me, distract me from fixating on the anxiety. To make me laugh a bit at myself and my problems. So I got through it and I did OK. Probably other people were annoyed by the baby crying, but I had a good time.

    Looking forward to reading your short story. I think of you and the children often even though I never communicate. Mine is such a weird brain.



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