I don’t keep it much of a secret that I’ve suffered with performance anxiety for the whole of my life as a musician, just as most of us do. It comes in peaks and troughs as I feel my mind drifts between a space of acceptance and joy to a place of dread, judgment and fear. I want to look closer into why I feel so defined by playing well and why success, for me, is usually a personal affair.
There aren’t so many times in my life that I have found myself crying uncontrollably. This extreme physical reaction to sadness has really only occurred when I feel I have failed myself in a performance situation. Humiliation, perhaps a mark far below what I was hoping or feeling as though I have failed to impress others. It may be the shame of the suffering my anxiety has caused me, perhaps through memory lapses, tense body and a less than desirable sound. The absolute agony that is experienced when I feel I have not delivered for myself. My steadfastness towards a goal alongside the expectations of success have failed me. I have failed myself, my art, and music entirely is better off without me. I wish I hadn’t bothered trying.
Writing this is fascinating for me. It all looks very dramatic on paper, but in my head these are thoughts that I have truly believed about myself in the past. My successes cultivate great levels of self worth; my failures thrashing any sense of worth that was there. The reality remains that I absolutely will fail. I must fail to succeed. This truism is often thrown around but I think it’s important that I start to think about what it means to me. It is likely to be one the most important question that we ask ourselves. Who am I without my success? Without the self expectation? Without being prisoner to others’ expectations? Who would I be then?
First it the inevitable, I must fail. If I’m not failing, not risking failure it is likely that my success is also narrow minded. I don’t dare to go beyond my capabilities and so my capabilities remain limited. We limit ourselves through our fear and through our absolute repulsion to the emotions of failure, but what does the knowledge of how failure can change us for the better do for our performances? It says goodbye to the fear. Perhaps not the fear in the moment, fear of the unknown, but it takes away our fear of the fear. Our fear of who we are when we are vulnerable, when we feel we have let ourselves and everyone down. Knowing what failure can do for us should make us perversely excited to fail. It should make every performance and every outcome an adventure. How amazing that we do what we do and how amazing that we get to witness the ups and downs of our existence, just like everyone else.
We can take each performance just as it comes, living out whatever happens in the moment it happens. We need to look within to find a trust, a loving for the who we are aside from success and aside from failure and, even, aside from our art. It may surround a lot of our lives, but success and failure are tiny in comparison to everything else we are in the world. We are here to see and be seen, to experience the whole spectrum of emotion. I’m sure composers had and have an expectation for us to put ourselves on the line, just as they did. We will face criticism just as they did, but we are all connected by this same suffering and experience and not divided by it.
Remember your core values and then try and tell yourself that failure is a bad thing. If you have been courageous, open and expressive, any failure you experience is only going to enhance the way you experience success.