Mastering Your Anxiety
by Daniela Candillari
“You can reduce your anxiety somewhat by facing the fact that there isn’t a mechanic alive who doesn’t louse up a job once in a while. The main difference between you and the commercial mechanics is that when they do it you don’t hear about it – just pay for it, in additional costs prorated through all your bills. When you make the mistakes yourself, you at least get the benefit of some education.”
– Robert M. Pirsig: Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Performance anxiety is a topic researched and written about by many, and rather than writing another analytical paper, I decided to present a story of how I got from point A to point B, and back again. In other words how I learned to be my own mechanic when it came to performing.
Since I could remember I wanted to be on stage performing and when I started playing piano my dream started becoming a reality. My first performances that were built around those tough pieces of total 16 measures went really well and I could not wait for every single opportunity to perform, be it in school productions or our piano concerts. Everything was going well and how it should in those early stages of music education. However every good story has a twist. The twist in mine happened one day while I was waiting in line for my turn to go on stage. The way our concerts were run in the music school was that on a given day in a month selected students from all the piano studios would play the pieces they studied. The younger ones would go first and the higher the level of the student the longer they had to wait for their turn to go to the concert hall. Those waiting intermezzos could last anywhere from 10 – 45 minutes. At the age of 8 I had already accumulated some experience in waiting and performing. So, there I was waiting for my turn and a girl standing behind me started talking to me. From nowhere she asked ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ A little bit confused by the question, I replied ‘What is there to be afraid of’, and she continued with her explanation that a lot of things could go wrong. After the short ‘coaching’ I was just involuntarily given, what was the next thing that happened? Of course, I got scared and was dreading going on stage. Things that never even crossed my mind somehow snuck their way and in the mere 7 minutes I had left before entering the podium, everything had changed. It is sad but true to say that this was fear I had for the next 10 years. There were good performances during that period, but think of the energy I could have saved myself had I not listened to a girl I never ever met again after that encounter.
Years later, after many performances and concentration exercises, and armed with a modest knowledge of how I came from one point to another one, I realize that as a child I was simply following my own instincts, and my instincts were only telling me to perform and tell a story with music. They did not tell me to worry if my stool is going to be high enough, if a passage at the end of the 8th measure is going to run smoothly, or tell me I was going to have a memory slip.
Many specialists say there are around five main causes for performance anxiety, which can be fought over if you ask yourself the right question. Some of these causes can be:
* fear of being judged by the audience: one way of dealing with it is to ask yourself why are these people here to listen to you;
* fear of failure as an outcome of the performance can be another cause: rather than focusing on the outcome of the performance, think of the present and enjoy the moment you are in;
* by trying to reduce the risk of failure, we can achieve exactly the opposite outcome; so instead of focusing on the possible negative aspect of your performance, it is more encouraging to think of a positive outcome.
Of course the power of preparation is never to be underestimated. Daniel Barenboim put this beautifully when he said the better he knows a piece, the more free he feels on stage.
Nowadays the main question I ask myself before I stand in front of any-size audience is, what is the story I am trying to tell and what do I want my audience to take home with them. Mistakes happen. There is no other way around it. One of the best pianists of the 20th century, Arthur Schnabel, was even recorded playing Mozart’s Piano Concert in A-major K. 488, some would say a concerto played by literally every pianist, and yet in this widely known piece a memory slip happened. But in the grand scheme of things, the little mistakes can become charming. It’s not the mistakes that make your performance, it’s your personality and the story you are sharing. So go and tell a story every time you have one person wanting to listen to you.
Daniela Candillari, Ph.D., was the recipient of Fulbright Scholarship and TED Fellowship, and has given recitals and masterclasses in Europe, North America, and Asia. In recent years she developed a strong interest in multimedia projects, resulting in an invitation by Håkan Hagegård to Stockholm for performances of Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and Ture Rangström’s Ur Kung Eriks Visor. Her past projects include a recital Northern Lights with Ørjan Hartveit; Adjustments, a video production with Pablo Rodriguez and Ted Strauss, and a production for Bravo Channel (Montréal) on TV series Shakespeare in Words and Music.
For more information on Daniela, visit her website: www.danielacandillari.com