Has any of this ever happened to you when you’re about to play a piece of music in front of others?
- Sweaty hands
- Cracking voice (for singers especially)
- Crazy fast heartbeat
- Tight muscles
- Insert anything else inhibiting, not listed, here
(This isn’t a prescription drug advertisement, I promise!)
Personal experience moment: I have fought with everything in the above list for probably most of my music career. One would think that as time went on I would learn to deal with things better and the issues would diminish but sometimes it feels like the opposite. I’ve always felt somewhat nervous about playing, especially when I was younger and there were points and competitions and goals to meet. Judgement was thrown out there and there was no way to get around that, so pressure was expected. However, I’d say that being nervous about getting a specific score versus becoming nervous from just having someone be capable of seeing you without penalizing you are two different things and the latter should be less explicitly harsh than the former.
While I’m no psychologist and I’m not about to say, “I got over all of my issues with anxiety and here’s how!,” I did have the privilege of gaining some new insight on the topic from someone who has been both in and out of the spotlight and with a sizable amount of recognition to boot.
Julie Flanders, one part of the longstanding, calming, pop trio that is the October Project, started out exclusively as a songwriter for the group but is now an active singer as well. She works alongside her bandmates, vocalist, Marina Belica and composer/multi-instrumentalist Emil Adler. In the brief time I had to chat with Flanders during the Digital Press Conference held by CyberPR, she put a new spin on the definition of everything that makes you dread being on stage:
Flanders: …I was first working [with October Project] with stage fright. It’s very…it’s happening in your body and so thoughts [alone] don’t necessarily have an effect. I’ve tried that too -it’s really awful. Classical musicians often [have it,] because nothing is [often] good enough.
Kira: Yeah, I guess my whole thing was that I [read about your stage fright] and I thought, “Oh, I have to ask her!” How did you get over it?
Flanders: I’m not sure I’m over it! -laughs-
Flanders: It comes and goes. -laughs- No, but I am substantially over it and I’ve really helped other people get over it. It’s much easier to help someone else get over it, frankly. You know, I know a lot of tools because I studied that, that’s my other area of expertise. So I really do -I love to help people with stage fright. Because it’s not just stage fright. Musicians call it that or actors call it that but people have it all over their lives. You know, it’s…
Kira: Freezing up?
Flanders: It…keeps you from being who you really are; shining your light as far as it wants to go.
Kira: Yeah, [I figured,] unless I meet somebody or some divine intervention happens that I suddenly get over my anxiety, that I’m kind of in a rut with this problem. I’ve had it for a long time and by now it’s not something that’s going to go away…
Flanders: You mean the stage fright?
Flanders: It’s a skill. Just remember: You had to learn stage fright and you can re-learn it so you don’t have it anymore. It doesn’t happen on its own. It starts for a reason and then you need to figure out, “How do you solve it?” and every person solves it a little bit differently but it’s definitely solvable and faster than you’d think.
Kira: If you don’t mind me asking, did you ever have a specific moment where you realized, “This is why I suffered from it or why I struggled with it?”
Flanders: I would say that something like stage fright starts somewhere and then gets rehearsed along with everything else. So, for usually for performers, you’ve had a first bad experience and the next time you perform, you start to associate performing with fear and it goes from there. And then, any experience that’s anything like [performing] will also take on some of the same feelings.
I would never have chosen to refer to something so negatively debilitating like anxiety/stage fright, as a skill. I wouldn’t say the idea that an initial negative experience is brand new to me or most but in thinking about the relationship between competition, perfection, judgement and memories, the possible outcomes that we face as developed musicians is downright fascinating. Let’s say a younger musician goes through a severe anxiety attack on stage but has never really had a “bad” performance to date. (At least not one that evokes a negative reaction.) The source of where that first fear-ridden episode comes from starts to sound like a “chicken or the egg” scenario.
If we’re to go with the idea that a memorably bad experience fosters anxiety and then experiencing anxiety during a performance makes a performance (seem) bad, it’s no wonder people can be caught in vicious cycles that stick around for years. Are we to track the first seemingly “random” episode down to a warped mentality of perfection, as Flanders aptly highlights in the beginning of our conversation? Interestingly, with something like performance and a performance career, there’s no stigma against practicing for hours in order to attempt perfection/superiority but excessive chasing of that impossible ideal and related things like constant comparison to peers can sometimes serve to worsen individuals’ views of themselves. This prompts more and more practice, which can eventually create injury.
None of these things are good by any means, yet, where is the education on and reinforcement of, moderation? Perhaps if a class of aspiring and passionate musicians were raised to stay in the “middle of the road,” rather than firing on all cylinders after they’ve discovered this is their passion, maybe that would actually produce less stage fright and more (near)-perfect performances in the long run. Then, even when an off-day did occur, a student would have ingrained philosophies of tempering their drive. Expectations and eventual reactions would be of a more human nature than a godly one and it would be understood with more neutrality that mistakes happen, thereby disconnecting error with failure and fear.