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Anxiety In Performance

By Roque Diaz

I want to share a story about a mental health concern I developed while performing. Have a read and feel free to contact me if you’ve encountered a similar concern. 

When I was in grade five, I would remember coming home after school and immediately going into my older brother’s bedroom to play his trumpet. At this age, I had no concept of playing a musical instrument. I would recall specific instances of trying to emulate my brother as he played. For the most part, my brother did not mind me invading his privacy to play. I would take his trumpet to the living room and perform for my parents. Even though the sounds that came out of the bell were not musical, I had an innate sense to perform. After a bit of trial and error, my brother began giving me bits of guidance on achieving a proper sound. Band programs in schools (usually)  started in grade six. I remember counting down the days.

The first week of grade six had finally arrived. All I wanted to do was play the trumpet in music class. My music teacher provided the class with a beginner music book. The one assignment was to focus on the first learning objectives: how to start a note, how to articulate a note, and how to sustain a long tone. At the end of the week, any student who wanted to perform for the class could volunteer. I vividly remember some of the students raising their hand and performing the first learning objective. I was looking around the band room wondering who would be next and when I should raise my hand. Oh, what I had forgotten to mention earlier is that I decided to go directly to the back of the music book and learn a more difficult exercise. What happened next was an experience that I would never forget.

The music teacher informed the students that class would be ending soon. Only a few more volunteers could perform.

I rose my hand and all of the sudden my heart began racing and my breathing became short. I had no idea what was happening.

All I knew is that I wanted to perform for everyone. When I was called, I informed the class that I decided to skip to the back of the book and play an exercise titled Gigue. I remember getting awkward stares from students in the class. I picked up my trumpet (with my heart still racing), took a deep breath, and began playing. After I finished, my music teacher gave me positive compliments. The entire class began clapping. I remember feeling a sensation that performing gave me an emotional and physical rush.

Performing became very natural to me. My years in high school were spent performing as a soloist with various ensembles. My first professional performance came in grade 10, when I performed for an Easter day church service. Once I realized that I could perform and make money, I decided to pursue a university degree in music.

During my undergraduate studies, I studied different aspects of music. I performed in many university ensembles while also performing professionally in the community. I remember the feeling of being fearless. Performance anxiety was non-existent. Shortly into my university studies, I auditioned and got hired to perform in the touring Broadway production, Blast! the Show. I had the opportunity to travel the world and perform professionally.

I am not exactly sure when, but different levels of performance anxiety began to affect my professional performance experience.

Was it the pressure of performing every day consistently to maintain employment? Was it the emotional burden to live with financial stability? Was there a physical limitation in my playing technique? The once fearless approach towards performing had now taken a different turn. What I thought was an exhilarating rush in grade six now morphed into concerning questions about my ability to perform (that often affected my technique and emotional state).

How would I ever overcome this? At first, I tried to “re-learn” the trumpet. I started taking lessons from different teachers. I kept hearing the same information (which was to practice slow). It wasn’t until I took two years off from performing that I began to truly understand my anxiety. I started to think of the pressures of performing, and how this was different when I was younger. Every thought that I put in my mind would manifest negative energy into my body. I realized that I somehow switched my mindset of performing from “I want perform” to “I had to perform”. Once I mentally and emotionally accepted this concept, my anxiety levels started to adjust. Am I cured? No, but I think that all artists experience some form of anxiety. The difference now is I embrace the anxiety. I feel like I am engaged in the performance, and I just remind myself that the audience is watching to enjoy the performance. My father always tells me that “your mind in your strongest muscle, and that you control it, not the other way around”. Just think about this if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

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