You’ve got a gig! You’ve set the ground work by practising for hours on end. You know your material and you know that this performance is extremely important, but while anticipating the start of the performance, dreaded self-doubt may enter your thoughts. In live performance anything can happen, so how do you cope when you’re getting in your own way?
Your head space during a performance is a crucial aspect that is often overlooked. Creative people like you are so invested in their work that they will toil over it and stress over its quality.
By the time its due to be presented, you are exhausted – emotionally and physically – and the last thing on your mind is getting yourself in the right frame of mind to enjoy the presentation of your hard work.
It is common for crippling thoughts to creep in before a performance:
What if people don’t like it?
What if I make a mistake?
Why did I agree to this?
How am I going to get through this?
And so on and so forth.
Performance preparation is an art in itself. Each person has their own approach and much has been written about performance psychology, and in particular music performance anxiety. Author Barry Green, inspired by Timothy Gallwey, wrote a very practical text for musicians who are affected by performance anxiety.
The Inner Game of Music addresses the issue of self-talk that many performers experience. Green discusses Self 1 and Self 2; the former being the voice in our head and the latter the listener. Self 1 interferes and gets in our way so it would serve us best to tame the negative self-talk in our head.
Green sums up the two selves as follows: “Self 1 gets in our way when it tells us what we should and shouldn’t be doing, and talks to us largely in terms of the past and looming future. It loves to predict failures and successes, and often discusses things that have already happened in terms of the proverbial if only.”
Green continues: “Self 2 is the vast reservoir of potential within each one of us. It contains our natural talents and abilities, and is a virtually unlimited resource that we can tap and develop. Left to its own devices, it performs with gracefulness and ease.”
The philosophy behind the inner game depends not on improving preparation through practise, but by decreasing interference caused by Self 1. Green endorses three crucial skills to master the inner game, these are: awareness, will, and trust.
This is a non-judgemental state of mind where the most natural learning takes place. When we notice our surroundings and understand the responsibility at hand, simple awareness allows our intentions to flourish.
You can achieve this by limiting external distractions and focusing your awareness on a subject of your choosing. If you make a mistake simply notice it, acknowledge it, and don’t pass judgement on yourself. It is about being present in a performance and the aim is to reach a state of relaxed concentration.
Your intentions will manifest if you set a clear goal and have the motivation to move towards it. Will operates on trial and error and has a growth mindset. Will is about using feedback to improve oneself and work towards your ideal performance.
Clarifying your goals will fuel your desire to attain them, hence improving your concentration. Set one clear and simple goal for each performance and you can limit distractions. If you focus on that sole goal, you will come closer to reaching a state of relaxed concentration where you and the music are one.
Inevitably, you will face rejection in any creative line of work; embrace it. You need to trust that your hard work will find an outlet and an appreciative audience. Doubting your self-image, self-control, and abilities diminishes the trust you need to deliver a great performance.
Worrying about what others will think of you is Self 1 interfering with your connection to your art. Allow Self 2 to excel by not clinging to any negative self-talk. You may observe it happening, but you don’t have to listen to it. Imagine the best possible outcome and work towards that ideal. Focus on the empowering energy that takes you to a relaxed and present state.
Channelling Roosevelt and Green
I have often found solace in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt and I have been placing myself out of my comfort zone a lot this year. Most recently, I have accepted the challenge of playing Keys 1 in the orchestra for the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
I had only played Keys 2 in musicals prior to this and the piano is my second instrument, singing being my primary musical skill. It was a daunting responsibility which I had accepted partly to help out a colleague whom I respect… and also because it scared me.
Naturally, I’m drawn to opportunities that terrify me because I truly believe this is how I will better myself. We are 5 shows into the season, and the feedback from critics, patrons, and my fellow orchestral musicians has been positive. This creative risk was worth it but I won’t deny that Self 1 tried to creep into my mind several times throughout my performances.
Thoughts such as “Everyone is depending on you, don’t stuff up” and “You’re really better at singing than you are at playing the piano” could have easily defeated me if I had let them. Instead, I started each show in a meditative state and focused on breathing.
I took in my surroundings, acknowledged my responsibility, and set a simple goal: to have fun while playing. Awareness, will, and trust were my ingredients for success. Now, I’m ready for the next challenge.
Remember the wisdom of Roosevelt:
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Not even yourself.