I’m about to out myself: as a sufferer of performance anxiety. Any regular readers will know that I was born a worry-wart and a self confessed neurotic. I’m also a shameless show off, so I was addicted to performing from when I was a little person. Marrying these two aspects of myself has caused me considerable angst in the past. I spent years trying to hide my chronic anxiety with labyrinthine coping mechanisms and pretending to be normal, but these days, I can’t be arsed. It has often felt like a cosmic joke that I have found myself in a career which is so closely linked with adrenaline and fear. God knows I’ve tried to do other things, but I missed playing too much. It never felt right doing anything else.
I was in my early twenties when my nerves were at their worst. I was at college, and my absolute favourite thing to do was play in the college orchestras. Many of my peers, particularly in the string department, used to hate the lengthy rehearsals and bemoan the fact that it ate into their solo practice time, but I loved it. Learning how to be in a cello section felt like the whole reason why I was at college. I worked really hard on learning my orchestral excerpts, I looked forward to the rehearsals, I loved the camaraderie amongst the players…..I had a great time. Until the performance came. I would put on my black frock, I would lift my bow to play, and adrenaline would wash over me like a tsunami. I’m not talking butterflies in the stomach “golly I’m excited about this concert!” kind of adrenaline. I’m talking about the kind you get when a rabid dog is running after you, or you’re about to be sentenced to life imprisonment (I imagine.) My heart would pound at 100 miles per hour, my stomach would churn, my nerve endings would jangle and I would feel like I had shards of glass in the soles of my feet and the tips of my fingers. The most terrifying bit was the sensation of pressure on my chest, so I couldn’t catch my breath.
This hellish congregation of bad feelings may feel very much like a heart attack, but it is an actual fact, a natural part of the body’s “flight or fight” response.
If I had been being chased by a rabid dog, the adrenaline coursing through my body directing the blood flow to my vital organs would have enabled me to run faster than normal, away from danger. My body was apparently trying to protect me from mortal peril. Unfortunately, in my situation, there was no mortal peril, just Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony or some such. My stupid body told me again and again in no uncertain terms, “run screaming off the stage immediately, if not sooner. This is no place for you.”
Occasionally when things were really bad, I hyperventilated on stage. Hyperventilation is a ghastly process, which in its latter stages, can temporarily paralyse the hands and oddly, produces pins and needles in the face. When this starts happening, it’s game over. Blacking out is the next god awful step. To prevent myself from panicking to the point of hyperventilating I fervently tried to imagine I was somewhere else, away from the audience, watching Eastenders, eating cheese on toast, having my toes cut off with a rusty implement……ANYWHERE but on stage. I counted down the pages of the music and most times got through the performance, but I loathed every second of it.
I tried to talk to people about it, my parents were great as they are all musicians (all four of them), but I wasn’t 100% honest about how bad it was, because I was oddly ashamed. I felt like I should have been able to cope better. Also a few people did dismiss the whole thing as ludicrously illogical and said things like, “It’s all in your head!” which of course it was, but telling me that was of FUCK ALL use. I’m not thick, I badly wanted to think my way out of it, but I felt powerless over the chemical reactions in my body. I began to dread performing. The panic attacks started coming in rehearsals, on the bus on the way to my cello lesson….any time I had to perform, and sometimes when I didn’t. I would be freaking out, mid performance, and I’d look desperately around at my peers, playing away, seemingly without a care in the world. It sounds dramatic, but it was unbearably lonely. I felt I was the only one who was frightened, even though logically speaking, I knew that couldn’t possibly be true. My lovely friends were sympathetic, but they didn’t really get it. They thought I was scared of making a mistake. “Who cares if you fuck it up? No one will even know!” they said, incredulous. The thing is, it was never really about the playing. Obviously I care massively about playing well and giving the best performance I can, but if something goes wrong, nobody dies. It may have been growing up with jobbing musicians for parents, but I’m not sure that playing the cello correctly in front of people warrants a huge amount of anxiety; after all, it’s not brain surgery, or military combat. I knew the doom I felt onstage was about more complicated stuff than making technical mistakes. I just didn’t know how to get rid of it.
I spoke to my personal tutor, who was very nice, and told me to involve myself more with the music. “Really think about what you are playing, concentrate on the phrasing, focus on your sound,” he said, kindly. Given that my problem was more to do with the fact that during a gig I couldn’t feel my legs, or see the music past the black spots dancing before my eyes, his advice wasn’t all that constructive. My GP offered me anti depressants, and when I refused them (the copious list of side effects included: “more anxiety”. I ask you!) he prescribed an elephantine dose of beta blockers (pills that “block” the activity of the adrenal glands responsible for the fight or flight response).
During my final year at college, I remember attending a seminar about performance nerves and how to control them. I’d recently resigned myself to stopping playing altogether the second I graduated. I was in bits. I went along, praying that I’d hear something that would help me out of my turmoil. My heart sank when the speaker began by talking about the effectiveness of potassium in a banana. Apparently the humble banana is “nature’s beta blocker.” (I thought to myself, “I’d need forty eight of those to match the dosage of the ACTUAL beta blockers I have in my handbag.”)
The college counsellor made me write down a list of all my fears and then went through each one, logically discussing their implausibility in an attempt to change my core beliefs, which I’m sure on some level was helpful. The problem still remained though, that every time I got on stage, it was like a switch was tripped…..the adrenaline I experienced was totally debilitating. I tried lots of things, but alas, the only ones that worked were pharmaceutical, or originated in a distillery. I got myself into a cycle of medicating myself through every anxiety inducing situation, which was not a long term solution.
Predictably, it all came to a head mercifully quickly. Over a period of a couple of years, things got so bad that I stopped playing. The panic attacks were happening all the time and I was dependent on beta blockers and alcohol. When I was 24, I had to reassess pretty much everything and start again. I am now a super boring straight edger, drink free and drug free, and have been for a few years. (I have not undergone a religious conversion, in case you were wondering.)
Learning to perform again substance free was not easy, to be honest. Luckily I have a legion of people who help me out and Raven was like performance rehab. I felt safe playing with the same 3 people all the time and arranging/memorising everything ourselves meant that every cell of my being was involved in what I was playing. Also a Raven gig is physically knackering, so any unwanted excess adrenaline was used up within the first few minutes. I do many a gig nowadays and the more I do, the less I obsess about how I’m feeling. In fact, recently on stage I found my mind wandering to the Pret ham and cheese baguette (see below: is there a greater sandwich?) I had in the dressing room and how I was going to eat it the SECOND I got off stage. Unprofessional, certainly, but for a self obsessed scaredy cat like me, that’s progress.
There have been some necessary seismic shifts in my head in order to get back on the horse, so to speak. Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of a gig, say an orchestral one, and there may be a slow movement in a concerto where nothing much happens. I can start to concentrate on tiny sensations in my torso and think, “there’s a good chance I’ll faint/projectile vomit in front of all these people. That would be bad. I’d never work again….” and then all hell breaks loose. The adrenaline tsunami threatens to overwhelm me. I’ve been taught by various people (including professional anxiety specialists) to try and observe the wave, rather than be pulled along with it. I have a wealth of things I tell myself if the doom descends on stage, one of which has to be “you can leave anytime you like. If it gets too much, just walk off. If you’re never booked again, you’re a good waitress.” (I am. Ask my regulars.) Giving myself an escape route conversely helps me stay on stage and calm down.
The reason why I’m writing about this is not for sensationalism, but because I feel like performance anxiety is still a taboo subject amongst musicians. I used to think that if anyone knew about my panic attacks/uber square sobriety/sabbatical that they would think less of me as a musician and it would affect the kind of work I’d get. I was advised to keep quiet about it by various people. Then I got a bit more comfortable with myself and started to make some older wiser acquaintances on freelance gigs. They would ask why I don’t drink and I would tell them the truth, partly because being inauthentic and terrified of what people thought of me was a contributing factor to the whole secret medicating debacle in the first place. These days I find lying really anxiety inducing (shocker, I know.) Not one person I have told has said “I have no experience with that whatsoever. You are hereby scrubbed off the extras list!” as I once feared. Every single person has either experienced excruciating performance nerves themselves, or knows someone who has. I have spoken to loads of people who I assumed at first glance were confident, brilliant at playing their instruments and so supremely talented they couldn’t possibly be frightened. The truth is, they’ve been shit scared too, at one point or another.
I don’t think all my anxiety was about being a musician and having to perform for a living. I think the fact that I’m one of life’s panickers who happened to want to be a professional cellist is an unfortunate coincidence. Learning to manage it has been the hardest thing I have done in my little life. Is divulging all of this emotionally slutty? Maybe. If I didn’t know so many people who have struggled with this alone, drugged up to their eyeballs on beta blockers and feeling like failures, I would shut up and get on with it. But I do, so I won’t.