You Should Perform (Whether You Like It Or Not)

On October 8, 2012, in Advice, by Magnolia Guitar

I have a student (actually quite a few students and friends) who just don’t want to perform in public. Most are quite talented and many show a great deal of potential. But even so, they just don’t want to perform. And I think that this is a mistake.

Are these people just shy? Or scared? Sometimes, I am told, the reason is that they just want to play for their own enjoyment. While this may very well be true, over time it will result in detrimental effects and if left untreated, ultimately lead to quitting.

You might be thinking, “Wow, that’s harsh Dan. How can you be so sure that EVERYONE should perform lest they end up quitting?”

Practice is Work. Performing is Fun.

If you haven’t played a musical instrument before, or performed in any capacity before, of course, the idea of being in front of an audience is daunting. In the beginning, when we’re not very good at something, like music, we can put ourselves at ease and tell ourselves we’re just beginners. It’s enough to just play for our “own enjoyment” at home.

But as we begin to get better, you run the risk of getting bored easily with new material. You learn only bits and pieces of songs. And you become frustrated.

You see “practice” wasn’t intended to be enjoyable in an of itself. Practice is work. Work to improve accuracy or speed or dexterity or fluidity or any number of other skills. “Performance” is the reward for all the hard work we put into practicing. Actually, the applause after our performance is the reward, secure in the knowledge that people enjoyed what you did and that you are among the few who can fit all those musical puzzle pieces together successfully.

If you don’t have the goal of a performance to push you forward or the reward of a job well done acknowledged by other people, music begins to lose it’s appeal. You’re practicing for no reason.

Music is meant to be shared. Art is a risk that needs to be taken. If you don’t perform, you’re playing it safe, which means you’ll never get hurt. But the flip-side is that you’ll never know joy either.

And that’s why people who practice without performing, lose interest. You can give as many reasons as you like, but your heart and your soul will know the truth. That pursuing music without performance is an empty endeavor.

Everyone Gets Nervous. Every. One.

So I don’t end with all this “gloom and doom”, I will tell you a secret. It’s not a secret among performers, but often non-performers are surprised by it. Everyone gets nervous before performing, amateurs and professionals alike. And if someone tells you otherwise, they are joking or not telling you the truth.

I was hosting the monthly Musicians Workshop recently and in trying to encourage people to volunteer to perform, I said that we were all peers and friends and that there was nothing to be afraid of. And I instantly corrected myself.

Because, we all know that’s not true. There is plenty to be afraid of when performing. What if I forget the words or the chords or the solo? What if my voice cracks or if I’m pitchy? Any number of things could go wrong.

The reality is that everyone get nervous before they perform. Every single one of us. It doesn’t matter if you’ve performed for the first time or the one thousand and first time. Everyone gets nervous before they “go on”.

“When musicians get nervous before performing, there are three different things happening,” says Dr. Noa Kageyama, a sport and performance psychologist at the Juilliard School. “There’s the physical response, which can be things like dry mouth, butterflies in the stomach, or a sped up heart rate. There’s the mental response, where your thoughts race and instead of focusing on what you need to be doing right now, you become more aware of extraneous, task-irrelevant details. And finally, there’s the emotional response. We feel scared or panicky, like we’d rather be anywhere else than about to play a show.”(1)

Performing is a skill just like anything else. The more you perform, the easier it gets (which is the same way cognitive therapists get people over their phobias, by the way). And Dr. Kageyama agrees, “like other skills, you have to practice [performing] to get to the level you want to be at.”

Or as I like to say, “The only way to do it, is to go through it.”

Performance anxiety isn’t just for musicians. Why was Steve Jobs so much better at giving presentations than the other tech CEOs? Because he practiced the HECK out of them. (And because he LOVED what he was doing.) Like performing music, people just aren’t preternaturally good at things like giving presentations or speeches. It takes practice. A different sort of practice from your scales, but practice just the same.

But even for the most veteran performer, the anxiety never completely goes away. You simply mitigate it through experience and some people may even learn to enjoy the feeling and call it “excitement”. But it’s the same driving force. Being nervous before you do something risky and fun, tells you you’re alive. When you don’t feel anything, that’s when you have a real problem.

Join me next time when I go further into how to navigate your performance anxiety. Please leave your comments below.

(1) “Stage Fright! Overcoming Music Performance Anxiety” by Michael Gallant, Disc Makers


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