Stage Fright for me is…

fear As part of my music college classes like in most music colleges I have top lay in front of other people. What’s the point in doing a degree in classical performance without getting up and actually performing? It’s true. And though I love performance (to the people that know and love me best I can be quite a dramatic personality) and performing music is what makes up my hopes and dreams for the future… I still get horrible stage fright.

There’s something incredible about the feeling of being nervous. The physical side effects of the chemical changes that go on in your brain for instance; the butterflies, the twitchiness (in my case), the palms of your hands sweating… People get varying degrees of these symptoms and the severity of your fear can make performance impossible. Yet can we truly perform an ecstatic awe-inspiring beautiful performance without it?

Author and journalist Sara Solovitch and her recent publication "Playing Scared"
Author and journalist Sara Solovitch and her recent publication “Playing Scared”

I suppose like anything it’s about balance. Too much of it and you’re in trouble; there are so many musicians around the world who give up their performing careers due to the fear. One amazing example of this is Sara Solovitch who gave up playing age 19 and found decades later that “while my (her) fingers could no longer fly across the keys, my fear was right where I’d left it”.  Her article in the Guardian newspaper discussed her experience of learning not to try and remove the fear, but to learn to cope with it, to use it to make her performances, utilising her fear in a different way, learning to ride it.

However not all are able to learn to work with it for all kinds of different reasons, I famously remember the day a tutor who will not be named advised us “not to rule out medication”  as a way to get through a particularly stressful performance.  Some people were extremely shocked by this, but you only have to google musicians and mental illness or musicians and addiction for piles of articles and scholarly papers to come up on the subject.   Though the exact figures are not known there are a number of musicians who use beta blockers to cope with the stress and anxiety of performance.  Some who do have found that though the physical symptoms of the anxiety have gone, the ability to care about your performance and connect with it emotionally have also diminished.  If you are interested in any of the things I have touched upon in this paragraph please take a look at the channel 4 documentary Addict’s Symphony which is all about musicians with addictions, many of the musicians have issues stemming from anxiety and stage fright.

So… if having too much performance anxiety can ruin your ability to perform but not enough adrenaline causes a potentially “deadened” performance then are we effectively screwed?  I don’t think so.  While just trying to “relax” may not be an effective piece of advice there are ways of I suppose ways to relax into the adrenaline.  As Sara Solovitch said in her article she finds that the best musicians ride their adrenaline.

For me the struggle has always been very concious.  I go between enjoying the feeling of anticipation and that “in the moment” sensation, to finding it impossible to keep the intrusive thoughts out of my head, the ones of failure, not being good enough.  Though logically I know this is ridiculous, I always worry about whether or not people are looking at my thighs…  Enough about my thighs! –  Another thing I have noticed about stage fright is that the more in control of my day to day life I feel, the more in control and able to enjoy my performance I become.  I don’t know how much of this is conscious or not, but I hope this is insightful to anyone struggling with performance anxiety or feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel.  It is possible to overcome performance anxiety and enjoy the elation of performance, however long it takes however you need to achieve it.

Discovering Dyspraxia

It’s been another long gap since I uploaded a post on here.  I was writing one about my two week break from London to get my head organised, however I deleted it for another post that I decided was probably more important.

When I write this I am sure there are many musicians and people from all different careers who have felt and are feeling what I have been through in the last three years of music college.  I absolutely have loved my time so far at my conservatoire, it is a beautiful, wonderful place full of amazing talented people.  But despite the good times I have had at music college, I must admit I’ve found it somewhat of an uphill struggle.  Especially the last year…

Looking at my year it’s been extremely successful, I averaged out at a first this year (yaaay!) and the wind quintet I am a member of has won a prize (yaaay!) and I am overall pretty chuffed at how it’s all gone.  To be honest though, it’s been the hardest year I have spent in higher education.

Everyone goes through times in their life when they feel inadequate, like everything they do is taking twice as long as their peers, and like they are feeling just a little bit dumb at the moment.  I have felt this my entire way through school from the age of four until now.  My self esteem was terrible, and I over-compensated by being very chatty and reading as much as I could so that I could “know more things” than my peers.  “the Diaries of a Nervous Musician” were born from a person who felt like they would never be good enough, and terrified at the thought of rejection and failure I allowed it to become a self fulfilling prophecy to a certain extent.  Despite the fact that I have never failed an exam (in fact I have always done well if not average in everything I have put my mind to).  But I always had the feeling that it was all very very difficult and it never got easier.

None of the above is helped by the fact that people don’t in general try to make you feel better unless they know you very well.  If you say “Oh I don’t think I played very well in class,” they go “hmm,” or “yes”.   Now one mustn’t read into that as people WANT you to feel bad, I don’t think that at all, but when your self-esteem is low it’s very, very easy to interpret that as “they think I played crap too”.

Things changed for me this summer when just over two weeks ago I was diagnosed with Dyspraxia.

I was no where near as surprised as I thought I would be when I went in, because during the three and a half hour assessment I had with the psychologist (yes it was that long, she was very thorough) it became more and more evident that something wasn’t right.

Dyspraxia is condition that falls under the category of Specific Learning Difficulties (dyslexia is in this category), and it is a developmental disorder of the brain in childhood causing difficulty in activities requiring coordination and movement.  It’s about more than movement, it affects my ability to understand what people are saying (i.e. I can understand the words but it takes me a while to understand the concept), I am very slow at reading because dyspraxia makes me lose my place on the page, I am slow at writing and apparently I can’t even hold a pen properly, I have terrible balance and co-ordination and I have to hold on to the bannister when going down stairs, I fall over a lot.  But until I was 21 and a very astute man called Michael Whight became my clarinet teacher, people just called me a bit dis-organised, hare-brained, and funny.  I covered up my “quirks” by being chatty and humorous and clever. 

The reason it was never spotted was because my parents were told that I was “too good” in some areas to possibly be dyspraxic.  How could I possibly play a musical instrument when I have Dyspraxia?  How could I possibly read so many books when I have Dyspraxia? Well.  It turns out that like all things in life, practice makes perfect.  I had a high reading age in school not because I was good at it, but because I read every night, and through the night if I could get away with it, I could play the clarinet not because I was a natural but because it took me two years to get to grade 1 and then another two to get to the next stage after that.  I worked hard and I didn’t give up.  I wasn’t a natural dancer but I went to classes twice a week and I practised at that too!  When at age 11 I still couldn’t ride a bike I spent all summer learning how to (though to be perfectly honest I still can’t do it very well).

And so on…

I suppose what I’m really trying to say with this long winded article, is that it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are supposedly at some things.  It’s really about what you put your mind to.  I read a comment in which someone said that the person in question would “never be able to do anything” with Dyspraxia in the way.  And I suppose that it isn’t as simple as “if you try harder you can do anything” I wouldn’t try to say that.  However what I will say is that a hunger for achieving the things that are most important to you certainly helps, and we should remind ourselves daily that we are great.  We are all just as great as our peers, and no one should ALLOW themselves to be made to feel dumb, or lost, or like less than the person they are, whether it’s in our heads or something we are being told out loud.

It’s time for me to take my own advice, and be the person my achievements show me to be.  So as the new academic year rolls around, it’s time to say goodbye to the “Diaries of a Nervous Musician” and time to say a big HELLO to the “Diaries of a Clarinettiste”.

As for the Dyspraxia… well I think I will just keep being comical with it, just please remember not to leave banana skins on the floor or else I will slip on it.

For more information about Dyspraxia please go to http://www.dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk