How Self-Consciousness Misleads Us: The “Rock” Guitar Performance Anxiety Story

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/76/Guitarist_girl.jpg/256px-Guitarist_girl.jpg

Everyone will know. You believe everyone will witness your screw-up, how you embarrassed yourself. Friends and strangers, both. They will see the perspiration and hear the stammering. Your face shall transform into a tomato-like ball of redness. It might as well get sold at a fruit market.

Yes, someone will make a video, too, making you an international laughing-stock. Forever.

We fear the worst and fear takes us over. We become hostage to worry. We crawl inside the fear are devoured. Fear surrounds us, breathes into us, and binds us. We are trapped.

Only it’s not true. We’ve all lived moments like the one in the story I’m about relay. Not identical to this event, but just as excruciating and sure to be permanent, we thought. Not so bad after all, I hasten to tell you.

“Rock” was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Extraordinary — a remarkable scholar in fact; a shining academic star. Black wavy hair already flecked with gray — he made an impression. He was gifted with words on paper and with the words he spoke. “Rock,” a nickname belying a less than chiseled physique, would come to win two awards for teaching at another prestigious university. Rich Adelstein, his real name, remains one of the few people who is eloquent without a script.

Playing the guitar, however, is something else. Always was. And music is what his friends asked him to make at their wedding. “Just for a few minutes; anything you want. You’ll be a star!”

How could Rock say no? He chose a Bach transcription, not more than three minutes long.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/Amanda_Fran%C3%A7ozo_At_The_Runner_Sports_Fragment.jpg

The day came. A torrid day in a sweltering summer. Rock knew the piece by heart, had played it many times in the privacy of his apartment. There, Bach was effortless, fluent. But at a wedding, in front of lots of people?

You sweat the anticipation. You count the time. The sands of the hourglass push down and the hands of the hooded hangman slip the noose under your head. Tightening, tightening. There is no escape. You’re expected participation is public knowledge. You can’t claim sudden illness without betraying your cowardice, your conscience, and your comrades.

The moment arrived. Rock sat in the chair in front of perhaps 200 wedding-well-wishers. His fingers, unlike his voice, were not the part of himself he trusted.

The perspiration began even before the first note. More notes, more perspiration. Our boy’s arm pits oozed. His winter-weight, flannel suite – the only one he owned – was soaking through. The sweat came in waves, like the kind that sweep you off your feet and carry you out to sea. The guitarist’s mind was overwrought with the terror of public humiliation. His brain buzzed. The shining brilliance of Rock’s head, always full of ideas, was now brilliant and shining for an uncustomary reason. My friend was barely above the water, caught in a whirlpool, capsizing in a feverish river of illuminated perspiration and panic.

Rock’s fingers moved on their own, to the good. They were, however, getting harder to motivate. “A little while longer. If I can go on for a little while longer,” he said to himself. His digits seemed to get larger, like plump sausages; unbendable, heavy. Stiffening. And then, the unimaginable: his fingers went on strike. The unreliable labor force stopped laboring.

True, a single moment of silence was not inappropriate. But a moment is not 15-seconds, or 30-seconds, or a minute. Time transformed, became timeless. Rock stared at the stationary digits.

No vibration. Eternity. Strain. Second upon second upon second. How many? Finally, the music began to sound. By sheer force of will the piece was finished.

The audience applauded. No shouts or cheers. Surely everyone knew. How could they miss a suit jacket doubling as swim wear? Surely they were talking about him, giggling about Rock, feeling sorry. Surely people would remember.

A reception followed. The man of words had no words to describe his mortification. Yet, no one looked at him more than anyone else. No comment on his dampness. A few even told him they enjoyed the performance. Not a soul asked “What happened?” or “Are you OK? We worried about you.”

A woman appeared. Middle-aged. A stranger, well-dressed, with a cultured, intellectual aura.

“Oh, God,” Rock thought.

“I really enjoyed your performance,” she said with enthusiasm. “The dramatic pause, in particular!”

She wasn’t kidding. The disqualifying paralysis – the moment of ruin – was to her the creative highlight.

Life went on: a life of accomplishment, good works, and recognition. An admirable life, untouched by momentary catastrophe. Indeed, a catastrophe in one place alone: the mind.

Most of us have had some version of this experience. And survived. People usually notice less than we think. Most disasters are temporary. Even when the audience does recognize a difficult situation, they tend to forget. The event is replaced by some other, newer story about someone else. We are much more concerned with our own lives than the lives of others. Thus, our daily tasks, relationships, victories, failures, deadlines, and distractions allow little room for concentration on another’s momentary discomfort.

A few rules for the next time you have a “Rock” Guitar experience:

  1. Remember, “this too shall pass.”
  2. Your internal emotions and what others detect are not the same. You probably don’t look or sound as bad as you think.
  3. Don’t proclaim your inexperience, nervousness, or troubled state. Do not cue the audience to search for problems they would otherwise likely miss. Do not apologize afterward.
  4. Remember, however bad the day, you will soon be yesterday’s news, replaced by some other event. More probable still, the crowd’s preoccupation returns to what we all spend most of our time thinking about: ourselves.
  5. Remind yourself that you are not unique. Even professional athletes drop baseballs in front of 50,000 people in the stands and millions watching on TV.

Not convinced you will live to fight another day? That your bad moment will go unnoticed or be forgotten? Then I am forced to tell you about the most inappropriate, politically incorrect, embarrassing experience of my life. This is a story you can’t top. No one ever has: Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness.

The top image is called  Guitarist Little Girl (Dorothy Takacz) — Budapest, Hungary by Takkk. The second photo is entitled Drops of Sweat by Bibikoff. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

5 thoughts on “How Self-Consciousness Misleads Us: The “Rock” Guitar Performance Anxiety Story

  1. Great article Gerald. …remind me of the times I have thought I bombed a lecture only to have the students respond with enthusiasm. …I wish I could say the reverse did not happen as well, but I have certainly seen times when I felt I was dying up at the front of the class, but something was clicking for those listening.

    Like

  2. I received your message Dr. Stein and followed your advice, I think. Thank you for that. This article is perfect advice for a student of mine. He is a conservatoire student of scholarship status. Sadly he has been experiencing issues in performance where he has been shaking to the point where it is impossible to play. We are at a loss as what to do about it. He has so much talent and expertise beyond his years. What a shame to develop career threatening anxiety such as this. It is not enough for me to tell him ‘not to worry as it is only music etc’.

    Yours

    Brendan

    Like

    • Many thanks. I do appreciate it and the way that you accomplished it. I’m sorry to hear about your student. As I suspect you know better than I, many performers use Beta Blockers, but risk losing the edge that they need to perform well. Meditation can be helpful and I am eventually going to post something about this, but it is not the kind of remedy that one can begin to use on the day before an audition. It is a life long practice that is hard to master. I did write a piece on Dale Clevenger, the CSO’s recently retired horn, a man of enormous confidence, who took the attitude (at auditions) that he wanted to show people what he could do and didn’t care as much as some others do about how the listeners judged him. You can find it if you search my site for his name. I have great admiration for what you do — the pressure of it, not just the talent. In baseball, I’ve heard many people say that the hardest part of hitting a ball going 90 to 100 miles per hour thrown from 60′ 6″ away is the fear of getting hit. Anyway, you guys are something to be able to produce music under these kinds of conditions. My hat is off to you. Again, thanks for taking care of the blog citation and if I can be of help in answering any personal questions for you or your students on the some of the questions we’ve been discussing here, please let me know. All the best!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s