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

Everyone will know. That is what we believe — that everyone will know how we screwed up, how we embarrassed ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether they are friends or strangers. They will see the perspiration and hear the stammering. They will see our face turn red or white. They will discuss it forever. It might even go viral.

Yes, that’s it; someone will make a video and we will become an international laughing-stock. No one will ever forget.

We fear the worst and that fear takes us over. We become hostage to it. We crawl inside the fear and live in it. 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 to tell you. Not identical to this event, but just as excruciating and permanent, or so we thought at the time they happened. As you will see, though, not so bad after all.

“Rock” was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Very bright — a great student 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 he was gifted with the words he spoke. “Rock,” a nickname that belied a less than chiseled (slightly chunky) form, would eventually win two awards for teaching at the prestigious school where he became a university professor. Rich Adelstein, his real name, remains one of the very few people who can be eloquent without a script.

But making music, playing the guitar, is something else entirely. It always was. And that is what his friends asked him to do, to play at their wedding. “Just for a few minutes; anything you want. You’ll be great and we will really appreciate it.”

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

The day came. As hot a summer day as you might imagine in these days of global warming. Rock knew the piece by heart, had played it many, many times in the privacy of his apartment. There, it was not trouble. But at a wedding, in front of lots of people?

You know the anticipation. How you count the time. How you watch the sands of the hourglass slip away and feel the noose slipping over your head for your execution. There is no escape. Everyone knows you are going to be doing this. You can’t just take the backdoor and pretend you were never there. You can’t claim sudden illness without betraying your cowardice, your conscience, and your comrades.

The moment arrived. Rock walked unsteadily to his place, sat in the chair alone in front of perhaps 200 wedding-well-wishers. If only he could speak instead of play! But he couldn’t and his fingers, unlike his voice, were not the part of himself that he trusted.

The perspiration began even before the first note. More notes, more perspiration. Our boy’s arm pits were oozing. His summer-weight suit was soaking through, turning another, darker color. Surely people could see this. 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 that comes from public humiliation. His brain was too busy. The shining brilliance of Rock’s head, always full of ideas, was now brilliant and shining for an entirely uncustomary reason. My friend was barely above the water, caught in a whirlpool, capsizing in a feverish river of illuminated perspiration and panic.

Still, his fingers were moving — that was good. But they were getting harder to motivate. “Just a little while longer. If I can just go on for a little while longer,” he said to himself. By now his digits seemed to have gotten larger, like plump sausages; no, like ten lead pipes and just as weighty as their full-sized equivalents. And then, the unimaginable: his fingers went on strike. The unreliable labor force stopped laboring. They were paralyzed.

True, it was a point where a rest, a single moment of silence in the music, was not inappropriate. But a moment is not 15 seconds, or 30 seconds, or a minute. The time seemed to go on forever. Rock stared at the digits, attached to the stationary guitar strings as if “Krazy Glue” had been applied.

Think of the heaviest weight you’ve ever picked up, the strain required to lift it. That is the effort that Rock tried to summon to make the strings vibrate again. More time passed. How much? Who knows? It seemed like eternity. Finally, the music began to sound. By sheer force of will the piece was finished.

The audience applauded politely. No shouts or cheers; no one yelled “bravo!” Surely everyone knew. How could they not recognize the first-ever suit jacket that doubled as a swim suit? Surely they were already talking about it, giggling or feeling sorry for him. Surely he would never live it down and people would joke about it for years.

A reception followed. The man of words had no words to describe how he was feeling. Yet, no one seemed to be looking at him more than anyone else. No one commented on his dampness. There were even a few folks who told him they enjoyed the performance. There was no obvious giggling. Not a soul asked “What happened?” or “Are you OK? We were worried about you.”

A lady came up to him. Middle aged. A stranger, well dressed, with a cultured, refined look. “Oh, God, here it comes,” Rock thought. “I really enjoyed your performance,” she said enthusiastically. “Especially the dramatic pause!” She wasn’t kidding. The thing that Rock believed had disqualified the performance — ruined the music — was in fact the thing that this seemingly intelligent person believed to be its highlight.

Life went on; and a life of accomplishment, good works, and recognition, at that. An admirable life, untouched by a momentary catastrophe. Indeed, a catastrophe that was only catastrophic in one place: the mind.

What is the point of telling about this real-life incident, the kind of experience that most of us have had? It is to remind us that the worst rarely happens. People usually notice less than we think. Most disasters are temporary. Even when the audience does observe us in a difficult situation they tend to forget about it. The event is replaced by some other, newer story about someone else. Most of us are much more concerned with our own lives than the lives of others. And so, our daily tasks, relationships, victories, failures, deadlines, and distractions allow for little room to remember or concentrate on the momentary discomfort of someone else.

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

  1. Remember that this too shall pass. It is possible that few, if any, of the people who are looking at you will realize how bad you feel inside.
  2. Think about the fact that what you feel and what others see and hear are not the same. You probably don’t look or sound as bad as you think.
  3. Don’t announce to the audience that you are inexperienced, nervous, or having any kind of trouble. That only gets them to look for things that they are otherwise likely to miss entirely. Nor should you routinely apologize afterward.
  4. Remember that however bad it is, you will soon be yesterday’s news, replaced by some other event or, more likely, by the crowd’s preoccupation with the thing that we all spend most of our time thinking about: ourselves.
  5. Remind yourself that you are not unique. Even great athletes drop baseballs in front of 50,000 people in the stands and millions watching on TV.

Not convinced that 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 own life. This is a story that you will not be able to 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.


  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’.




    • 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!


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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