It happens to everyone – and seriously, I mean everyone: the famous and the not-famous, the seasoned and the fledgling, the confident and the wobbly-kneed. All of us at some time or other freak out IN a performance or ABOUT a performance.
It’s debilitating. The self-talk tends to be vicious and crippling. Hands shake, voices quake, words and tunes fly out of memory’s range, various body parts start to sweat, and all the FUN goes out of the enterprise. It stinks. And once the freak-out begins it can feel like a train racing for the cliff’s edge with no hope to turn it away from certain doom.
I’ve been there and watched it ruin an evening like a slow-motion crash I couldn’t for the life of me avert. I’ve also been in the midst of this crisis of confidence – for really, that’s what it is – and found ways to pull myself back from the edge and get back on track. Here are a few that have worked for me.
- Remember that you’re there to connect with people. Not to impress them, not to win a prize, not to be let into a club, not to pass a test, not to prove anything. We perform for the joy of sharing what we love with other people. Performance is essentially an act of sharing. As soon as I stop thinking so much about myself, I have a much better time – and I tend to play a lot better, too.
- Re-commit to your material. As soon as you recognize that a freak-out is in process, turn your thoughts towards what you love about the songs or poems or stories you are sharing. You chose them because they contain a treasure for you and it is your privilege to share it. If you’re mid-way through a performance and feel your confidence flagging (“I chose all the wrong songs!”), here’s a bonus tip: slow WAY down and invest the next song, story, poem, or speech with extra significance. Take your time. Let the meaning and beauty unfurl. Feel the power of that to calm you. Anything we do with a whole-heart transmits to someone. We can trust that. Our own investment is what enables someone else to make a connection with the material.
- Renew your faith in your place within an infinite diversity. There are a thousand thousand beautiful voices, and a thousand thousand thousand wonderful songs or poems. There are infinite ways to give a gift. Within all that variety, your way is necessary and important. And no matter what we’ve been told, art is not a contest with winners and losers, with people who belong and people who don’t belong. If you sing, make things, write, paint, and create in any way at all, YOU BELONG. You are an Artist on Planet Earth right now. You are an essential ingredient in a glorious, complex, kaleidoscopic whole. Your work is to perform YOU with your whole heart, soul, intellect, body, and vision.
It is a privilege and a JOY to carry music or poems or stories in this lifetime. Remembering that is perhaps the best thing I ever do to avert performance freak-out. This thought blends a grounding sort of humility (I’m just one person of millions) with a JOYful pride (and I’m honored to be sharing what I love).
Once I remember why I’m there, re-commit to my songs and stories and poems, and renew my faith in diversity and my place in it, I’m back on track. The train swerves and re-connects with safer track, the dining car re-opens, someone lights the chandeliers, and the windows light up with the beauty of a coastal sunset. I settle in for a beautiful journey in gratitude, purpose, and magic.
If you have good counsel for getting back on track during a performance freak-out, I’d love to hear it. Please share your strategies and ideas in the comments below. And thank you!