by Chris Goslow
Have your ever been in a situation where your mind got in the way of your ability to achieve what you set out to achieve? Has this ever happened, say, when you were playing your musical instrument?
It happened to me.
I had just turned eighteen. I was playing piano for a piano competition in San Francisco. And I had just blown it. I had gotten so nervous that I played way too fast, like a freight train I rushed through the music. I had practiced many hundreds of hours for nine months just to prepare for this day. My performance did not do justice to all my preparation, and I was left confused and disappointed, trying to explain to my perplexed piano teacher what had happened.
You might say that stage fright had gotten the better of me. Yet I know now that it was my own mind that had gotten the better of me. Many is a talented musician who struggles in this way. It is instinctive to have a fear of negative attention, or a fear of looking bad in front of people. And our protective minds can be relentless in perceiving a threat whenever we get in front of people to play. Shaky fingers, tense muscles, poor concentration, memory problems, and other symptoms of performance anxiety can negatively affect an otherwise good performance. In fact, it can potentially ruin the joy of self-expression for a developing performer. Does any of this sound familiar?
It is very familiar to me. Or, at least, it was. Yet even as a kid struggling with some of these things, I was determined to overcome my anxiety. So I continually put myself in front of people to perform. I was determined to conquer this inner demon of fear that was trying to control me. What would it take to turn the tables, to take back control of the situation? What magic did I need to possess to be bigger than fear?
Eventually, I discovered the secret.
My moment of breakthrough happened several years ago. I was participating in a piano recital with some of my students. I was performing a classical piece, and as I was playing, I started to pay attention to my thoughts. This is what I heard: “You are gonna mess up! You are gonna mess up!” That mantra of failure was trying to sabotage me in the middle of my show! As I realized this, suddenly it occurred to me to defy this counter-productive thinking. So I imagined myself like a captain of a ship, and I was grabbing the controls back from this craziness. “I am in control!” I said to myself. And somehow this helped keep me upright, so to speak, and the performance went fine.
I realized then that the true source of stage fright comes from not being present! Letting my scared, survival-based brain take over was completely taking away my ability to concentrate and perform as I wanted to. No wonder I was scared! The antidote was to realize this was happening by paying attention to what I was thinking, which allowed me then to make up my own mind how I was going to handle the situation, and therefore take back control so I could play well and enjoy the process.
Fast forward to now. Over the past couple of years, I have given many hundreds of shows. When I perform, I experience a sense of joy and satisfaction, something that was not available to me before. I have become a vastly improved performer, and a much better learner as I perform, because I am no longer letting myself sink into my head in that moment where nervousness had been upon me in the past. As a result, instead of being distracted by fearful thoughts, I am in the moment, able to focus, and able to do my work. I am even able to learn as I go, because I pay attention to what I am doing, and what I could be doing better, at every second. Even those times that might have be a little overwhelming, the same magic formula of staying present has done wonders for me. Because I have learned that staying in charge of my thinking almost always helps me navigate through any performance situation such that the fear simply loses its power and dissolves, leaving me to think clearly and therefore play what I have set out to play. This results in true freedom, the type we yearn for as performers.
Freedom in performance begins with mastering yourself. And mastering yourself starts with awareness.
Try this the next time you are in an performance situation: Stop what you are doing, and check in with yourself. What are your thoughts saying? Are they helping you, or hindering you? Are they berating you for not practicing more? Are they attempting to sabotage you? Are they picturing failure? Consider the possibility that if they are anything but confident, cheerful, and focused on the task at hand, they stand in the way of you being the best performer you can be.
Cultivate the habit of clearing your mind and staying present when you perform. Your mind can be your ally. It does not have to be your enemy. Yet, left unexamined, the mind can become just that, and the psychological junk that can arise in a critical moment during a performance can potentially ruin the experience.
It does not have to be this way. You can become the master of yourself on stage, the master of every note you play. It starts with becoming aware of what you are currently thinking to yourself, examining that thinking, and then asserting your own will to make up your own mind how you are going to think. This may take some time to cultivate, yet this habit of thinking can prove life-saving, or at least, performance-saving. And for those of us for whom performing is our lives, it can amount to the same thing.
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