nos. 1 & 2 | on performance anxiety

this post is part of the hackneyed devices series that brings you along on my fall 2017 Prokofiev tour. I hope you like it.

Before I left for D.C. and Princeton last Friday (the 13th, no less), before lugging a full-to-bursting weekender on the subway and mustering a half-hearted “hello” to the bus driver, I felt wholly severed. From my body, from the music that would rule my life the next 48 hours. Even after fifteen years of studying piano, it still strikes me just how many costumes performance anxiety can slip into. Sometimes, it may be something as feathery as a stomach flutter: quiet enough to go unnoticed, just disquieting enough to lace my hands in ice, turn them as unforgiving as wood. Sometimes, it is so mercilessly crippling that the very prospect of stepping out of bed is excruciating, and the voices that taunt you swell into a cacophonous, deadly chorus. Other times, there are nightmares, and these are the most heartless of all.

Since I was 10, I’ve had a recurring performance anxiety nightmare. It goes like this: I walk onstage. For some reason, there are thousands of attendees, silent as a catacomb. Before I take my first bow, they begin screaming in unison, clawing up at me, hurling a random medley of things at me, shouting, “what are you doing?” “You shouldn’t be up there!” I never stay unconscious long enough to see what happens next, because my mind, so treacherous in its tenacity, spares a stroke of remorse and startles me awake, usually fighting a lump in my throat.

Every week before a performance, every year, for the past ten years. Like clockwork.

I’ve never written about this for the same reason I’ve never sought medical help for it–performance anxiety is incurable. Sure, beta blockers abound, and you could always pull an Argerich and cancel your gig to cushion your sanity, but at its core, this is an ongoing ceasefire attempt in the war against yourself. I’m not dreaming about a demonic, Dante-esque audience because I’m scared of what they would think of me. I dream of it, and continue to dream of it, because fear of myself is too heavy to bear. It’s only natural that when everything is quiet, and the day’s voices have retreated into the dark, that the voices in my mind, too cowardly to surface otherwise, begin to chant. What if I shake too much? I already know exactly when my hands will fail me. Why didn’t I practice this more? What if these months of work go to waste?

Despite its cruelty, the performance anxiety I felt this weekend actually turned a benevolent eye. My first recital in the back-to-back duo of D.C. + Princeton reminded me that power over my performance anxiety can manifest in unexpected ways: a reassuring “break your leg,” like the warm slide of tea down one’s esophagus, from my piano teacher. A flood of family friends, some of whom I’m ashamed to admit I’ve forgotten, their grins adding a flush of light to the persistent clouds. Jewel, the house manager, who asked me to “John Hancock” her program, exclaiming words that I will indubitably carry with me forever: “you know, some people play music just like yours in the big hall, and it doesn’t make me feel the way yours did. I’ll say this: don’t try to be like everyone else.”

And in Princeton, in that gloriously frustrating, glitteringly-new arts center, I discovered a new energy that, with a monumental push, seemed to discard my anxiety almost entirely. That incredible, ineffable fusion of my mind with my audience’s. The synergy of every note with every breath, the sheer force of the vibrations billowing off the walls and the ceilings, coalescing into one ball of…well, I’m not exactly sure. Strength? Relief? Excitement?

When music does this, there is no possible language that could capture it. When you create so unabashedly for those who have opened their ears to you, it reminds you of why that performance anxiety plagues you so: it propels you to this moment. It asks you, in its own stubborn, stony way, to honor the extraordinary moments of transcendence beyond every wrong note or missed phrase. It creates that “objective ear,” as my friend advised me, that suffuses your psyche with that of your audience. Almost like you’re taking one of your own ears and attaching it to the back of the room.

Performance anxiety, as I’ve learned, is also a mile marker for how far you’ve come, and how much you have left to traverse. The train back to Manhattan from Princeton had my thoughts roaming back to May, when I first opened the scores and recoiled in fear and disgust. I thought about the swift rivers of sweat that trailed down my back throughout the summer months, the voices of you can’t do this that may never go away. Mostly, I thought of those bursts of air swooshing from my chest as I swung the final chords, exhales of I did this, at least, and the resounding applause.

Thank you for a great time, D.C. & Princeton. See you next week, Toronto.

other posts in this series
On Prokofiev’s second sonata
On Prokofiev’s Toccata
On Prokofiev’s sixth sonata

“I detest imitation. I detest hackneyed devices.” – sergei prokofiev

more on the tour:

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