A few months into my second year, I noticed something strange. I was starting to dread concerts. This was new to me, because I’d been a total ‘stage animal’ since I was about 5, and had always looked forward to performing. When on a stage, I knew I was at my best; there had been instances where the adrenaline and the focus had come together so perfectly that I had felt as if I was on some kind of drug. I could practically taste atoms, see sounds, and time seemed to slow down to let me anticipate my next move.
But now I had a few concerts coming up and the closer they got, the stronger this feeling of dread became. It wasn’t nervousness or stage fright. It was the certainty that I would feel bad afterwards.
Was it fear of messing up? Partly, yes. Another part of it was the fair and well-meant criticism of my teacher and mother (also a classical singer), who were usually present at my concerts and always gave their feedback immediately afterwards – something that might work for many people, but tended to dishearten me. But most of all, I realised it was my own judgment I was fearing. At the performance, I would make mistakes, and I knew I would only be able to focus on those afterwards.
I had always seen performances as exactly that: an opportunity to perform, to shine, to be at my absolute best. Never in my life had I honestly thought of them as an opportunity to learn. Now I was paying the price: my drive to do well was making me afraid of failure, and the prospect of a concert became scary instead of exciting.
I realised I needed to fix this, because once music stops being fun, that’s when you need to watch out. If you don’t address the issue, it will get worse. It will be hard to stay motivated if your only “reward” is feeling bad.
In the months that followed, I said ‘yes’ to any performance, even if they were near-impossible to fit into my schedule: multiple exams for pianists and organists, unpaid or underpaid gigs, substituting for a soprano who had cancelled two days before – anything that came my way, I accepted. For each of these performances, I told myself in advance that it was just an opportunity to try and apply what I had been working on, to see how much of it had stuck.
I also asked both my mother and my teacher to save their feedback, however well-intended, for the next day day. I am my own harshest critic, and I would like to keep it that way
I’m not there yet, though my perspective has started to shift. Thinking of concerts as a learning opportunities has given me the ability to look at my progress instead of at the outcome. My mistakes still haunt me a little bit, but they’re also incentives to keep practising. I have to be emotionally invested to the point of really wanting to do well, but not so much that one mistake will crush me.
I’m trying to find ways to be both critical of, and compassionate with, myself.
If you have any tips, I’d love to hear them.