Dealing with Emotional Difficulties and Performance

Fear is something we all face at some point or other. Fear ranges from the subtle undercurrent of unease to light and deep levels of anxiety into absolute terror. It affects us in many ways, but more often than not is debilitating, affecting the quality of our day-to-day lives and inevitably our ability to perform. The more powerful fear becomes the more it links to our fight or flight impulse and the farther it gets from our ability to reason. It can become an obsession very quickly and monopolize our lives despite our desires for it to be otherwise.

As musicians, fear can have a disastrous effect on our performances in various ways. We’ve all experienced stage fright at some point or other with dry mouth, shaky hands, sometimes accompanied by nausea and memory slips. Usually this passes during the performance, once we get going with things, and for many of us after we gain experience performing, we find the incidences of stage fright to fade away, never or rarely to be experienced again. But that doesn’t mean that we’re no longer subject to fear and the accompanying debilitations, because we are human beings with complex lives, relationships and potential health problems. What happens in our non-performance lives does impact us holistically and crosses over into our stage lives all too frequently.

As performers we have all heard the cliché “the show must go on,” and we do our best to adhere to that maxim. As musicians we have it drilled into our heads that unless you, or someone you love has died (even then there are caveats), you’re hospitalized or otherwise incarcerated, you will still perform the gig you’ve been contracted to perform. A case in point was when my paternal grandmother died whom I loved very much. I was in college at the time pursuing my musical dreams. On the day she died my parents called to let me know and make arrangements for me to picking me up in the next day or so to go to her funeral. I had a performance that evening, and that’s what I did, perform. I was an emotional mess, filled with a sense of loss I’d never truly felt before, but I still had a job to do, and I did it to the best of my abilities. It doesn’t matter how sad you are, how afraid you are, how sick you feel, or whatever is affecting you personally, you are supposed to show and perform to the best of your abilities. There is no paid vacation, sick leave, bereavement leave, or any of the other benefits of a formal job in the corporate world. You perform, or someone else takes your job.

When you are dealing with a strong emotional influence, such as debilitating fear, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to perform at any level, particularly when you’re approaching panic levels on a regular basis. Fear is a major point of stress, so it basically boils down to stress management. First, try to step back from the emotion as much as you can so you can try to engage your logical self in the situation. Physical activity also helps, so hitting the gym, going for a run or walk, or cycling, can help put you physically in a better place through getting the endorphins pumping. Meditation helps many people settle into a more peaceful state. Making lists of things that need to be done and then getting busy working on them helps too. In other words, try to occupy your mind and your body as much as you can. It will yield benefits that help to counteract whatever is having the negative influence on your emotional well-being.

The most important thing to do is take care of yourself and your relationships. If you do so then ultimately the primary sources for stress will be maintained to the best of your abilities, thus lowering the potential for stress. There will always be the unexpected to deal with, from mild to catastrophic, but if you are taking care of your business, health (both mental and physical), and working toward your goals, then chances are you’re going to be hitting more in the way of bumps in the road than downed bridges.


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