why, why, why?
Why am I writing this blog?
I basically think about musical performance anxiety constantly.
About how it develops, about what it looks like, what it feels like and how to 'fix' it.
I have been puzzling over it ever since I was about ten years old. That day that is still etched in my memory - standing in front of an adjudicator, my mother and about twenty other people, my whole body shaking, feeling like my knees would collapse underneath me. I think perhaps the paradox of feeling that way during my first public performance and competition, my then winning my first and only ever first place medal on that occasion my have set me up for this life of puzzling about musical performance anxiety.
I reckon that after such a dreadful experience at such a young age, if I had not won that gold medal I would have given up playing for ever. The experience of terror was fused with external reward and public attention for a lifetime.
I have continued to play through these and many other challenges for over 45 years (give or take a few dummy spit 'retirements' in there) and through that, I have continued to be curious about how someone can play their instrument so beautifully in a room on their own, and then when they come to perform that piece for others they often cannot perform anywhere close to their full capacity. I include myself in this.
Perhaps another defining moment for me was an early professional audition where I had had a number of lessons with someone who was going to be on the panel for the audition. I was playing really well in the lessons, and the teacher expressed confidence in me performing well in the audition and perhaps me being capable of being offered the job. When it came to the crunch however, I fell to pieces and did not play well. After the audition he asked me, quite naively I still think - 'what went wrong?'. Duh! This memory still stings today, partly the memory of my failure (and as the beginning of a long, long line of 'what went wrong' moments) and partly that he seemed to have no idea what I was struggling with, how to help me or even that it was also a problem for him and so many more of us.
And from then on, the problem got worse. I practiced more, became obsessive and when it came to the crunch, I could not play how I knew I could. Sometimes, it did not happen and inexplicably I played to my capacity, but mostly it didn't. No teacher could help me, even if we did ever talk about the elephant in the room, which was rare. I saw a psychologist about 25 years ago, and she was some help, but not much. I read the few books that were around then and 'Notes from the Green Room' was the first book that gave me a clear understanding of what was happening and some strategies to help.
Fast forward through thirty years of performing to a personal and profession meltdown in 2010 and meeting the psychologist that introduced me to ACT.
To me, ACT was the solution, and continues to be the solution. The very first session, my new psychologist said to me 'you cannot control your thoughts' and I will never forget the recognition and relief. The light had switched on. I had been trying to suppress negative thoughts about myself and my playing for so long and I knew it didn't work, but I thought it was because I was weak and basically a fundamentally bad person. It turns out it wasn't my fault. It was in that very first session with her that I thought that ACT would be able to help me and so many other people who struggle the same way I do with stress, anxiety and performance.
So this is why I am writing this?
I have had a number of attempts at conducting research in the past 25 years, and I have also faltered a few times beginning to research ACT for music performance anxiety (MPA) but finally I think now I have all my ducks in order. I have come out of yet another retirement, to be playing professionally at what is pretty damned close to my personal capacity, and I have to be honest - sometimes I even exceed my own expectations! I have completed a Masters of Counselling and I have worked with a number of musicians all over the country to improve confidence and performance quality, disentangle from frustrations and anxiety and move toward a more meaningful musical life. I love doing this.
I have a wonderful supervisor who is supportive of my goals and who is willing to guide the unlit path ahead for me - and so I begin the journey to research whether I can show that ACT for MPA is scientifically supported.
So, this is why I commit to writing this blog - I will discuss papers that I am reading and try to decipher psychological statistics and jargon in an effort to clarify for myself and maybe for a few geeky musicians out there what these papers are saying.
I hope you enjoy the ride.