This story describes my own recent experience with overcoming performance anxiety before an important presentation.
Thursday evening I had the wonderful opportunity to address a group of pianists in a workshop at Steinway Hall, on a topic that has great meaning for me: Mindfulness for Pianists: Freeing Your Energy for Performance. It was the first time I was publicly presenting my work directly through the lens of mindfulness. And it was also the first time I had designed a workshop that included inviting volunteers from the audience to come up and demonstrate specific ideas at the piano. I had no idea what was going to happen.
The presentation went well, with wonderfully open and generous participation from the audience. And in the Q&A afterwards, someone asked me a very personal question: “Do you get nervous before performing? And if so, how do you handle it right before you go out?“
I loved this question, and I responded with a definite Yes. I was very nervous in the days and weeks leading up to this workshop. I also said that immediately before walking in to address the group I not only practiced mindfulness meditation backstage, but I focused intently on how much I wanted to share what I knew—because I so wanted to help them connect more with their potential.
But I didn’t have time that night to go into the range of emotions I went through in the weeks and days preceding the event. So I thought I would fill in the picture here by describing a little more of my preparation experience.
It took a long time for the new material to gel. I had outlined it several times, and each outline came out different. The material was always on my mind, and I often scribbled additional little notes in the middle of the night. I kept getting new insights, and I was worried it wouldn’t become clear enough in time for that Thursday night.
In the last few days, I had moments where I felt immobilized by anxiety. I wanted to go out and take a walk, but I just sat there feeling stunned by my own pent up nervous energy. On one of those occasions, I was interrupted by a friendly message of some kind on my phone that snapped me out of it. Amazing what a few kind words can do! I was so relieved to feel appreciated by someone that I was able to finally relax and go out for a walk in the fresh air. I rehearsed my presentation during my walk, and getting outdoors reset my system.
Then two days before the event, I freaked out again. This time I actually went to my own book for help. I reread the entire last chapter for the first time in years. The chapter is called Generosity, and it’s about performance.
What an experience! There I was getting consoled by words I had written 25 years ago. How amazing that this author (me) really understood what I was going through and made me feel better. I kept getting tears in my eyes. She said that I was scared because I was about to be born as a new person. I knew she (I) was right. I could sense that a big part of me had been hiding out, and that in presenting this material that meant so much to me, in this new way, I was going to be transformed.
I can’t tell you how calming the chapter was. It normalized everything for me. I was able to relax and even to look forward to the exciting new event.
That night I slept really well for the first time in quite a while. I woke up refreshed and spent a lot of time relaxing and making final preparations for the next day’s event.
Going through so much anxiety was actually a blessing—a fortunate reminder for me of what performers go through. It brought me back to a deeper level of what I have always known about the challenge and meaning of performance. It was particularly helpful that in those last few days I practiced extending sympathy to myself. This helped me appreciate not only myself, but my audience better.
It wasn’t easy experiencing so much anxiety before my big moment. But if we want to give something to our audience from the deepest place in ourselves, we have to go into the deep, dark corners inside us to get to the jewel at our core—the depth of our heart. Only from there can we speak— or make music—most compellingly.
I did feel transformed afterwards. All I had really done was be more myself than ever in communicating to people to help them grow. I had never felt so ordinary, just so real and simply myself. I saw who I am much more clearly.
And what a gift they gave me. They heard me and saw me just as I was. They received what I wanted to give. I am grateful to every one of them.
Here’s to your own continual growth as an artist and performer! And to more expressiveness in your performances.