Performing anxiety, or audition anxiety, as Phyllis Stein calls it, or sometimes just performance anxiety, is a problem I've had to work with, in both my students and myself.

My youngest students, five to about, say, ten, seem to have no anxiety. It's as if they don’t even see to the edge of the stage, let alone into the audience. Several, each year at our annual recital, will come without their books. We do not encourage this, wanting the event to have a low threshold , so everyone can perform.

When puberty is on the horizon, anxiety begins for many, especially for those who have made mistakes--which most of us do at some time. (I tell my students, it's not the error that is the error, it's what we do with it that can be the error.)

There have been music performed on organ, and harpsichord for religious days, and civic occasions, and, since the invention of the first piano-like instrument in 1710, on it as well, but not performances as we now understand them. What we think of as piano concerts date from the Romantic era, and artists like Franz Liszt. (Thank you, Franz!)

I'm confident the advice for performers for more than a century has always been the same:

If you can’t do a lot, do a little. When you can do a little, do a little more. Like exercise, build up endurance until you can do a lot.

I encourage my child students to take advantage of performing opportunities throughout the year: a junior music club before Christmas, a music competition in April, and an examination through the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto in June.

Before each, I hold a Sunday afternoon piano class. I get a turn out of about 10 for each class the last several years. In the most informal atmosphere (I strive for this), my students perform their pieces--since playing piano is a solitary activity, this will be the only way for them to meet others who feel the way they do.

From the youngest to the oldest, I encourage them to discuss, constructively, the performances. With the experience of their lessons, the discussion in previous classes, and listening to older students who have worked on the same pieces, every student begins to appreciate all the stylistic, and technical points of the work we do.

And we have a great time!

I remember as a student being very nervous. One of my teachers said to me, once, that I was nervous because I was more concerned about myself than my music. It may sound a bit callous, but she was a seasoned performer, and great teacher; I profited from working with her--and so have my students. But I have rarely shared that bit of wisdom with my students--though she is correct.

But I did get to the point, at the end of high school, when I could perform, compete, and even do exams without being overly anxious. (Without some anxiety, however, I don’t believe a performance will be exciting.)

As an adult, I have performed almost no classical work; it's hard for none professionals to find venues. I did a duet with one of my senior students at the year end recital--and was very nervous; I was out of practice.

More often, as a member of the Missing Neutrinos, and as a singer, I have used my synthesizer keyboard to do blues, pop, rock, and folk. In so many ways this is so much easier. In the group, the attention of the audience is diffused over several performers, each one of which do not always have the solo.

But it is the sort of music that is important. In classical music, or non-popular, there is far less emphasis on the exact repetition of each note--and any "error" can legitimately be passed off as improvisation.

In fact, that is how I designed, or maybe discovered, “my” pop music: scales in which errors cannot be made, changes that are simple to memorize, and conducive to many interesting variations. Nevertheless, it was never very easy to get out to my local coffeehouse's open stage night--but I did it, and generally enjoyed the experience.

For my adult students, I am talking up the possibility of a recital for them next June. This has always been problematic, but I think I might get ten to fifteen out; the first in recent years at my school.

And I might, myself, play as well.

Performing for the first time, when you're young, is always a difficult task. Everybody has performance anxiety (however slight) as this tale will explain to you. It was the time of the school concert and we were needed to play. Some friends of mine have neither performed music in a concert before, so naturally they were a little nervous about the idea of making a mistake in front of lots of people.

Now me, I've performed before and even I feel slightly queasy about the concept of playing. I know that I can play and play well enough to perform, but it doesn't make the feeling go away. It's not the shaking, quivering, "What the heck do I do, if I screw up on stage?" type of nerves, but the type where you're slightly tweaked and tense.

We'd been preparing all day. We had a short slot right after the school choir. The curtains would fold back and there we would be, playing on stage in front of everybody. It is not something you should really think about too much, so I didn't.

However by the time we get on stage it is hard not to think about it. By now I'm really anxious and tense and I want to get the damn thing over with.

The last lines from the choir echo round the hall...

The curtain pulls back, revealing us to the crowd...

I keep my eyes on my electric guitar as if willing it fail me now. The strings don't snap however and we have to launch into the first song.

My hand strikes the strings, then the next moment is a blur as this huge walled up feeling bursts free, the music and rhythm streaking through my body. I can't stop now even if I wanted to...

There is no anxiety now. Fire shoots out of my hands and spreads round the hall...

I don't have to remember anything about the changes in the song now. I can feel when it changes (either because of all the practicing we did or because I have gained confidence or because I have mystical powers- or possibly all three) and react accordingly. That rhythm is there, dancing away in my soul, screaming a noise which needed to be heard. That feeling is worth every bit of practice I did. I live for it.

Then the song ends, but the rhythm hangs in the air, little notes that you can hear in your head...

It rings out a series of notes that are still playing potential promises of music. The blurring ends at this point, the haze has disappeared and I'm left with the sensation of being shagged out and sweaty, but happy. The music is still playing in my head.

The second song begins but I'm more relaxed this time around. The hazy feeling is still there, but that tension has spilt out. As we go into the next song the sensations are less intense.

And that's when I make a mistake.

When I made the mistake I felt an incredible unnatural pull to the senses as the world rushed back into focus. It is like sleeping peacefully, then having icy water poured all over your head. That little force that told me to keep playing no matter what is suddenly at a loose end. I'm forced awake from my concentrated stupor.

This is not like the end of the first song. You ease out of the haze as you finish. But this was not eased out. I was ripped out of the song, as the rhythm inside me was dealt a mortal blow.

There were several things that went through my mind at this point and they all tried to overwhelm me. "Oh bugger, what have I done?" is prominent one, as well as the feelings of panic and fear. Embarrassment is also flaring up. Parts of my brain are still only waking up from the concentrated stupor and have yet to catch up. Parts of me are suddenly registering the world fully, as the haze lifts away.

This all happened within two seconds.

Confronted with all this, I somehow override the thoughts and feelings in my brain and continued to play as if nothing happened. The audience didn't seem to notice as I found out later, but at the time, I was sure everyone had noticed my mistake.

The concert was a success.

I woke before her once,
And I was whistling, unaware of it,
Then humming to myself. She heard it and sat up.
I stopped.

"Why did you stop?" she asked. "You will not sing for me?"

"No," I told her. "I would never dare.
I might go far off-key, and hurt your ears.
I might bore you, and lull you back to sleep.
It might bring tears to your eyes,
And then I could not bear to look into them.
And I might sing frivolities,
When I should be singing about you."

She furrowed her brow. "Why don't you?"

"I could not make it beautiful enough,
Or long enough, for it should never end.
Taken by my love, I might forget the melody,
Or captive to my lust, I'll get too loud.
And if they heard me singing all your praises,
They might begin believing you are mine,
When, to be honest, I am only yours."

"You're scared I'll laugh." She crossed her arms and scowled.

"I'm scared because you'll laugh," I said.

She laughed.
"Try anyway. Then maybe I'll be yours.
And if I won't, at least you'll learn a song."

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