On Performing

Why do we perform?  We like to share our experiences with others, to give them a gift of sorts. We like to show off the results of our hard work. Maybe we feel as though we have something to prove to ourselves or to someone else, or we have some sort of obligation. No matter what the reason, most of us feel compelled to perform somehow, even if it’s just for family or friends. However, most of us also look forward to performing with a certain amount of trepidation, or even dread. Isn’t it strange that we often continue to feel compelled to perform, even with these unpleasant fears?

I’ve always been surprised by the intensity of performance anxiety relative to the actual threat. I once had a student who had been on the police force for 30 years who told me that playing guitar in recital was the most frightening thing that he had ever done!  I’ve never been shot at, but I think I’d much rather play guitar for people. It can be helpful to think that the worst thing that could happen during a performance won’t cause injury or death. It’s just playing guitar.

Any  performance is merely a “snapshot” of a particular piece/performer/experience taken at a particular stage in development. We and the music that we play are always “works in progress.”  Realization of this only comes about through performing frequently enough to see how we and the music we play transform from experience to experience. Very often, we look forward to a single performance as a huge and momentous event rather than just one of many similar experiences. This can place a very distorted perspective on the event.

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that how we interpret the quality of one of our performances is colored by how we are feeling at the time it is taking place. During one of my better performances, I was convinced that I was playing horribly. When I later heard the recording, I was surprised by how good it sounded. Thinking back to the performance, I realized that I had been tired and not feeling very well on the day of the performance, and that this led me to believe that I wasn’t playing very well. This tells me that I can’t necessarily trust the judgment that takes place during the performance. It also tells me that I need to do everything possible to make sure I’m well-rested, happy, and relaxed on the day of a performance.

There is something almost magical about a musical performance. Although we can listen to any piece of music we want to hear through recording, most people would much rather listen to music played live. There is something that happens in live performance that is simply impossible to capture. Whatever this ineffable, almost sacred, quality is, it is the reason we attend concerts, and it is perhaps also that thing that motivates us to perform in spite of any anxiety about being on stage.

What is most important about this is the realization that when performing, we are not “on display.”  Rather, it is an interactive experience, sharing music, feelings, and time together in an absolutely unique way. This is something wonderful, human, and beautiful – hardly something to be afraid of!

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