Performance Anxiety: Learning from Theater Improv's 'Freedom to Fail'

September 30, 2023, 10:34 PM · An interesting article is circulating from BBC Music Magazine examining stage fright or performance anxiety. The article touches on several musicians’ antidotes, philosophies, and analysis.

One point the article doesn't really lean into is something I've learned from taking improv classes: the use of failure. Musicians are so tightly wound and so focused on perfection that we forget that we're human. Improv class (theatrical improv, not musical improv) allows you to embrace a failure, lean into it, learn from it, and use it without shame. It's a hard concept to understand, but once you do it's like a freedom of sorts. When you grant permission to make a mistake, it actually can free your mind for a better overall performance.

The first time I learned of permission to fail was in an improv class. The class was in a giant circle, and we were playing one of the many improv games designed to help free minds and cultivate creativity. Someone in the class messed up, and then yelled: "I failed!" to which the entire class celebrated along with the person by cheering and clapping in support. I was utterly confused! Why would anyone celebrate a failure?

That is until I failed during a game and learned what the point was.

Failure is temporary, and if you are surrounded by people who "have your back," it's not a big deal.

have your back

The difference is standing on stage, alone, with an audience who may or may not have your back if you fail at one musical phrase or another. You can't help but take it personally. And then, like the article mentions, if someone in the audience is a critic or VIP, that changes the perception, too. Yet, when you look down the tunnel of all the things that can go wrong during a performance, there are also a lot of things that can go right.

The mere practice of improv classes has helped me with my own performance anxiety and perspectives. It’s a constant work in progress, and from every improv class I glean something important. Besides learning to "let go" and not worry about making mistakes, improv teachers are blunt with their observations of student’s work. One comment caught me off guard and shook me to my core. "Do you think your audience wants to come see you just shake your head when you make a mistake or are unhappy with something?"

Improv skills are a constant mindset, like Jedi tricks on ourselves. While I've suffered stage fright here and there over my career, I've found that when I make time to remember there are people who need to lose themselves in music, people whose last concert might be this particular concert, people who are attending for the first time, and people who are trying their darndest to get a moment away from their own hectic and stressful lives.....then you own yourself again. The trick is to remember that point over the other pitfalls. It's a choice, and it must be practiced every time. Every. Time.

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October 1, 2023 at 01:49 PM · Psychologically, of course, the issue is one of defining ADEQUACY only as PERFECTION. The feeling is that you are adequate ONLY if you are perfect. One minor slip, and you have fallen off the pedestal of adequacy and you are simply no good and a failure.

PERFECTION and TOTAL FAILURE psychologically become the only two choices. That attitude is very common. (A colleague of mine called it the "Perfection Fantasy"). This idea is very non-accepting of one of our basic realities as human beings -- that physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and in every other way, no one is perfect.

And, believe it or not, there is a joke that reflects this:

"I have NEVER made a mistake! ....(I thought I did once, but I was wrong)."

(That should make improv actors happy.)

October 2, 2023 at 12:06 AM · Wonderful article, Holly.

That last para is so true and brought a tear to my eye, to be honest (maybe I'm just a bit tired).

But seriously, before a concert/recital, I also remind myself that the audience is there to enjoy my playing and the music. And so am I! It helps a lot.

Those who are there to be overly critical, well, it's pretty hard to win them over anyway.

Maybe different in the upper echelons of professional soloists...and harder if you're just starting to make your way in the profession and are constantly being compared with your peers (and vying for limited opportunities). But unfortunately, the classical world has very much focused on perfection for a while now.

October 2, 2023 at 03:30 PM · "sometimes good enough is good enough" --(I forget who)

Having done a variety of music genres, I can report that the classical music sub-culture suffers from toxic perfectionism.

October 2, 2023 at 10:33 PM · Thank you Jeremy for your kind words.

October 2, 2023 at 10:54 PM · No worries, Holly. I meant it - lovely writing too. Look forward to more of your insights/articles.

Agree Joel - some of the obsession with being perfect is very toxic. Kind of a 'gotcha!' culture of spotting mistakes, no matter how tiny. Recordings made it even worse, of course.

And I think that the evolution of classical music compositions contributed a lot - striving for technically more difficult and impressive pieces, and that becoming the standard for accomplishment.

I learned a while ago that audiences want to be transported by the music - that can definitely be achieved through technical fireworks, but can more often than not be through straight-out musical playing. Especially for an audience that doesn't know a lot about classical music - they're probably even more likely to be moved by well-played simpler pieces like Meditation or such, as they would be by Paganini etc.

October 3, 2023 at 10:22 PM · I have a saying: It's nice to be perfect, but it's even better to be able to fix your mistakes. This applies everywhere, to both music and work.

Unfortunately, there are high-pressure situations out there, and people who only award two scores: 100% and zero. Ninety-nine percent doesn't cut it with these folks. Fortunately, many other people will cut you enough slack to fix your mistakes - which is good, because we live in an imperfect world.

As for music, there are all sorts of situations of varying forgiveness. Playing a solo is stressful, no two ways about it - but if you can recover from a missed note the audience can be quick to forgive and forget. On the other hand, when you're sitting in the middle of your section in an orchestra, if you miss a note then the chances are good that your stand mate will hit it, and the audience will be none the wiser.

I often play in bluegrass jams. A good session is almost pure improv - when it's my turn to take a break I might have an opening lick chosen, but after that I have no idea what I'm going to play until my fingers do something interesting. You can take it to the edge - and sometimes fall off - but if you keep up the energy it's all good. In a good circle, the other players all have your back. And the audience, if any, will love it, perfect or not.

CBC Radio recently ran an interesting article, "In praise of mediocrity" - it addresses a lot of these issues and extols the virtues of being good enough, as opposed to perfect.

October 3, 2023 at 11:00 PM · I'm not so sure that it is mediocrity that is praised in many of these situations. It's not about perfection; it's about heart. I saw a film clip of an Andre Rieu concert in which he had a three-year-old violinist. Of course, the child made technical mistakes all over the place (intonation, bowing, vibrato, etc.). But he played with feeling, and he got an ovation that would make Paganini jealous. So, I think the focus should be...In Praise Of Heart.

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