"It was my shameful, embarrassing, dirty little secret."
I was 10 years old when I first experienced stage fright. I had been learning the cornet in the local brass band for a year or so, and I had been entered into an eisteddfod.
Standing in front of just a few people and an adjudicator playing a solo brought on an immediate and indelible response of panic – wobbly legs, dry mouth, shallow breathing and the inability to get most of the notes in the right place, if I could get anything out at all.
I think most people who have learnt music and have stood in front of an audience have experienced something similar, and for many it is the reason they stop having music lessons.
I don’t know why I kept going, but I know I loved nothing more than being in that band. It gave me a sense of belonging and a common purpose. Something to do four or five times a week. Brass bands are free lessons, a free instrument and a tailored red jacket with shiny silver buttons. I just kept on standing on stage. It is what you did. I became accustomed to the stage fright, it lessened a bit the more I did it. I never won any of the competitions.
On through high school and the Conservatorium, I gradually became more accomplished and was encouraged to become what I secretly desired – to be the mythical professional musician. Straight out of the Con I worked professionally, but I really wanted the security of a full time permanent position and for that I needed to play extremely well in a professional audition.
This is when stage fright or performance anxiety really kicked me in the guts. I think I was expected to do well in that audition, but I walked in and completely fell apart – I missed lots of notes, I couldn’t remember what buttons to push down, I couldn’t breathe. I sounded like I couldn’t play at all, and all my teacher could say afterwards was, ‘what happened?’
The next 10 years was filled with 30 or so professional orchestral auditions that gave varying degrees of success. The cycle became: practice madly for an audition, play the audition, fall apart in the audition and then ‘give up’ until the next audition or spot of work.
It seemed that nobody knew how to help me. There were no self-help books on winning orchestral auditions and there was very little research about what could be helpful. How to get the ‘me’ that played in the practice room to be the ‘me’ that played in the audition room.
I felt like two completely different people. I practiced more, I had more lessons, I studied overseas. But when crunch time came, I just couldn’t do it.
And no one talked about it. It was my shameful, embarrassing, dirty little secret.
Eventually though, through perseverance and many hours of practice I did get better at auditioning and I finally won a job at the age of 32. That gave my confidence a small boost, but now the anxiety battle was daily with nightly performances, challenging repertoire, difficult conductors and colleagues.
Every performance was almost as stressful as an audition as I obsessed over every split note, about whether I was in tune, whether I was leading properly, behind the beat and on and on.
Life finally spiralled out of control in 2010. It wasn’t just the performance anxiety, but a few years of workplace dysfunction, thwarted ambition and home renovation to top it off. Burnt out, stressed and hating the continual pressure of performance, I resigned from my job that I had worked so hard for. I put my horn away for three years while I worked out what to do.
There was a silver lining to all this misery though. I went to a psychologist who said the most remarkable thing to me: ‘You know you can’t control your thoughts, don’t you?’ and it was the beginning of my fascination with a therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I spent the next three years getting mentally better, fitter and a longing to help other musicians.
I needed to pick up my horn, to see if I could enjoy performing again. I focused on acceptance (learning what is under my control and learning to accept what is not. I learnt to accept that my mouth sometimes feels dry, so I accept it, and now I barely get a dry mouth); mindfulness (learning to pay attention in the moment, let go of the past and not worry about the future); and focusing on my values (to be able to create and articulate the sort of person I want to be).
Another big part is learning to be kind to myself, to forgive myself when I make a mistake. I still get nervous, but I am playing with more enjoyment, consistency and energy than I ever did before.