This post is a revised version of an essay I wrote in October 2017 shortly after beginning postgraduate study at Guildhall School of Music & Drama. I had been writing classical music for only around eighteen months and though I had been composing in pop and folk styles for decades prior, notating music for other people to perform described a new direction to my practice. Until this point in time, I had been intrinsic to the performance of almost all the music I wrote. Performance nerves were something I was used to and for which I had coping mechanisms – be prepared or don’t perform! I was surprised to find that I also suffered anxiety when I wasn’t involved in the performance of my music.
In the text the follows, I consider the phenomenon of composer performance anxiety and offer my own experience of overcoming this fear which, if left untrammelled, has the potential to dilute the experience of hearing one’s own music being performed, ruining the fruit of a composer’s labour.
As a composer, one of my key objectives is to have my music performed by musicians in front of audiences. This was not always the case; until 2016 my music was either written for ensembles of which I was a member or was intended for dissemination by recorded media. The transition from involved to observer brought about a set of unfamiliar psychological and physiological challenges relating to issues of control. In this essay I will consider the relationship between these control issues and my current practice technique.
All performers are familiar with dealing with nerves, be they fear or excitement. In fact, ‘there is very little physiological difference between fear and excitement',[i] both responses relate to the sympathetic nervous system and are ultimately brought about by the ‘… old mammalian… interconnecting middle brain-level structures known as the limbic system’,[ii] connecting to the ‘hypothalamus, which controls the body’s stress response.’[iii]
Whether fear or excitement, it is easy to understand why these feelings arise. The performer will be in the spotlight, vulnerable, and they will be prepared or unprepared to one degree or another. They will usually have had opportunity to practice the music and time to prepare themselves psychologically and physically for the specific performance.
During the first performance at which I was the observer of my music being performed (Fother-jiggen, Downy & Full Score, Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir, June 2016) I experienced a negative stress response. I had no control over what would happen to the music with my name attached to it and, being bound by concert audience etiquette which forbids waving of arms, pacing of rooms and other anxiety-dampening actions, I had to sit and stew in adrenaline and cortisol.
But if I was not the person on the stage with the immediacy of the pressure to deal with then why was I feeling acute anxiety? In this type of situation ‘…fear is profoundly related to fear of foolishness, which has two parts: fear of being thought a fool (loss of reputation) and fear of actually being a fool (fear of unusual states of mind)’[iv] and ‘fear of foolishness and fear of mistakes tap into that very primal feeling we all learned as children: shame.’[v] The situation was encouraging primal fears and my limbic system was on high alert.
When thinking about the stress response post-performance (which had gone very well, despite my observer role) I recognised that it was a form of control anxiety: the actions of other people could lead to my own public shaming and I was powerless to prevent it. From the composer’s perspective there is temporal displacement between the thing that can be controlled (the composition) and the emotional response to the thing that cannot be controlled (the performance). I began to consider if and how I could control the future by making compositional decisions in the present.
The next piece I wrote was a substantial work for string quartet, Quartet for Strings. The piece was based on various idiosyncratic found-folk rhythms and grooves and I took the approach of leaving as little as possible to chance; articulations, bowing, dynamics were all meticulously described in the manuscript. I commissioned a studio recording from Ligeti Quartet and in the lead-up to the session they offered to give a premiere performance to help consolidate their understanding and playing (Churchill College, Cambridge, November 2016).
Following their own private rehearsals, I had one hour to spend with them in workshop immediately prior to the concert. During this time, it became apparent that despite my efforts to communicate every nuance of the music there was one thing I could not describe in musical notation alone: how to make the piece groove. There is an enormous difference between playing an accented ostinato in 11/16 and the invocation of James Brown in the concert hall, and one hour was not long enough to explore this conundrum. I was in the position of knowing that my music would be well played, but not well endowed with the folk-dance colloquialism I had intended. Following further consultation, the Ligeti Quartet made a recording which captured everything the score could not convey.
A difference between this concert and the first was my ability to anticipate how I would feel once the performance had begun, and anticipation of fearful situations activates the reward centre of the limbic system, the nucleus accumbens.[vi] And so I found myself in a situation comparable to the first concert, again with no control, but now without anxiety. Instead, a very pleasant heightened awareness took hold. The paradox of past and future is where worry resides and I was in the moment, in a Csikszentmihályian state of flow.[vii]
Acquiescence to the moment did not feel conscious and 'although I [knew] that I must give up the need to control, I [could not] intentionally decide to give it up, or simulate giving it up…This paradox of control versus letting things happen naturally cannot be rationalized, it can only be resolved [through] practice.'[viii]
I realised that I had inadvertently stumbled into a situation in which I could practise the art of giving up control by not trying to give up control. In other words: to let the situation happen as it was going to happen without any action on my part. Following the performance, I found myself better able to recall and analyse the preceding situation. I had been more aware, had been present and thoughtful, and was now better equipped to make decisions as to how the experience should inform future decision making.
Returning to my practice technique I realised that I had the opportunity to exercise various controls to varying degrees. John Cage’s Music of Changes sits at one end of the spectrum, aesthetic and technical decisions having been made through consultation with the I Ching. At the other end sits the uber-deterministic integral serialism of e.g. Milton Babbitt, in which all parameters are determined prior to the music being written. In my music, which does not exist close to either of those extremes, I can control the architecture to a greater degree than the execution. But beyond a certain point, whether you are Cage, Babbitt or Bowler, all control must be relinquished.
Following these experiences, I did not decide to write a less instructive music. My scores around that period are heavily articulated with detailed traditional instruction to the performers (as my current scores, but to a lesser extent). However, I did not and do not hold any expectation that my attempts toward perfection will result in perfect performance.
The state of flow I experienced during a concert (state of acquiescence) is no different to the state of flow I often find myself in when composing (state of control). I came to the realisation that if this mindset can permeate two seemingly contradictory environments then the heightened abilities that arose after the concert could also be applied to the act of writing music.
By finding the flow state when in the creative act, I am setting myself up to be able to better judge my work later. But this is a balancing act: awareness of the flow state brings a tendency to leave that state for a self-critical state and though the tamed inner critic can be an incredibly useful tool, it must not be allowed to take control of the machine. It needs to work alongside the creative flow state to be a productive asset:
'When judgement is obstructive, occurring perpendicular to the flow of our work rather than parallel with it, our personal time is chopped into segments, and each segment is a possible stopping point, an opportunity for confusion and self-doubt to sneak in.' [ix]
This chopping of time into segments is the antithesis of flow. To avoid the paradox of being fully aware, but not allowing myself to be aware of being fully aware, I now try to split my practice into three sections: preparation, action through non-action (wu wei) and active reflection. [x]
A period of preparation allows me to construct the meta-framework within which the music can be composed or to compose myself prior to allowing the music to be written. I have proven to myself that I can write technically proficient, well communicated music and so I do not need to worry greatly about the actual writing of the music. If I sit with it, it will happen one way or another, critical thinking and creativity working side by side. Once I have finished the act of composing, I am able to take an objective stance and ascertain whether I am on track, have veered or have found a new path to explore.
On completion, I can deal with rehearsals in the confidence that I have written an honest and well considered new work. I can also be confident that no amount of control of the present can make the future certain; performances, like life, are inherently unpredictable. However, I can be certain enough that my primal security is not so threatened as to prevent the old mammalian limbic system having a bit of fun with the nucleus accumbens. All that needs to be done is to ‘…relax [and] surrender to the bafflement’.[xi]
[i] Korb, ‘Predictable Fear: Why the Brain Likes Haunted Houses’, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201410/predictable-fear, 31 October 2014.
[ii] Greenfield, The Human Brain: A Guided Tour, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), 12–13.
[iii] Korb, ‘Predictable Fear’.
[iv] Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2010), 145.
[v] Ibid., 137.
[vi] Korb, ‘Predictable Fear’.
[vii] Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (New York u.a: Harper [and] Row, 1990).
[viii] Nachmanovitch, Free Play, 142.
[ix] Ibid., 134.
[x] Myrko, ‘How to Make It Flow... Wu Wei – Success without Effort?’
[xi] Nachmanovitch, Free Play, 141.
Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Repr. London: Marion Boyars, 1999.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York u.a: Harper [and] Row, 1990.
Greenfield, Susan. The Human Brain: A Guided Tour. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.
Gregory, Richard, ed. The Oxford Companion to The Mind. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Korb, Alex. ‘Predictable Fear: Why the Brain Likes Haunted Houses’. Psychology Today, 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201410/predictable-fear.
Accessed 10 October 2017.
McGee, Paul. Self-Confidence: The Remarkable Truth of Why a Small Change Can Make a Big Difference. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley, 2010.
Merlin, Bella. Acting: The Basics. The Basics. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.
———. Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright. London: Nick Hern Books, 2016.
Myrko, Thum. ‘How to Make It Flow... Wu Wei – Success without Effort?’ Myrko Thum. Accessed 10 December 2017. http://www.myrkothum.com/wu-wei/.
Accessed 12 October 2017
Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2010.
Peters, Steve. The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Program for Confidence, Success and Happiness. London: Vermilion, 2012.
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Wei, Wu Wei. All Else Is Bondage: Non-Volitional Living. 1st Sentient pub. ed. Boulder, Co: Sentient Publications, 2004.