The Unconservatory  

Confessions of a Flute Player:
How I Conquered Anxiety and Learned to Love Performing

Copyright 1999 by Patricia A. Onufrak

This article first appeared in "Keynotes," the Adult Music Student Forum's newsletter (

I have always been a Worrywart . . . If it could possibly go wrong, I have worried about it.

As a high school flute player, I did it all-auditions, challenges, and Solo Festival. In a Challenge, the flute player in the chair behind me in band could attempt to gain my seat by challenging me to play a piece of music. Sadistic band directors would have us both play in front of our fellow students during class. (Apparently, some band directors seemed to think that suffering was a spectator's sport!) With Solo Festival, three months of hard work and dedication culminated in a five-minute performance in April where a judge would rate my performance on a scale of 1 (superior) to 5 (don't ask). My self-esteem for the coming year depended on the results of this event.

For years, I suffered from nerves and my mother took the abuse that I dished out the night before a performance or competition. Any pressure made me pretty hard to live with.

I left my flute at home when I went to college, glad that all that stress would be behind me. However, the strangest thing started to happen. Every April, I had this compulsion to pick up my flute and play those pieces that I knew best. And would you believe it? They were my Solo Festival pieces! Would the specter of Solo Festival never leave me?

After years of these April flashbacks, I began to realize that perhaps these had indeed been the best years of my life, but maybe I just didn't know it at the time. Focusing on one piece of music for months gave me the luxury of perfecting it to the best of my ability-exploring nuances and polishing all the rough edges. A piece prepared to this extent never leaves you. I played my eighth grade Solo Festival piece, Telemann's Sonata in F, in my first AMSF Formal Recital. Ironically, I had my only disastrous Solo Festival experience playing this piece-trembling lower lip, shaky fingers-the works!

In tenth grade, I found a wonderful accompanist (my piano teacher at the time) and for weeks before the Big Event, we would work on the piece during the time normally set aside for my piano lesson. My pre-Solo Festival ritual was precise-I would have an extra lesson the week before, triple my practice time, and make that metronome work harder than it had ever worked before. On Friday night, I had my traditional pre-Solo Festival meal of tuna salad and pirohy [Slavic-style potato dumplings]. (Hey, it brought me luck in ninth grade and who was I to tamper with success?) That night, the tears would start to flow during my last practice session, but eventually I would pull myself together, and by morning, I was psyched up for my performance.

After going through all that, the judge's rating of my performance didn't matter. (Ok, ok, so I lied a little.) And I was exhausted by the time it was all over, but the adrenaline would start to flow by my next flute lesson and I would feel ready to take on the world-or at least Prokofiev's Sonata in D.

Today, I realize that a lot of my current self-confidence was developed during this time. As an adult, I don't fear public speaking and presentations at work. After all, they aren't going to make me play my flute, so how bad could it be? Looking back, I began to understand some things about performing and nerves that have helped me a lot as an adult performer. Together, these ideas form my personal plan for dealing with performance anxiety. I feel empowered and more confident knowing that I have an agenda that will help me deal with stress. It is my hope that these ideas may help you develop a plan that is right for you . . .

A New Look at an Old Idea

Try to look at the issue of Performance Anxiety in a new way-not as something to be feared and avoided, but rather as a curiosity to be experienced, explored, and even enjoyed.

To feel all these emotions is what makes us feel truly alive. And do not confuse the very positive emotion of Excitement with nerves. If we think about it, a good portion of what we feel may actually be the exhilaration that drew us to music in the first place. And frankly, if I didn't have music to ponder over, I would find something really terrifying to think about. I might even worry about my Emerging Markets mutual fund!

And my perspective improved when I learned the following . . .

We aren't nearly as worried about making a mistake as we are about not being able to handle all those uncomfortable emotions that we will feel if it happens.

We have all made mistakes in the past and we will continue to do so in the future unless we go into some sort of permanent hibernation. Participate in as many recitals as possible. This will allow you to put any one incident in its proper perspective-as just one more event on your musical journey through life. To my knowledge, nobody has ever dropped dead after performing in an AMSF recital. You WILL survive.

Be the Best Worrywart You Can Be!

Enthusiasm and a sense of humor will help you get through the toughest times.

If you still choose to worry and get all bent out of shape, then by all means, Go For It! Let your feelings engulf you. Walk around like the world revolves around you and it just may stop turning if all doesn't go well. Have your special pre-recital dinner. Create any ritual you want if it will make you feel better. Enjoy yourself! Facing your fears and being able to laugh about them is the first step toward getting them under control.

Who's Counting?

In spite of what you may think, nobody is actually sitting out there counting your mistakes.

Remember that girl who used to sit in the chair below you in the high school band, the one who reveled in your mistakes? She hasn't been in your life for a long time now, so get her out of your head! When you perform, you give a gift of yourself to the listener. Rather than focus on what you think they are thinking (and you don't really know for sure, anyway), remind yourself that your listeners are there to enjoy themselves and to get that special feeling from the music they are hearing. If you have ever driven around the block twice before you pulled into your driveway just so you could hear the final notes of Bizet's Carmen Suite, you know the feeling that I am talking about.

Is there a piece that you love so much that you just want to share it with somebody? A piece that makes you forget about everything else that is going on in your life? Your listeners would probably love to hear it, too. Why not share it with your audience at your next recital?

And What If . . .

If your performance isn't going as well as you would have liked, your audience will take their cue from you as to whether or not they should allow themselves to continue to enjoy your performance.

If you aren't having fun, your audience won't be having fun either. And if you look miserable after some insignificant glitch, your audience will start to feel your discomfort.

At a Cadenza recital, I began to play my first selection, Gluck's Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits; unfortunately, my accompanist began to play my second selection, the fourth movement from Handel's Sonata in A Minor, at the same time. My audience and I had a good laugh and we looked upon the incident as one of those moments of unplanned musical comedy that occasionally happens and we went on. Audiences can be very forgiving, so learn to forgive yourself and go on.

And when all else fails, remember that life really does go on.

Briefly analyze what went wrong; decide what, if anything, you could do to keep it from happening again; and then start practicing for the next recital.

On Prescription Drugs, White Russians, and Red Wine

Using anti-anxiety drugs or drinking alcohol isn't the answer. Drugs and alcohol may numb your emotions a little, but they may also dull your awareness and your coordination, and they may ultimately lessen your own enjoyment of your performance. Why not consider the use of physical exercises to help you move beyond your emotional distress?

Perhaps finding a way to bypass the troublesome body part will take care of a lot of the problem. For flute players, a trembling lower lip can spell disaster. No amount of paying attention to that lip will stop it from quivering. My flute teacher taught me an exercise called Breath Kicks. The fundamental theory behind this exercise can be employed during the performance to alleviate a shaky lower lip and wavering vibrato. I also used this exercise once in the car on my way to a piano performance. It involved moving beyond that tightness in my throat and going deep down to my diaphragm to use the proper breathing muscles without interference from other muscles that should be minding their own business and staying out of the way. Consult your teacher, perhaps he or she will be able to offer some suggestions. (Helpful Hint: I understand that many of the most effective exercises have elements in common with Yoga.)

Preparation That Goes Beyond Practicing

Visualize yourself performing well.

Picture yourself as handling whatever circumstances that come your way (delays, poor facilities, a change in program order, etc.) with grace and confidence. You will hardly ever be surprised because you have been in that situation before and handled it well (even if only in your own mind).

The little things count, too. Don't forget to attend to the details.

The morning of a performance is no time to find out that the blouse you were planning to wear is missing a strategic button. Or that you really can't play wearing your suit jacket. Or your portable music stand is not where you thought it would be.

Make yourself comfortable-bring a bottle of water or anything else you might need. Make that extra trip to the ladies' or men's room before your performance. And ladies, playing it safe by bringing an extra pair of pantyhose will almost guarantee that you won't run the ones you are wearing. (Or perhaps you may wish to avoid this issue entirely by wearing a long dress.) And once you get these details straightened out, Stop Worrying! People are there to listen to you. If you play well enough, they will close their eyes anyway and they won't see the big spot on your shirt left over from your fight with the water fountain right before you went on stage.

Why Do We Put Ourselves Through This?

We love music and we love the instrument we are playing. We just sometimes forget this in all the fuss surrounding a performance!

Remember my dreadful Solo Festival experience in eighth grade? The one with the trembling lower lip? Well, last year, at the Mid-Atlantic Flute Fair in Bethesda, Maryland, I ran into my Solo Festival judge from more than 25 years ago, and I got the chance to tell him exactly what I thought about him and my Solo Festival experience. I thought he looked rather alarmed when I told him how I knew him, or perhaps it was just the passage of time that had startled him, as he repeated, "Twenty-five years ago?!" I told him that it had ultimately been a positive experience and that it had influenced my view of performing as an adult in a wonderful way. I thanked him for handling my nervousness so well and I told him that I greatly appreciated his gentleness, sensitivity, and insightful comments.

After getting over his surprise, he said, in a very matter-of-fact manner, "Of course, playing the flute is just too much fun to spend time worrying about it." It was my turn to be surprised. The answer was so simple. It had been given to me in eighth grade, but it took years for me to realize it on my own.

Try to get back in touch with that part of you that remembers what it was like to want more than anything else in the world to play an instrument or a specific piece of music.

If you ever feel like your passion for music is waning, stop by Brobst's Violin Shop in Alexandria, Virginia, in September and watch the kids get fitted with the appropriate size of violin or cello. On my last trip there, I overheard a mother say, "Perhaps we should have brought a camera. This is a big day. She has been wanting to do this since she was four." I turned and saw a blonde-haired girl who was wearing one of those shell-shocked, "I can't believe this is really happening" look. She appeared to be about 10 years old. Then, it dawned on me. She had been waiting more than half of her life for this moment.

Remember your own excitement the first time you played your instrument and the thrill of starting a new piece.

It Is Ultimately Your Decision

Decide for yourself whether you are willing to allow performance anxiety to keep you from having fun and sharing your love of music with others. If not, develop your own plan to help yourself experience less stress and more joy when performing.

With some effort, a little courage, and the willingness to get to know yourself better, you can keep performance anxiety from holding you back. View yourself and your plan as a "work in progress." Recently, I started playing with a chamber ensemble. The fear of not fitting in or not being able to keep up caught me off-guard. For me, the process of dealing with anxiety involves moving forward, perhaps backsliding occasionally, but then pressing on again.

Be brave! Reconnect with that part of yourself that experiences joy and appreciates a good thrill. And when that critical Worrywart creeps back into your life at your next performance, tell it to just chill out and enjoy the show!

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Updated: February 10, 2006 (KB)

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