Why I Can’t Play Piano In Front of Anyone Ever
Tales of anxiety
I’ve been a pianist since I was 6 years old. Music has always been something I was love with, but I never thought of myself as a great musician. I hated competitions because I never won them and on more than one occasion screwed up or had terrible things happen during them (my skirt got stuck in the bench). I leapt past most RCM exams feeling like an imposter. When I grew older, it only got worse.
In high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I graduated. Somehow my friend convinced me to pursue music and become a teacher. I magically didn’t mess up during auditions and was accepted to the University of Toronto, my top pick for schools. Throughout the 4 years I roamed the faculty, I felt like I didn’t belong. Every class my classmates could memorize all their songs and I’d stutter through mine. I’m not a slow learner, in fact I can retain most information after reading it once, but there was something different inhibiting my ability to play in front of people, Performance Anxiety.
The most frustrating part about speaking out about it was that it’s not like regular nervousness or stage-fright. It can’t be overcome by “more practice” as people have tried to tell me. When I’m playing for my own enjoyment I am fine, but the second it becomes a performance, the millions of voices in my head go off. “What if my mind draws a blank?” “Oh shit, where’s that rest in bar 52.” “Maybe I should have eaten first.” “Have I been holding my breath this whole time?” “Does my hair look stupid in my face?” “My hands are moving by themselves, wait, where am I?” “I’m going to mess up that part again”. All these thoughts and many more occurred until I was grinded to a halt mid-song. I do have some degree of anxiety outside of performance, but for the most part I have been able to channel those thoughts in writing and other forms of art. It’s the performing as a “perfect” musician that instils the most anxiety for me, to the point where I was eventually prescribed Xanax to stop me from hyperventilating and get me through my degree. Due to my amazing grades in musicology, theory and other courses, I did graduate, despite a disastrous jury where I suddenly forgot everything.
Presently, I am not on any sort of medication for anxiety. I’m no longer playing piano under the pretence that I have to be “perfect” and I coach piano students through their own frustrations. I continue to perform only for myself, and I've learnt to accept that it is okay to be imperfect.
I originally published this post in Static Zine, a tri-annual DIY zine in Toronto.