Expose Your Therapy

After 25 years of playing music, I would love to stop taking Inderal to control the effects of performance anxiety. In my fantasy, I get excited to play Porgy and Bess, have a manageable amount of adrenaline, play well. In my reality, I panic when I know it’s coming up, wish for a cataclysmic event as a distraction, take Inderal, play well.

On my current favorite reality-show—“Hoarding: Buried Alive”—they talk a lot about anxiety. On the surface, the show is about people staying one step ahead of fines or jail time by cleaning up their massive amount of stuff. Below the surface, it’s usually about loss. Hoarders hold onto things because they’ve lost people to divorce or death. Being asked to part with their items causes tremendous anxiety. That’s the part that interests me. A therapist comes into the hoarder’s house, picks up an item, and asks the person to imagine throwing it away. And when this causes anxiety, the therapist has the hoarder do nothing. Just feel it—Exposure Therapy.

Hoarding’s not my problem, yet I relate to these reality folks. The fear may throwing things away or performing in front of an audience. The diversionary tactics might be saving empty dog food cans, or: not taking any more auditions, bypassing solo or chamber music opportunities, developing restrictive physical “issues,” or changing careers. It’s the anxiety that’s the constant and we are never more ridiculous than when we are running from it. So Exposure Therapy sounds like a wonderful solution for what we fear. I have seen it help tremendously on the show. At first, the hoarder is horribly uncomfortable being asked to sit with the anxiety that getting rid of items provokes. It sucks. Some of them sweat profusely, some of them get really pissed off, some cry. Then, once they actually feel those feelings, they feel better.

How would I make this work for performance anxiety? In the hoarding scenario, they hire a professional organizer; I would hire an orchestra, a conductor, and an audience of 3000. I would provoke my anxiety by putting Porgy and Bess on the music stands and getting ready to play the xylophone part. Putting aside the impracticality and expense, would this work?

I don’t think so.

The reason it wouldn’t work is this: I am only going to get that performance anxiety (and the physical symptoms that go with it) if I feel something is at stake, like my professional reputation and my self-worth. I can’t conjure that feeling in a pretend situation. In this scenario, for which I have somehow found the vast sum to hire a lot of actors, everyone is in on the plan. They know they’re there for exposure therapy, ergo I can screw up, ergo I won’t feel any pressure. If it’s ok to fail, nothing is at stake. So what if I don’t tell them? Since I seem to have so much money to burn, why not hire an ad agency as well, one who will advertise a free opera performance? The flaw in that plan seems obvious to me but I’ll hammer it home: because then it would actually be a performance and my reputation and self-worth would be at stake, at least in my head where the whole problem is anyway.

For some musicians, it helps to duplicate the symptoms they feel when anxious and learn to play in spite of them. The breathlessness, the racing heart, the shaking hands—all can be manufactured with a few flights of stairs and a lot of coffee. I know because I’ve tried it. I also know that I can still go into the practice room and play well in that state. In that scenario, my head is my ally. I can employ it to tell myself to move slowly and breathe deeply. If I’m about to play a performance however, I have the same quivering heart, same shallow breaths, same shaking hands but suddenly my head has been hijacked by panic. Here’s what the panic says in a loud and rude voice: your hands are shaking so much that you won’t be able to play, then you’ll hit a lot of wrong notes, then you’ll have to stop, then you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll die. Never mind that life is not actually at stake; if that kind of falsehood responded to reason, I would’ve talked myself out of it 40 years ago.

We’re supposed to fear some things. It’s just that, when my limbs are flailing like a one-legged air dancer on a used car lot, my response is perfectly crafted for running from a predator. When I think I’ll probably die because I have to play one soft triangle note, that’s not evolution at its finest. It does help, though, to play hard pieces again and again and again. It may not be possible to give up the Inderal, it may never feel like there’s nothing at stake, but that wouldn’t be good anyway. My pride should be at stake. I’m not there to do it badly. My goal now is to feel the fear, take the Inderal, and do my best to enjoy the music.