Eric Maisel Discusses His Favorite Performance Anxiety Techniques and Preparedness
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Viv: Well it’s just been an amazing list of things and to hear all the different methods that are available on how to get over stage fright or at least manage it. There’s so many resources for us to master these anxiety bouts.
Eric: There are and just to repeat what I said earlier, I don’t know if overwhelming’s the right word, it can feel overwhelming to have so many choices, but the idea is that you only need one or two that work. I think the breathing and the cognitive, that’s the pair that I think are the most important in overcoming stage fright. Namely, noticing what you’re saying and noticing how what you’re saying is making you anxious. And then breathing through as you substitute more affirmative language. I think that’s the key technique in conquering anxiety. But, if you like discharge techniques, if you like reorienting techniques, if you like relaxation techniques, then they’re all available to you.
Viv: That’s wonderful. Now, of all of those things, your personal choices are the cognitive and breathing.
Eric: That’s right. I wonder do you have a sense of what you would like to test?
Viv: Oh yes, absolutely, I recently had been going through the anxiety response, “Well if only this was a more professional thing”. Like professional fill in the blank. Whether it was class or performance and realizing if I was involved then it was. And that really settled it. It was really interesting because then what it did for me was it restored my sense of power. Yeah so that was a reframing I guess.
Eric: That’s right. That was cognitive work, that’s right.
Viv: And taking a moment, I do have a very strong ritual before I perform. There’s just a theory that things that have grown organically return whether I sat down and wrote them out, but it’s something that I’ve grown organically over time that are just patterns I notice that I repeat and it doesn’t matter what the venue is, it’s a physical pattern that I tend to repeat. And it calms me. And part of it is centering breathing practice.
Viv: About fifteen minutes before curtain.
Eric: And if I were to summarize the different things I’ve been saying I think I would like to make four points, not necessarily in conclusion, but just make them now so that I remember them. I think the four points would be: the first is, and this is the Buddhist phrase, the phrase is “You want to get a grip on your own mind”. I think people don’t realize to what extent they’re not thinking their own thoughts, that their thoughts are thinking them. You want to get a grip on your own mind and begin to do cognitive work. I think the second main point is you want to learn to detach. Even as your invested in the performance, and it’s great to be invested, we’re ambitious, egotistic people, it’s great to be ambitious, but you want to learn how to walk that line between being invested and learning how to detach. I realize I missed disidentification techniques when I went through the list because it’s coming up for me now as I speak, the idea of disidentification, and that comes from an Italian psychiatrist named Assagioli and it’s very much like attachment in Buddhism, it’s the same idea. And the basic idea is we’re bigger than our performance. We’re bigger than any of our attributes. And we want to remember that. We want to remember that this performance that’s happening is not the be all and end all of our life. Even as we’re invested we want to learn how to detach from the moment. So I think point 1 is getting a grip on your mind, point 2 is learning how to detach, point 3 is being prepared. We really need to be prepared for the things we do. If we procrastinated because of anxiety then naturally we’re going to be more anxious because we’re not actually prepared. As straightforward as it sounds, as sort of bottom-line as it sounds, we really want to be prepared for the things we do. Or even over-prepared. But that means that we want to be mastering the anxiety early on in the process, three months before the gig, so that we actually are doing the rehearsing rather than trying to master the anxiety in the green room when we’re not really ready for the performance at all. That’s the third idea is to really be prepared and the fourth is the really come armed. To come armed with some, one or two or three, anxiety reduction tools. I think that’s actually pretty simple to remember. And that’s, ‘Get a grip on your mind. Learn to detach. Be prepared. And come armed.”
Viv: Who’s this?
Ernie: This is Ernie again.
Viv & Eric: Hi Ernie.
Eric: How are you doing?
Ernie: One of the things that really struck me was that you talked about being prepared. I can’t think about how that saved me so many times. But another thing that I wanted to ask about is physical effects of fear like I often think that my hands feel like clubs, I don’t have any fingers anymore, my hands are just these clubs and I’m trying to play the guitar, so….
Eric: Well I think it’s proof that the gods are sadistic. That they give performers exactly the ailment they least can use so if you’re a violinist it’s be your wrist. If you’re a singer it’ll be your vocal chords, that’s exactly the way it works. So you don’t want to rush to a vocal doctor or a wrist doctor as if the ailment was actually a physical one. You have to be really smart about these things. And when you go to specialists or when you go for help for these things, you want to be smart in your own mind about weighing and balancing what kind of advice you get. But to circle back around to an answer to your question, whatever is going to disturb you the most is exactly where the anxiety is going to go.
Eric: So you really want to deal with the anxiety, not the feeling in your wrist or the fact that your hands are clubs or whatever. You can’t deal with the symptoms, except in that symptom-confrontation way of trying to make it even worse. And maybe you might want to try that. Make your hands not just clubs but I don’t know, meat cleavers or ten-ton weights. Try to become sort of ridiculous with it and see if it comes around. But, apart from that, you can’t manage anxiety symptom by symptom, you have to get at the core stuff of what’s actually bothering you.
Ernie: Right. Well that’s a whole other story.
Eric: That’s the whole other story.
Ernie: But I guess being prepared helps.
Eric: It does. Let me just say a few more words about being prepared. I think lots of people understand the idea of a meditation practice or a religious practice or an exercise regimen or what have you but they don’t institute the same practice for their creative life or their performing life. They don’t take it as seriously. They don’t take it with, so to speak, the same kind of religious fervor. And I think there’s nothing better than instituting a morning practice that you do on a daily basis, seven days a week, so that ultimately what happens when you do this daily practice is you really are prepared. So that’s just a side-note about what preparation is, By calling it practice, by making it, to use a highfalutin word, sacred, I think that really helps with anxiety in the long run.
Ernie: I’ve been doing some of the mindfulness meditation. I have a CD that I listen to. I didn’t really understand what it was all about but I think it’s sort of learning how to my focus my mind, and I think that’ll come in handy.
Eric: I think it will. Let me add one thing to what you just said. Most meditation practices, the goal of most meditation practices, is to have you empty your mind and not suffer from your thoughts. And I think that a second step is needed beyond that. That’s step 1 and that’s a great step. To empty your mind and to not suffer from your thoughts. Then I think you want to introduce the thoughts you want to think. And that’s not an idea that most mindfulness practices include. And, by that I mean, after you’ve done your meditation, then you want to return with strength to your actual practice. To your actual rehearsing or whatever it is you’re doing. The meditation is not just for it’s own sake. It’s to lead you to do the work. And sometimes people who are practiced meditators don’t actually do the work. They’re good at meditating, but they don’t do the work. So I would say that as an ending ritual to your mindfulness meditation, you would want to include something about, “And now I go on to work”.
Ernie: Right, ok. Sounds good.
Eric: Thank you.
Viv: Well, Eric, what else might we need to take forward into the next round when we hit Monday morning and we get up and we get out our guitars and we return to our practice, what should we take forward?
Eric: I think the biggest thing is awareness. We are not very honest with ourselves. We are tricky characters. We notice in the corner of consciousness that we haven’t practiced for three weeks or what have you, but we’re just not exactly honest about that. And it sounds paradoxical because I think people think that if they don’t notice things than they’re not going to experience the anxiety they would experience if they did notice them. They think they’re doing themselves a service by not noticing. And in fact they’re not. The anxiety is building out of conscious awareness somewhere. It’s coursing through their system. It’s making it harder for them to practice or get ready, prepare. All of that’s getting harder by the way in which they’re deceiving themselves. So, to say it really simply, honesty may be one of the best cures for performance anxiety.
Viv: Interesting. Can you talk about that a little bit more? Honesty in just being real? Honesty in being real with yourself about what’s happening?
Eric: Absolutely. Rather than saying, “Boy this is the stupidest gig my agent ever got me” and going down the route of starting an interpersonal drama in your own mind between you and your agent when none of that is really what’s going on, if you were to honestly say, “Wow, this gig that my agent got me makes me anxious”, once you’ve said that, once you’ve moved the conversation in your own mind to the place where it honestly is, then you have the opportunity to pull out your anxiety management techniques and deal with the feeling that the upcoming gig is making you anxious. If you stay in the other place of now starting this big internal drama, which so many people do, interpersonal drama between you and your agent, or you and your other band members, or you and your accompanist, or whomever. And that’s just one version of not being truthful. Because what’s really going on inside is not really anything about you and the other band members. It’s you and your experience of anxiety. So by being honest, what happens is then you have to face the anxiety, which now requires your heroism. But you can face it because hopefully you have an arsenal, a menu, a quiver full of arrows, to deal with the anxiety that you’ve now truthfully acknowledged.
Viv: You used the word heroism at the beginning of your talk today. I’d like to address that. Why do you choose the word heroism when we’re addressing anxiety? Anxiety is sort of something that tends to make us feel like….
Eric: It’s funny that we don’t understand the difference in commitment and effort between watching a rerun of “I Love Lucy” and singing a three hour Aria. It takes real heroism to learn an opera. Or perform twenty songs. Or to put ourselves out there and to say to the world, “Of course you get to criticize me. I’m here right in front of you. Do whatever you like. Give me a bad notice.” The way most people avoid the experience of anxiety is by not doing the thing. If they’re afraid of flying they don’t fly. If they’re afraid of crossing bridges they figure out some way to get from Berkeley to San Francisco without crossing a bridge. They avoid the situation. We are not doing that. We’re heroically facing the situation. And that makes us anxious. So we’re heroically facing the situation and we need that added measure of heroism to then deal with the anxiety we ourselves created by doing something so large.
Viv: Well that is pretty dandy. I just think it’s a wonderful word and I was really struck by it when you used it. I really don’t think that in playing a bar gig that anybody’s going to step up and feel like they’re being a hero for actually attempting it.
Eric: And they should. It’s harder to be up there then being at the bar having your fourteenth beer. It’s really harder to be up there in the front doing the work, then hiding out and not doing the work.
Viv: Well what a wonderful hour. Thank you so much Eric.
Eric: Thank you Viv.
Viv: I really appreciate all the time that you’ve put in helping performers like us. You can learn more about Eric’s offerings at ericmaisel.com and also at tenzenseconds.com. You have little videos and things like that and audio up on there.
Eric: Yeah, there’s a nice little slideshow for ten Zen seconds. It’s cute. If you want to learn the twelve incantations that make up the ten Zen seconds program. That’s a fun way to do it is to go through the slideshow.