When I was in college, I sang opera. For most of my life, I had sung in choirs of various sizes. I had trained with voice teachers. But nothing could prepare me for the unique experience of performing as a soloist.
With choirs, there had always been a certain level of anonymity. An individual voice shouldn’t stand out from the chorus. If the choir sounded great, I got to share in that glory. And if we didn’t do so well, it wasn’t a personal humiliation.
Solos and duets are totally different. As a soloist, you’re exposed. If you nail it, everyone is going to applaud. And if you blow it… well, that’s embarrassing. I can still remember with crystal clarity a performance when I went for a high note and my voice cracked. I just wanted to go and hide under a rock!
When I performed opera, I learned about more than just singing. I discovered that stress and anxiety can actually be a good thing. The rush of adrenaline, elevated heart rate and respiration, and the hyper-alertness that comes just before a performance is exactly what I needed to be totally focused and on-target. I relied on a healthy amount of pre-game anxiety to maximize my performance.
The trouble came when that healthy anxiety started creeping into the rest of my life. I would start worrying about performances that were weeks or even months in the future. I carried a low level of stress with me each day, anticipating everything that could go wrong when I got up in front of people.
Eventually, I learned that I can control how far into the future my anxiety extends. All of these big, scary events that I worried about in advance actually weren’t that big of a deal when they actually happened. I got up on stage, and I either did well, or didn’t. But I always survived. Usually, I enjoyed myself!
When I’m feeling stressed out about the future, I’ve learned to ask myself this question: How bad could it be? I can overcome anxiety when I realize that the answer is, almost always: Not so bad, really. And even if the worst case scenario could be really bad, why worry in advance? It won’t change anything!
By the end of my college career, I got pretty good at putting off anxiety until mere hours or minutes before a performance. When the worry did finally overtake me, I used it as fuel to focus my awareness and bring out the best in myself. How bad could it be? My answer has become, I have no idea, but it could be really amazing if I buckle down and do what I’ve trained to do!
What’s your experience with anxiety? Do you psyche yourself up before doing work that scares you? Where’s the line between the creative tension that makes you stronger and the worry that can cripple your efforts?