Nervousness, butterflies, cold sweats. However you say it, performance anxiety is the gut-churning feeling you get when you know you’re about to be judged.
When I was a kid, I used to get sweaty, clammy, shaky hands before any piano exam or recital. The exams were the worst because they made you sit in the Cone of Silence where there was nothing to do but stare at the wooden door and imagine what lies beyond. I guess it was kind of like sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. As a child, I wasn’t sure what was worse, a bad diagnosis, or a botched performance that I would be graded on!
Universities crank up the fear factor even more by calling their exams “juries”. “We find this pianist guilty! Four counts of excessive pedaling in the second degree.”, was what I imagined the verdict would be. But to my relief, I escaped unharmed, and without sentencing.
And somehow I continue to enjoy performing in front of strangers. The anxiety is still there, of course. I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of it, and I don’t know that I’d want to be.
To me, performance anxiety is the evidence that I really care about what I’m about to do. It makes me want to prepare as best I can, and it sometimes helps me raise my game at just the right moment by giving me the energy to focus, to respond to the audience, and live in the moment. Of course, it can also cause reckless and unexpected mistakes… I’m definitely not free from that.
I’m curious… has being nervous ever helped you perform, speak, or present more effectively?