Dealing With Anxiety and Self Doubt in the World of Music

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Music is something I have enjoyed and wanted to pursue for years, it has always been my dream to study at a music college where you are given opportunities to study and perform alongside like minded, talented individuals. Obviously, when I received the news that I would actually have the opportunity to do so early last year I was over the moon: yet, what was less obvious was how much the reality of this dream would impact on my mental health and self esteem.

Studying music brings me so many great and incomprehensible opportunities, but of course due to the nature of the subject also brings with it peer criticism of your playing, rejection emails and high expectations. Whilst the people around me (in my view) flourished under this pressure, within the first term and half I found myself sinking into a state of loneliness, self doubt and apathy. I fell into a routine of being lazy in my practice, beating myself up about it, crying down the phone to my mom on the way home and then insisting I was going to quit. Yet, I’m still there over a term and half later so something must have changed mustn’t it?

People are friendly at college, there’s obviously competition but there’s very much a supportive attitude. However, I’ve found that there’s a significant taboo about talking about performance anxiety and self doubt among peers; possibly due to fear of showing weakness in case it puts people off working with us, potentially because we don’t know how to, and probably also because it matches the stigma around mental health issues that has been prevalent for many years. Evidently, we need to be careful to understand the differences between Generalised Anxiety Disorder and performance anxiety; although for me personally I have find the two are often interlinked; but to still not trivialise performance nerves and self doubt.

People often make the argument that performance nerves are ‘normal’ and that you should just get used to them, and although this can be comforting, if you are not provided with methods of dealing with them, ‘nerves’ can spiral out of control until you can’t face picking up your instrument.

I have found the performance coaching sessions at college as well as
conversations with my teacher and lots of book suggestions really beneficial in building my self confidence back up as well as reigniting a passion for the career path I have chosen. From these I have accumulated methods of dealing with my performance anxiety; simply acknowledging their existence, speed writing to clear my brain, meditation, and a lot of post-it notes.

Yet, I still believe we need to build a climate where it is something we talk about on a day to day basis with each other; especially within a subject where we are often being scrutinised under a spotlight and which requires so much mental energy and focus!

The biggest help for me has been learning to focus on my own development and what I want to do with my playing, rather than to be overly aware of what other people’s perceptions of me are (which mostly have been my own self doubts which I have projected onto other people), and to be able to be able to see that my performances do not represent who I am, only what I can do on the clarinet.

For anyone interested, I have found the last term and a half of music college so much better, pretty ironic as it’s generally the most stressful section of the year because it is recital season; finding people I can be honest with about how things are, that will listen to and yes, criticise, my playing whilst knowing that it comes from a place of support; and finishing my year with an exam that yes, I was terrified for, but still thoroughly enjoyed!

I hope this may have been useful to someone, and if anyone ever wants to chat just get in touch ♡