A punch to the face…

posted in: Blog 9

Fear. Debilitating. Crippling. You know it. Whether it’s speaking in public or going on stage. It starts with a quickening of your pulse, and soon your fingers are numb and your face is flush…it’s just like getting punched in the face – well, sort of.

I’ve been punched in the face a couple times. The first time was in 4th grade. School had just finished for the day and ‘tough guy’ Kurt decided it was my day to be picked on. Kurt was much bigger than me (I was always one of the smallest in the grade) – and most kids just stayed away from him. In today’s world Kurt would be labelled a “bully“, but back in the 70’s he was just ‘tough’. On this particular Fall day, Kurt pushed me. I decided to push him back. He punched me in the face. So much for that lesson.

The next time was in 10th grade. Me and “Eddie” duked it out near the lockers. I can’t even remember what started the fight – teenage testosterone I guess. After a brief argument, he just hauled off and punched me in the face. “I can’t believe he just punched me!”. Time sort of froze as I realized it wasn’t so bad. As my adrenaline kicked in and my body turned into an angry meatball, I threw a flurry of punches back –  knocking Eddie to the floor (he never bothered me again – in fact, I can’t remember anyone bothering me after that).

The weird thing about any serious altercation – your body automatically creates chemical responses which are (seemingly) out of your control. Quickened heart-rate and breathing. Heightened sensitivity to your surroundings. Time passes slower. These reactions are part of the “fight-or-flight” response you’ve heard about.

This brings me back to “fear”. Why is it we’re afraid to “speak in public” (Glossophobia) or “perform in public” (Stage Fright)? I mean, this isn’t life-or-death, is it? It’s hard to believe performing in front of other people is on the same scale as getting punched in the face (or, for that fact, getting eaten by a lion) – RIGHT? Well, for some odd reason this is precisely what it feels like.

Whenever I perform – regardless of the size of the audience/venue, I get a nervous belly. I can’t eat. My hands get clammy. My heart races. I’ve found meditation and breathing exercises help. I also find a small dose (20-40mg) of Propranolol helps with the clammy hands part (important if you’re playing piano). Still, I have yet to conquer this fear, and still searching for the best way to punch it in the face.

So, how do you handle fear?

9 Responses

  1. Mimi
    | Reply

    1. Someone told me a long time ago that anxiety and excitement initiate exactly the same physiological responses in the body. So when you start feeling anxious, tell yourself “I’m excited!”

    2. Prayer. Works for me every time. Ask for help. Then step aside and allow Spirit to be present.

    3. Repeat 1 and 2 above as often as necessary!

    You play BEAUTIFUL music! So stunned to know you suffer performance anxiety with your piano!!!

    • pianoxcape
      | Reply

      Thanks Mimi – I love prayer and you are absolutely correct. During these anxious times I often just pray for ‘peace’…

  2. William Seager
    | Reply

    I have had this problem for as long as I can remember, so I avoid it as one would Anthrax. I also had the same results after taking bullying for a long time. One day I just had enough, fought back and all I remember is someone pulling me off my “former” tormentor. Result…no more tormentors. The Bronx in NY is a tough place to grow up!! fight or flight were the only choices.
    P. S.- I have several of your albums and enjoy their calming effect in this upside-down world.

  3. Lorraine Nielsen
    | Reply

    Hi Gary! That picture above looks like a cross between you and Louis Landon! Ha!
    Doing anything in front of people was always an obstacle for me growing up; lack of self-confidence, part dyslexia, and not knowing how to carry a conversation with anyone except my mom. Even when I met my husband in high school he did all the talking (still does ;)! But I came out of my shell when I became a mom and being around my husband’s talkative family for over 45 years!
    When I started playing piano again after many years of not, it took me a long time to feel somewhat okay playing in front of anyone. A friend encouraged me to play once in a while before Mass and that helped me, but my heart would pound the whole time. Now I’m playing at an assisted living center and also a retirement center a few times every month. I’m not so nervous anymore but it’s still there. I think it’s not wanting to make mistakes that hangs me up and I get distracted easily and lose my place and really mess up a song! I have to ask the Holy Spirit to help me play well and thank God for the talent he’s blessed me with.
    I’m always in awe of your composing and how passionate your playing is. I’m still practicing “Water” and I know I’ll never have the speed that you have; “Heal” has been a challenge, also. “Miracles” and “Love” have been easier to learn. Even “Lanterns” was hard to get the hang of it but I’m still not good at the tempo. But it’s fun trying! Thanks, Gary!

    • pianoxcape
      | Reply

      Thanks Lorraine – I know you through your words, and they have always been calming and soothing. I’m thankful our paths have crossed and we’re able to share stories. I’m also happy to hear about your piano-playing experiences. Once we get our minds out of the way, piano really can be a spiritual experience. As always, blessings to you and your family.

  4. Luralee Wheatley
    | Reply

    Hi Gary! I enjoy reading your blog articles. This one really hit home, so I thought I’d chip in. I am surprised to hear you suffer from any anxiety before playing…I heard one of your performances and visited with you for a few minutes a couple of years ago at Michele’s in Salt Lake City. I would never have guessed you were nervous!
    I am a self taught player and perform in public at several hospitals in my area and play at an occasional family or Christmas party. I have terrible stage fright which keeps me from doing much more than that publicly – I can play just about anything in private (your pieces are especially challenging!) but I am slowly getting over my debilitating fear. But still…sweaty, clammy fingers is one of my biggest problems (besides the heart attack symptoms lol). Thank you so much for your recommendation to take Propranolol. I will definitely try it!
    I am always amazed by your beautiful, expressive compositions. Esposa and Love’s Light are some of my very favorites. I love everything in your ELEMENTS Songbook, but I must say that your TRANSITIONS pieces exceed them all! Redemption and Forbidden Love simply take my breath away!
    Thanks for the beauty and emotion you so freely share with others.

    • pianoxcape
      | Reply

      Thank you Luralee – I’m so glad we were able to meet and I appreciate you sharing your story…as I think back to that evening at Michele’s, I remember how difficult it was for me to eat prior to the show. There were some various snacks (I seem to remember M&Ms?) – something as small as one little M&M, just can’t do it. Odd. However, after the show I was ravenous. I’m sure this is a symptom of that ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. Do you experience ‘nervous belly’? I hope you continue to play and perform – however difficult. It’s overcoming our fears where we can really grow 🙂

  5. Alida
    | Reply

    Hi Gary,

    I can relate to how you feel about fear and nervousness. I’m not playing in public these days but I have in the past.
    One time my right leg was shaking and I couldn’t stop it. The result was a great tremolo pedal effect! I had trouble
    playing in front of family, especially my father. His expectations were always high. I found it easier to play for strangers because I wasn’t worried about their expectations.
    I think some nervousness is good because it forces a performer into an alert state of mind. The problem is how to control it. What if you try pretending
    your performance is actually just another practice session at home? This helps me calm down.
    You’re a gifted composer and pianist and I wish you the best. I’m still practicing pieces from “Transitions”. I really
    love “Solitude”, “Invictus” , “Beyond Tomorrow” and “Transformation”. They’re not easy to play well but it’s worth the effort. Keep up the great work!

    Best wishes and Happy Spring!


    • pianoxcape
      | Reply

      Thank you Alida. And thank you for sharing your story about the “nervous leg” – I can imagine that being difficult (and distracting) while playing 🙂

      The hardest part for me is the first several minutes. Usually once I get into the music, I can just disappear. It’s just getting to that point which is difficult. I agree the nervousness/anxiety comes more from “expectations” of others – this can really mess with your mind. I like your thought about this being “practice” – because when I practice, I can really disappear into the music. Time stands still. Everything is well in the world.

      Anyway, I hope you will continue your playing – and even consider playing for others. Facing our fears is how we grow…

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