Maybe I belong to Gryffindor, after all.
I have thought for a long time that if I were to go to Hogwarts, I would be either a Ravenclaw or a Slytherin. One says that Ravenclaws are brainy and Slytherins are ambitious and eager to prove themselves. I can't deny the brainy side of me, and I am forced to admit that I do have ambition. The question is, though: do I have the means to support my ambitions?
I messed up the opening of my concert, and first return as a soloist since 2019 on Tuesday. It was a phenomenal mess-up. It wasn't for lack of preparation. Just an hour prior to the concert, I was going through my programme for the umpteenth time with ease. It wasn't for perfectionism either: I was mentally ready to accept my mistakes, because there are always mistakes in live performances. I messed up the opening of the concert because I had one of those anxiety attacks that get the better of me in concert once in a while. I was ashamed of it, and I am very afraid it would happen again. I am questioning myself. Should I simply put an end to my solo career? Obviously, I fear that nobody will ever want to invite me again, I am afraid to not be good enough. An artist who can underperform so badly isn't reliable. Who would take the risk of inviting me? But more than shame, it is simply the fear of reliving such traumatic moments that torments me.
On our way back from the concert, Matthieu asked me what was going on in my head when those episodes happened. The answer? “Nothing. Nothing conscious goes on anymore. I know that I need to slow down. I try to anchor myself, to breathe. Because I had worked so much on self-control and stress management during the last few years, I still had a consciousness of what was going on, but I couldn't help it. I no longer have control over my body when it happens. There is no more little voice in my head, no nothing. It's just a struggle for survival.” We are no longer talking about a little stage fright, the heart that beats faster, sweaty palms or a little shaking before a performance that eases itself after a few bars. It is the fight or flight response taking over; it is the physiological reaction one has when their very life is threatened.
Matthieu had encouraged me to play some solos for the concert, even though I hesitated, so we had divided the concert in three equal parts. My sweet husband wanted me to have the spotlight for myself too. Except that when the moment came, I completely lost it. Total black-out. I had wanted to go first because—and I quote myself—”if I did not live up to it, the audience could still have something good after me.” I am reading my own words just now, and am discouraged. They tell a lot about my self-esteem. It is not that I don't know that I am capable of playing well, or that I really think so lowly of myself. It is that I truly, deeply and subconsciously, don't trust myself. I don't believe in myself enough. Everyone has doubts, second guesses themselves, or lacks confidence once in a while. However, if one deep down believes in themselves, it's alright. An American sports psychologist said that confidence and belief are not the same thing. Confidence can be shaken, but one can dust themselves and know that they can succeed again. Belief is deeper. Loss of self and brain shutdowns happen when self-belief is no longer existant.
I make it a point to openly talk about my performance anxiety issues, because it is still taboo in the professional artistic world, even though it is more and more accepted in the sports world. It is useless to say that having not performed as a soloist for two years placed me under a considerable amount of stress. I love to perform, and I love to share my art with the public, but the way certain events aligned in my life led anxiety to threaten this joy and love. I want to be clear on this point: some things affected me more than they would have affected other people, perhaps because of my highly sensitive nature, and also because of the psychological baggage I carry. The same events, in a different order, might have led to drastically different results. I am still also very sensitive to witnessing the criticism of others: “If they say that of them, what, then, must they say of me?”
Belittling, back-handed comments and advice at times when it mattered and from people who mattered, gossip (is there a specific term for “indirect bullying?”), all sorts of expressed doubts about my capabilities (that came from their authors' fixed mindset—but I did not know that at the time), theme and variations on “Matthieu is better than you.” Here it is, for a little taste of my psychological baggage. There were words, but there were also the small acts that confirmed the words. There was also the dead silence, or even poorly masked surprise when I distinguished myself. I don't want to say who did what, or who said what. I don't want to find excuses for myself, or seek revenge. This circus lasted for several years, too many years, and too many people participated in it. People who thought they were working in my best interest, people who punch other people down so they can shine, people who thought they would just give me a push, people who did not see what was going on and kept the circus going, and people who had professional and personal interests invested in the situation. And mostly, I kept the circus going myself, because I thought I deserved it, that I simply had to go through it and I would become stronger from it...
To strengthen someone, we just keep hitting them, don't we? Of course not. However, when we are caught in the situation, we don't see it. I told myself that I would succeed, that I would prove myself, that I would prove that I wasn't just a second class artist, that I was worth just as much as everyone else. It lasted until the end of my undergraduate studies. Then, it stopped, because I got scholarships and moved to the American West Coast. I started learning highly difficult works, just for the sake of personal challenge. It did not fix my self-esteem, but there were still beautiful moments. The things that destroy us are never entirely dark.
I then decided that I would end the cycle and do things with more humanity, consult, read, and no longer allow my shortcomings to prevent me from becoming the best version of myself. There are ups and downs. It's a journey. I see great athletes falling, losing, blacking-out. I understand. When Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic Games, I understood. When such moments of loss happen to me, I am seated on an organ bench, but in the midst of difficult vaulting, the physical risk increases exponentially!
All in all, when it happened on the organ bench on Tuesday, in front of an audience, I decided to give myself a second chance. I decided that enough was enough, that I would stop fighting, that I would publicly admit the fall, get up, and try again.
“If I can't be good, at least, I can be brave.”
By granting myself a second chance, and supported by the audience's encouraging applause, I could glimpse once again into the reality of a performance being an act of sharing. After this second start, I could recollect myself enough for the Meditation, and then the duet. I was touched by those who came after the concert to tell me that I had done well to choose like I did, that I had recovered well, and to continue... to not be too hard on myself. Gosh, I thought. If only they knew.
The best way for me to get through my performance anxiety and to tame it is to let the love I have for music shine, and to do so often. I need to encounter more generous, compassionate, enthusiastic audiences. I simply need to play more often, so I can build a foundation of trust for myself, and I will do so, if I am allowed it.
We can't choose to be a Ravenclaw or a Slytherin, but we can always choose Gryffindor.