This is a bit of a different post from me. I've decided to write about one of my favourite books, "The Sun Hasn't Fallen from the Sky" by Alison Gangel.
It's the memoir of the author, who calls herself Ailsa, growing up in 1960s Glasgow. Along with her older sister, Morag, she is witness to domestic abuse and alcoholism in her home. Eventually she and her sister are taken away to a children's home where she herself is abused, physically and sexually. What saves her is the piano. She starts to take lessons with Mr O'Shaughnessy and shows early talent. Eventually, she auditions successfully for The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Junior Department to study there every Saturday.
It's a distressing story but also beautifully written and full of hope. My mother bought it for me after hearing an extract on Radio 4 and I think she had no idea of the effect it would have on me. The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama was renamed The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2011, the year I began my undergraduate degree there.
On the first reading, I adored the book and the power of music really rang true. I was bullied all through secondary school and the music department became my sanctuary. None of the bullies were musicians so why would they look for me there? There's a point in the book when Ailsa describes practicing as painting a picture and the notes as brushstrokes; that crafting of a piece and the total immersion is something I've tried to take into every practice session, even now.
I was so moved by the book that I wrote to Alison Gangel to explain why it meant so much to me, and included that I was about to start studying at RCS. It was several months later when I received a phone call from her to talk about the letter - it was fantastic! She was so lovely and really appreciated my letter. She wished me luck and said that I would love Glasgow - which I did.
Cut to my fourth year at university, I started taking a module of Music Psychology. Among other fascinating things we studied that nearly sidetracked me into a completely different career, we studied performance anxiety.
*Disclaimer: this is the first time I've really opened up about my experiences of performance anxiety. It is also worth noting that I was studying clarinet, not harp, at university*
I had always said "I don't get nervous" but when I really sat down to think about it, I realised that actually I did. I would get massive butterflies and the shakes, but as soon as I walked on the stage, they would go away. However, my performances were never quite as good as I wanted them to be, be it because I was slightly underprepared or because I cared too much about what my peers thought. I needed to get rid of all of this, plus the pre-performance jitters.
So, let's start with not being prepared enough. I had been lucky until now that my musicality had always covered up (or made the audience forget about) any technical slips, but I wanted to get rid of them completely. I started practicing in a completely different way, using a method by American musician Gerald Klickstein, and it really did change things. Of course, I still made mistakes but I was better equipped to fix them in my practice and look at the performance in a more analytical way, but from a distance. It's hard to describe but I felt far better going in to performances. As for caring about what my peers thought, I did a lot of reading and listening to another American. A singer called Sierra Boggess. Now, not only does she had a wonderful voice, but she is very open about her inspirations and her nerves. She has all sorts of mantras, but the best is "You are enough, you are so enough, it's unbelievable how enough you are".
I would recite this to myself before a performance, and I also created a playlist of inspirational songs. Most of these can be found in my previous post about my Top 10 Favourite Songs!
Finally, a highly accepted method of helping with performance anxiety is visualising the performance going well. I would physically do this, thinking especially about the trickier elements of the pieces, but also I would visualise myself after the performance, and how good it would feel. There is nothing like the post-performance buzz, and I didn't realise how addictive it was.
Circle back and the thing I would say to myself just before I went on the stage, and just after, is the final line of Alison Gangel's book: "I have just done a performance at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and I am just as good as anyone else."
This part was incredibly important to me, as it meant that no matter how the performance went, I had got to this place and that all the hard work I had put into the pieces would matter, who cared what happened? It was incredibly liberating.
This book really did help cure my anxiety, although it did come crashing back into my life for a completely different reason a few years later. But, with the same hard work and positivity (and a lot of help and time along the way) I am now virtually fearless about performing.
Needless to say, this book changed my life.
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