In order to equip musicians for emotionally disconnecting from their negative thoughts, flautist Katie Frisco unpacks the three categories of Inner Monsters she characterises as being responsible for performance anxiety

Stage fright

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We, as performers, are called to the brave and beautiful work of creating for others. It is work that requires skill, dedication, and resilience. In addition to the tremendous joy we feel after a job well done, we also regularly contend with the negative, intrusive voices. In fact, our ability to manage these inner voices in a way that is nourishing and healthy goes a long way to supporting our emotional well-being as we navigate the very intense field of classical music. 

Oftentimes, when the negative thoughts well up inside our heads, we accept them as truth. We don’t always have the emotional separation to distinguish true thoughts from those that are trying to keep us small and safe. Learning how to discern junk thoughts, where they come from, and what they are trying to do can go a long way to developing a positive mindset around our work.  

In Dr. Irmtraud Tarr Kruger’s book Performance Power, she identifies three categories of Inner Monsters that are the most responsible for stage fright. While each musician’s internal landscape is unique, you will most likely find a version of these monsters lurking around your thoughts. The ability to identify the Inner Monsters and separate yourself from what they say allows you to create your own narrative based on what your best self believes to be true. You will find yourself in a position to deny the claims of the Inner Monster and replace them with affirmations of your worth and value as a performer.

As the Inner Monsters are introduced, you may find it helpful to actually draw a picture of what each monster looks like to you. Turning these very real feelings into something of a caricature will give you the power to disbelieve their messages and, eventually, banish them from your mind altogether.  

1.The Inner Judge and his sidekick, The Perfectionist

The Inner Judge sits high on his bench evaluating every note, every phrase, every articulation, and tone quality and says, ‘NOT GOOD ENOUGH!’ He is laser-focused on your weaknesses and shows no mercy when your playing is found to be wanting. His ear finds every mistake, he has intimate knowledge of the fundamental challenges in your playing, and he knows exactly what to say to pierce your heart. He uses shame, belittling words, and fear to beat you down and pronounce his judgment.  

The Inner Judge likes to use phrases such as:  

  • You screwed that up again, just like I knew you would!

  • Who do you think you are, getting on stage and playing that piece?

  • You are stupid, without talent, and should just quite now.

Now The Perfectionist can seem like an ally. He wants you to perform perfectly! He offers hope that if you just tried a little harder, got up a little earlier, worked just a bit more diligently then you actually could … be perfect. The Perfectionist works in absolutes; he knows exactly what needs to be done and will exert his control over you to shape you into perfect. He is quite convincing and will cause you to believe that you need to practice 8 hours a day or there is no hope. 

‘If we let the perfectionist get the upper hand, then we come to employ inhuman standards of comparison which deeply undermine our feeling of self-worth,’ says Dr. Kruger.  Perfectionism is an inhuman approach, essentially reducing us to being machines. And, the performer can begin to feel like the only way they can be a worthwhile person is if they are perfect. 

Be on the lookout for The Judge and his sidekick The Perfectionist in your junk thoughts. One will cause you to feel deep shame because of your mistakes, the other will cause you to feel like a failure because you don’t work hard enough not to make mistakes in the first place.  

2. The Inner Doubter and his sidekicks The Coward and The Dogmatist

The Inner Doubter is expressed in thoughts of uncertainty, skepticism, and insecurity. He lives in fear of the future, convinced that failure is inevitable. The Inner Doubter brings forward thoughts like,

  • I’m not going to be ready for the performance.

  • This piece is WAY too hard for me.

  • What if it’s cold on stage and I play out of tune? 

Not to worry, though, The Coward is standing by, ready to swoop in and relieve you of any pressure you feel from The Inner Doubter. The Coward encourages you to cancel the concert or find a sub who will likely play better anyway. He gives you permission to quit and relieve yourself from the stress caused by doubt. 

For those of you who don’t succumb to the siren’s call of The Coward, The Dogmatist steps in to save the day. The Dogmatist lays forth a rigid strategy for success - one which often involves confusion and unhelpful calls to action. ‘RELAX!’ ‘CONCENTRATE!’ ‘THINK POSITIVELY!’ ‘BE MINDFUL!’ These instructions offer nothing other than to point out what the performer isn’t able to do. While all are helpful ideas when fleshed out appropriately, they are incredibly unhelpful when shouted without warning during times of insecurity.

When you notice those insecure thoughts that cause you to either want to cancel the commitment or to double down on unhelpful courses of action, all signs are pointing to the work of the Inner Doubter and his trusty sidekicks.

 

Read 7 techniques to combat stage fright

Read Kim Kashkashian’s top 5 tips on combatting stage fright

Watch Violinist Midori on coping with stage fright

Read How do you help students avoid stage fright?   

 

3. The Timid Soul and his sidekick, The Protector

The Timid Soul wants you to remain small, weak, and dependant while convincing you that things outside your control are to blame. The Timid Soul is easily identified because he is the source of all the excuses that help us avoid responsibility and discomfort. 

  • I feel sick, can you sub for me?

  • I don’t know if I can play in your chamber group, I’m really swamped with teaching right now.

  • I just can’t find the time to practice.

Of course, The Timid Soul always has an excuse ready and waiting when needed.

  • I can’t play new music, no one taught me any extended techniques.

  • All the practice rooms were taken, so I couldn’t prepare for my lesson.

  • If only I didn’t have to work and could practice as long as I’d want to, like so and so.

When you start to feel a bit pathetic, buying into the Timid Soul’s excuses, The Protector enters to ease your minds. According to Kruger, “He protects our timid soul with the cloak of pity…” The Protector encourages you to sweep your responsibilities under the rug, leave the work for another time, and tend to your self-care to the detriment of your commitments. In the end, you are left high and dry without the work completed and nobody there to save you.

Each of these monsters and their sidekicks plays varying roles in the mind of the musician. If we take a benevolent view of them, they are trying to keep you safe and out of harm’s way. They don’t understand the joy and connection that await the performer on stage, they simply believe they are keeping you from the jaws of a saber tooth tiger.

But their tactics? The Inner Monsters use the most manipulative and reprehensible tactics available to them to keep you small, controlled and in fear. It is your obligation to take a step back from the thoughts the Inner Monsters sow, see them for what they are, and replace them with thoughts that will bring you success, confidence, and power. You are stronger than these Inner Monsters and you have the power to defeat them. 

Play on. I’m cheering for you.

Katie Frisco, a graduate of the Eastman School of Music (BM, MM in Flute Performance), serves as a coach for musicians to overcome stage fright and perform with confidence. She offers masterclasses to conservatories such as the Eastman School of Music and private studios where she teaches musicians how to rewire their psychology, control their physiology and perform to the best of their abilities.  

To read Katie Frisco’s blog on performance anxiety, visit www.katiefrisco.com.