Performance Anxiety and Imposter Syndrome Support

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My music performance anxiety has returned, most likely fed by Imposter Syndrome. Who has got it now (I do)? Who has had it and gotten past it (I have)? and Who feels like talking about it or sharing their experiences?

I'll go first. When I first started relearning guitar in 2008 I stumbled in to a weekly jam session with co-workers. I am an introvert and all my life have had varying degrees of discomfort with being the center of attention. At my first open mic I was terrified, had my eyes glued to the lead sheet, and felt like I bombed. In reality hardly anyone was listening. It took six months for me to go back, better prepared this time, and I slowly got better and felt more confident as I went back and became more familiar with the setting. I repeated that same cycle of fear, practice, and faking it until I made it at the music association I belong to, first in a singer-songwriter circle, then in jam sessions, then performing as part of music association shows, then and at the farmers market where @Chip Withrow and I used to (and hopefully soon again will) hang out.

Now with all the other stress of late, my performance anxiety/Imposter Syndrome is back. I watch my videos and listen to my recordings and cringe. I know that I need to restart again. I know that I am my own worst critic and I don't see myself the way others see me. Probably live streaming on one of the semi-obscure platforms is my best option. Practicing my songs more might also be a good idea.

Would anyone else like to share?

Yes, @AndyGetch, I hope we get to see each other at the market soon, too!
I like to listen to my old demos. Only a few are cringe-worthy!
But I get a sort of imposter syndrome (more like not-worthy syndrome) when listening to artists whose songwriting skills just blow me away. First, I compare myself to them, and of course come up way short. But then I try to learn from them. I study their music - chord progressions, riffs - more than lyrics, although I certainly have my share of "why can't I string together words like that?" moments.
Sometimes my more inspired chord changes and riffs come when I take something that I hear and put it in a different key or tempo. I've gotten a bunch of ideas from the background music in PBS documentaries.

I've had a strange relationship with performing pretty much my whole life. I've always had these external inputs simultaneously telling me I'm much better than I think I am, and I'm not nearly good enough to be where I am. I don't think I really struggle with imposter syndrome. I know I'm a good musician. I know that if I'm doing something that I'm capable. I've had so many experiences where the people around me are so dismissive of me that in my mind it doesn't matter that I'm good enough. No one will ever care.

Here's an example that happens a lot. I once did a really weird gig at this bar. I was performing with a few bands who were all friends of mine and all far more popular. Fair enough. I was performing at the front of the bar. They had the stage space in the back room where the bands would be playing. I said the only request I had was to not be scheduled at the same time as them. The organizer argued with me a bit and I finally told him that he'd be wasting his money on me because no one would be listening to me, and he relented and I played at the front of the bar as a sort of opener. I played to an angry old spoon player and a drunk lady who thought I was the most ridiculous thing she had ever seen. I watched probably 10-20 people I know walk right past me to the back room to WAIT for the other bands. There's a lot more details to that story that make it very funny, but that's a common experience for me. I know that I'm a good musician. I'm trained and educated and I have far more technical skill and theoretical knowledge than the other people I play around most of the time. But I'll never be good enough for them. Mostly I've stopped giving a shit, but it has left me more anxious to play in front of friends than in front of complete strangers. Weird, right?

Here's a hard-won lesson I have learned and often still struggle to remember; other peoples' reactions to you say much more about them and their state of mind than they do about your abilities or your performance.

@AndyGetch, I can relate. I grew up in a musical and hyper-critical environment, so I learned early on (1) to love making music and (2) to believe that anything short of a musically perfect performance was a total failure and a personal shortcoming. By the time I left for college, I was so thoroughly convinced of my own suckitude that I left music behind for nearly two decades. I was well into my thirties before I found my way back to music (and discovered for the first time that I could write songs). In the decades since, I’ve received a lot of positive feedback - but I still can’t shake the feelings of unworthiness I learned as a child.

IA's picture
DonatedIA

1. Everyone has it.
2. Nobody really knows anything.
3. Important thing isn't to be "good enough".
4. It's important to believe in yourself.

Well put @IA, I do have imposter syndrome when it comes to my working life but I've always found music as an escape. That said, I've always been reluctant to try things like look for a band because I'm too old and in my head if your over 30 then that's it, which is utter rubbish. I guess it's difficult when you get rejected and with music being so fickle it happens quite a bit. It also scares the crap out of me doing an open mic night because I would probably have to do it on my own and the prospect is very scary, but I guess that opportunity isn't going to happen any time soon. Unless I find some kind of online thing, which might bridge that gap.

However, just because I've rattled a load of depressing stuff out, I find that I get loads through these sites, I get to share music to people, improving in ways I never thought I could and collaborate with people all over the world, which is awesome. So, even though I don't get to everything I want to do with music, I still get to do a hell of a lot.

I'm sorry you feel that way Andy, I'm sure it is better than you think. Hell, maybe we can collaborate and suck together.

I've recently started doing quite a bit on my youtube channel - as well as watching other influencers to get their advice. The best advice I've heard so far is "If you aren't getting the reaction you'd like to get to your creativity - that's not your tribe - find your tribe - your people - the ones who appreciate your craft and talent - and do it for them" I've found it quite helpful - also realizing that the voices in my head are more negative than anything anyone could say - and if I consider myself a nice person, then why am I so mean to me... Not to say I'm cured or anything like that - just things I've found that are helping me.

dzd's picture
dzd

@Scubed same here I grew up around musicians/poets/painters/authors etc.... So found out at a very early age if it doesn't involve/help further someone else, chances are they don't give a shit. Pretty hard lessons for a 7-8yr old that just loves to play music to accept, and was harder for the "adults" to accept, thanks but no thanks I don't want to be your protege,(have always equated it to those little wind-up cymbal banging monkey dolls), or feel the need to endlessly study sheet music and all this other theoretical nonsense just to make some noise that I like Wink , just takes some effort/time and constant self-reminders to realize that most peoples opinions do just reflect usually their own shortcomings, but I also absolutely know that I know absolutely nothing Wink

@Fuzzy very well put!

I'm so glad I found this thread - I can relate to everyone's post and there is so much helpful information here. Kind of feel dumb that I've never even heard of "imposter syndrome" until now - especially with all the research and reading that I've done on performance anxiety, inner critic, creative block, etc. I'm an introvert who just turned 60 and I'm still working on feeling comfortable when performing, even at home around my family. I've played trumpet professionally for many years usually in a large band or pit orchestra, and in those situations I don't really have any problems, unless I have a big solo to play. As a singer-songwriter I get very self-conscious and self-critical and that tends to make me go inward and end up not playing/singing as well as I could. I've done a couple of live-stream sets during this pandemic and they went better than I thought they would - something about being by myself, even though I know that some people are watching? I don't know. Not gonna give up on it though.

dzd's picture
dzd

As some others have mentioned......I'm lazy don't want to scroll back up Smile but @tjeff I'm the same way, the only time I do care or get anxious is when its people I know/am close to IRL, they're the worst audience Wink

For me personally, I've realized in the last couple of years it all just comes back to self-image. I'll never be as skilled, talented, effortless and wonderful as I believe I should be right at that moment. And it doesn't matter how many degrees or other musical successes I collect. External validation is great and useful to some extent, but it doesn't solve that initial internal dissonance for me. That's ok though!

What helps me through tough stretches: Constantly putting things into perspective, with the help of writing things down/mapping them out visually rather than having it rummage around and get all blown up in my head. Engaging with literature, or talking to friends/colleagues about their experiences. Doing, exploring, making. Using that idealized self-image as a positive motivation rather than something to tear me down with. A lot of the negative self-talk seems for me to mainly revolve around avoiding - Avoiding doing something, avoiding putting in the work, avoiding making a decision, etc.

Especially for live performance, but also in recording, I've benefitted A TON in the last 2-3 years from working more with embodiment practices. Physicality is such a huge part of making music for me, and it's also so connected to what goes on in our head, in a two-way-street kinda way. Being able to differentiate more between different physical reactions and their connection to emotions has given me a lot more tools to navigate the swamp of music performance (:

Thanks for all the posts here. It helps to hear different versions and approaches to dealing performance anxiety and imposter syndrome. I did join our supportive local singer-songwriter circle (by Zoom) yesterday and shared a few songs so that is a first step.

@Chip Withrow of course while we hear the amazing songwriter’s best/hits we usually don’t hear the worst/misses/failures.

@katpiercemusic not weird at all. I am way more nervous playing in front of friends, especially musician friends. A few months ago we were hosting musicians and one of them asked me to play a couple of songs. I put them off hoping they would forget but they asked again and I was really nervous, forgot verses, and my guitar playing was shakier than usual.

@Scubed I had a non-musical critical environment. Kinda the same maybe?

@see-man-ski We shall!

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dzd

@AndyGetch I almost never fully remember any song lyrically, then when trying to remember I start forgetting/missing chords/notes. It can and has led to some disasters hahaha, It's much easier said than done, but if just keep on going, it's usually only yourself that notices (no one is listening that close anyway, or if they are they're either a fan, and you're already forgiven, or somebody that was going to hate you anyway no matter how flawless and perfect Smile )

I am shy by nature, but I was determined not to leave this earth before I performed my songs, no matter how terrified I was. I was never very good at patter when I was on stage. The last time I did so was a couple of songs for a George Harrison tribute in 2014. Through the years, I performed as a solo artist, and sometimes as part of a duo and trio. It was my songs and my guitar playing that pulled me through.That is what people responded to. I only wish I had been more confident back then, and had been a better performer and more accessible to the audience. I was somewhat scared of them - but they always responded well Smile

@corinne54 Yes. The ONLY person that will play my songs is me. That is my main driver back to performing. Talking about patter, weird thing for me is I was (and may still be) better at patter than I was at performing thanks to my prior day job which included public speaking and thinking on my feet. When I transferred my public speaking preparation habits and lessons learned to performing, then I got better at it.
@dzd thanks. Once I started signing songs with just me and guitar, without the audio cues of familiar recordings, I realized just how few songs I actually know all of the words to. Also I learned awhile ago that when playing that onstage I need to accept my mistakes, keep the song rhythm, and keep smiling. You are correct that most people don't even notice. When I finished the two songs my (actually making a living at) music friends started talking about what they wanted to talk about anyway. I only mentioned the missed verses and nervousness here as an internal indicator of my anxiety. I was sick with the flu for my next gig, then the next one after that was pandemic cancelled. Part of the reason I started this thread was to give myself a nudge to take the necessary steps back. All the discussion here is helping me and reminding me.
@see-man-ski @tjeff Yes it is also much easier for me to be part of a larger group onstage, even in the early days when I would close my eyes when I was singing at the open mic. The most helpful suggestion I heard was to imagine my performance class classmates being right there on the stage with me. I still do that.

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dzd

@AndyGetch Yeah its a great thread! It is something that everyone suffers from(I think, don't know about clinical narcissists, they can do no wrong of course), something else that always helps I wish I always remembered to do.......deep breath, think, well what's the worst that could happen? Then my imagination takes over and I get a good laugh...any of those worse case scenarios have yet to happen haha. I suffer more from imposter syndrome making demos. I either want a perfect recording or none at all, and there being no such thing as a perfect recording...well I tend to not put a lot of time in a demo Smile most times don't even listen unless I forgot to write down lyrics/chords or were being made up as I went along.

@corinne54 Tons and tons of audience experience, you're honesty with yourself on stage is also what was responded to well.......if you're shy, and you go out faking hey everyone look at me I'm a rock star, want to talk? look how accessible I am to you! Weeee or trying to force smile and look at the audience, connect to one individual, all that stuff how to books tell you supposedly sells, ...........Yeah nobody is buying that crap Wink but again, I know nothing Smile

Like @AndyGetch, my previous occupation involved a lot (like, A LOT) of public speaking and thinking on my feet, most of it in front of teenagers and little kids.
Once you've been told how much you suck a few hundred times by a bunch of kids you kinda get over the "performance anxiety" part of the equation.
Impostor Syndrome, though, is a difficult one, especially if, like several of you, nothing you did as a youngster got any praise at all.
I'm still trying to overcome that early programming.

I think it is also good to try and seriously evaluate whether or not I actually do suck! I've tried recording my performances and then listened carefully and critically to them the next day. And sometimes I discovered it was NOT imposter syndrome...I really did suck! Biggrin And then sometimes I'd think "hey, that was pretty good!"

I guess my point is, it takes a ton of work to "earn" your place on that stage. And most folks, me included, aren't willing or able to put in that work. But if you do achieve that I'm guessing the whole imposter syndrome thing will just disappear as you get appreciation from an audience.

But your value as an artist isn't determined by commercial success or crowd adoration (unless that is what you seek!)

My advice (that even I don't follow) is find your niche and get really good at delivering entertainment! Memorize those lyrics and when you inevitably forget a line blow right past it confidently singing gibberish but don't acknowledge the goof. Don't waste time at open mics unless you understand it is just practice and everyone clapping is just being polite as they await their turn on stage. Be memorable. Record and listen to yourself. Develop your schtick. Jeff Foxworthy was just another starving comedian on the circuit until he transformed into the "You might be a redneck" guy! Play a LOT! Get your 10,000 hours in! Find your tribe.

It is more work than a "real" job (and that's why I rarely bother!)

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dzd

@Fuzzy It also seems (most people) society-wise speaking tend to swing from one extreme to the next. I'm of the tail end of children should not be seen, nor heard from way of thinking, to now everyone deserves a trophy for everything, and never take your eyes off your child or let them learn/do anything on their own.......neither very good generalized ways to go about it.

@johnstaples have to agree, if you think you suck or are stinking up that performance, chances are you probably do/are hahah,
and if you really want to get over anxiety, get out of your comfort zone, go play/share music where you know it won't go over well, where nobody knows your name so to speak, not the cool "in" thing to be doing at the moment Wink I mean, I might barf if I hear yet another protest song atm Wink , but if those wow good job pats on the back, now listen and like what I did(while they really weren't even listening, as john put, just waiting for their own turn) are what you're looking for then rock on! We all have our own reasons for writing/playing.
Real job for me anyday! Too bad those are going the way of the dodo too Wink

Many years ago I was part of a duo. We practiced weekly in our respective living rooms. Finally started playing out to audiences as big as a few hundred. But while we performed, I kept myself in the living room mind set. Fast forward three decades. I join a praise band after sharpening my keyboard chops. The audience is captive, but more important forgiving. I just
Play, and there is no guilt, because my heart is in it. After that I was asked if I could be heard in other venues. And that’s what I am still searching for.

I feel like every decent song I’ve written is an accident. That makes it hard to start again. Hopefully I’ll be able to fight those feelings and go for it. All the encouragement here really helps. It also helps that I don’t depend on my songwriting for food. That pressure would overwhelm me!

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dzd

@darcistrutt I dunno, some of my best ideas have come while singing about the $5 I need for a taco Wink

IA's picture
DonatedIA

@darcistrutt just gotta start putting chords together. ROFL No matter if they all sound the same.

I've released two albums, done some solo concerts, had a few award nominations... (all within a relatively-small musical genre). And every time I debut a new song to my best friends, I get the shakes and wonder if this is the one that will show me up as a fraud.

@darcistrutt I think that's a thing. Most of us, to get a few good songs, we have to produce a buttload of bad ones, or we struggle to produce any at all, and so when a good one comes out it seems like a fluke. But that's the process. I remember hearing an interview with Billy Collins and he talked about the hundreds of terrible poems he had to write before he started writing any good ones. He said that we all have hundreds of bad poems in us and hundreds of good poems, but we have to get the bad ones out of the way before we can get the the good ones. It's sort of a variation on that 10,000 hours of practice to reach mastery idea. It's an analogy that I use with my students... especially my beginner clarinet players. I tell them they each have 500 squeaks in them, so they better get playing to get those suckers out of the way. I also use it with myself. A dud isn't a dud, it's just a lesson. As long as I reflect on what made it fail, I'm learning how not to fail. And when I get a good one it's also a lesson as long as I reflect on what worked.

One thing about live performance: it's really not about how good you are as a musician or songwriter, it's about how entertaining you are. Being transcendently good as a musician or songwriter is one was to get there, but I think it may be the hardest way to get there. I realized this one night in a Green Bay biker bar... Biggrin

I'm sure there is a Venn diagram for this.

@katpiercemusic, I love your message to beginning clarinet players..."they each have 500 squeaks in them"!!!

dzd's picture
dzd

@TomS hahah I think you're probably right as sad as it is...There does already have to be a diagram too. and I want more story! what happened? did you break out the sequined thong to immense cheers and applause? Wink