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BEGINNING TO UNDERSTAND PERFORMANCE ANXIETY – by Ellie McLaren

BEGINNING TO UNDERSTAND PERFORMANCE ANXIETY – by Ellie McLaren

At the humble age of 9, I didn’t once bat an eyelid at the thought of taking to the stage in Banchory Town Hall to play two (relatively simple) tunes in the ’12 and Under’ section at the Banchory Accordion and Fiddle Festival. I did this year in and year out, gradually venturing to more festivals and competitions as the years went on. However, this also became less like water off a duck’s back, as they say. With more travelling up and down the country, more practising and more successes, came more prestigious festivals. Naturally, these bigger competitions brought more and more nerves and it got to the point that I was no longer enjoying taking part. This is when I decided to pack in the competitions and festivals, solo categories at least.

Once I noticed that the nerves were getting worse, I began to overthink and overcomplicate the situation. Keith Festival 2018 was when I knew it was time to stop. I was on the stage, unaccompanied and exposed to the watchful eyes and ears of the adjudicator. Nonetheless, I sailed through the march and strathspey without any issues. I was standing up there thinking “hey, c’mon now Ellie. That was pretty good, you’ve got this. Don’t mess up in the reel.” I hit the reel, first time through was a success, clean and crisp – YES! Second time through, A part was grand, B part was fine…until the very last four bars. I overthought and in trying too hard to get to the end without any mishaps, I well and truly stuffed it. A disappointed sigh filled the room. Although, at the end of the day, it really wasn’t a matter of life and death, but it was the process I went through of overthinking and then leading to a catastrophically bad ending, which is what I was stuck with. If I had just thought about what I was going to have for my lunch from start to finish, it would have been absolutely fine.

Anyway, it didn’t stop there with the nerves. It’s still a problem. From recitals for university to village hall ceilidhs, I am experiencing nerves like I never used to. This realisation and acceptance of performance anxiety was quite a strange thing. It’s not as if I don’t know the tunes, it’s something more than that. I begin to make situations in my head whilst I’m playing, a little voice goes “When did you last change your E string?” and “Let’s hope all the hair doesn’t fall out of your bow”. I had never really spoken to anyone about this, until I started lessons with the fabulous, Laura Wilkie.

Having known Laura for a few years now, I felt comfortable to talk to her about it in my very first lesson. Laura gave me exercises to take away and work on – scales using a tuner and metronome at 70bpm., slowing down the metronome once it becomes easier and more natural. In effect, if done well, this would help steady my bowing hand which would result in a well-rounded tone. Tuning and intonation are also improved with this method. The thought behind this is that because my basic technique would become more precise and solid, there would be less things to worry about at a performance. I am grateful for these, as they are helping me (also, very grateful for feeling comfortable to speak out to Laura, this is the first step!!!)

Celtic Connections 2020 put these techniques to the test. They work!!! I had four different gigs, all of which were in different venues and had different atmospheres. The first was one set to represent my course and university, the University of the Highlands and Islands (BA Applied Music). I was playing with Ciar Milne on border pipes, I didn’t feel too nervous as we were very prepared, despite being the opening duo. The following gig was The Big Fling, put together by dance band leader and national accordion champion, Tom Orr – cool, right?!. I was more nervous for this gig, with a 10 minute slot in the main auditorium of the Royal Concert Hall. However, Laura’s techniques ensured a more steady bowing hand for the slow air which I was very, very pleased with. The final gigs were with newly formed Drouth, with piper Eddie Seaman and guitarist Calum Morrison. We competed in Battle of the Folk Bands and then did two slots at the National Whisky Festival at SWG3 on the same day. We played a morning slot at SWG3 before heading into ‘battle’ at the Drygate Brewery, and my nerves at this point were nowhere to be seen. The first performance had gone so smoothly and we were really enjoying the sets (and artisan sausage rolls, yum). Then my brain went into competition mode when we arrived at the Drygate, and the nerves came rushing back. We played an upbeat number with a strathspey and two slip jigs before playing a self-composed slow air, I introduced it and that was when the shaky hand decided to made an appearance. On reflection, I have narrowed the nerves down to the type of gig. The fact that the Battle of the Folk Bands was a competition of sorts, meant that the nerves I experienced at competitions ad festivals in the past came back. However, after listening to recordings, I had some reassurance that said shaky hand couldn’t be heard a huge amount, which was surprising initially. This shows me that the big issue is in my head, but with help by practising and from Laura and other peers, it is definitely something which is improving, and will get better with time too. Woo!