For me, performing the music I love with the bandmates I consider friends is one of the greatest joys of my life. You can probably imagine, then, how strange it felt after years of performing week-to-week, night-to-night, to suddenly sense that subtle but palpable shift in anticipatory sentiment.  One weekend, seemingly out of nowhere, I was overcome with a sense of dread at even the thought of stepping on stage. I continued gigging anyway, thinking that it was just a phase or that some other problem in my life had crept in and infected my outlook. Then it happened the next week. Then the next. Before long, I questioned whether performing live was something I should even attempt to continue.

When something that gives you joy is suddenly accompanied by feelings of dread, what can you do? An exact cause may be difficult to identify.  For some, it’s easier to ignore, self-medicate, or misattribute reasons for the uneasiness. As a result, decisions made to remedy your feelings without investigating its root cause can lead to permanent and drastic changes — while not helping the situation.

This can be difficult to understand by others, especially if they feel you have no reason to complain. After all, if you are getting praise and applause week after week, how bad could it be? Perhaps they think you are being weak or insecure, or that you’re knowingly adopting the “tortured artist” persona, burdened by the incessant gravitas of your art. Unfortunately, these perceptions can exacerbate the situation and add despair to an already confusing time in your life.

This article attempts to understand dread occurring in those for whom performance anxiety has not been a problem. That is a different topic and beyond the scope of this entry. Instead, if you feel you’ve gone from joy to dread in your performances, there are a few ways to investigate the matter. These solutions include taking an honest look at misaligned values, unfinished business, and preparation you may have neglected. Dread isn’t there to make you miserable. It’s there to signal a need for realignment, a return to what is important to you, the reconciliation of disparities in your life, or to herald a new level of responsibility in your present circumstances.    

These solutions come from personal experience and do not pretend to diagnose all mental and emotional maladies one may experience. However, after spending much time in a state of personal investigation into the source of my dread, I’ve discovered three reasons I no longer found joy in performing. Read the following scenarios and see if you can identify what’s happening with you.

Performance Dread Cause #1:
Dread signals neglect of values

Here, I’ll define values as “one’s judgment of what is important in life.” As musicians, we sometimes have to take less than ideal opportunities, jobs, or even bands until we can make our goals a reality. We sometimes settle for things which do not reflect our definition of what is important in our lives. We reconcile this compromise by stating that it is only temporary. In my experience, I have found that the temporary often become permanent. Have you ever made a decision and told yourself, “This is just temporary until I get what I’m really aiming for?”

If you have a suspicion that your time and efforts are better spent on an endeavor that more accurately reflects what is important to you, it will gnaw at you until you answer whether this is, in fact, the case. Perhaps you aimed for the moon, but barely entered the atmosphere. Then, you got comfortable and didn’t bother aiming for the moon again. There is nothing wrong with being “on the way” there, but if this wasn’t your intention, and you’ve neglected your values, dread will keep reminding you. It is telling you, essentially, “don’t get comfortable here.”

Dread is often the discomfort you need to remind you NOT to get comfortable remaining in your present state.

Investigate whether your current endeavor matches your values.

If your situation matches what is important to you (values), then it’s time to enter a state of gratitude in your present position. Perhaps you are not focused on the joys of the present moment. In this case, the dread is telling you to pay attention and enjoy what you have.

If, on the other hand, your present circumstances do not resemble your values, then it’s time to evaluate the options that will move you towards something that does. These may include declining less than ideal venues, becoming choosy in your agreements, or dropping songs that do not fit this definition.  

Perhaps it’s time to move on, refocus your efforts, or recommit to what you originally felt was important. Or maybe it’s time to quit. Overall, this dread signals that you are not aligned with what is important to you. No matter what changes you make, be certain that you are still aligned with your values or you will not fix the situation in the long term.

Your body knows when you are engaging in an endeavor that is past its due date.

Investigate your whether your upcoming decision matches your values.

If you feel dread about an upcoming decision and the source of your dread is deviation from what is important to you, dread doesn’t go away after you’ve made the decision–if it is not aligned with your values.  In this case, dread serves as bumpers, keeping you from derailing your progress. Preserving what is important to you, while not always easy, is helping to ensure that your life resembles the one you want to live.

Remember: Pay attention to dread that signals you to realign your life with what is most important to you.

Performance Dread Cause #2:
Dread warns of the presence of implicit unfinished business.

Unfinished business often begets feelings of dread, even in the midst of activities we otherwise enjoy. Unfinished business can include anything that needs to be fixed, modified, embraced, or abandoned in your life. Sometimes they don’t appear on to-do lists because they are implicit. We haven’t articulated that it needs to happen. For example, this often occurs when a much-needed conversation has gone too long without taking place.

If there is a conversation that needs to take place in one of your relationships, and you keep putting it off, dread sounds an alarm to keep the reminders active.  For musicians, difficult conversations include unresolved money issues and personnel changes. Questions such as, “how are funds going to be divided,” and “who is going to replace so and so,” don’t go away. As long as you don’t talk about it, a sense of impending doom often plagues at least one member of the group until it moves from the implicit to the explicit.

Unfinished business has a tendency to get worse if you do not properly address it. It’s always best to deal with the problem while it is still manageable. Remember: You can choose to deal with the storm while it’s still a drizzle or after it becomes an unmanageable hurricane, but either way, you will deal with it.

Investigate whether there is any unfinished business gnawing at you. A sense of unfinished business reduces the quality of your experiences.

So, #1 deals with dread that points to within, and #2 points to that which is outside of us. #3 deals with what we only have a degree of control over:

Performance Dread Cause #3:
Dread signals uncertainty spurred by a perceived lack of preparation.

Dread that intensifies as the date of a performance nears could indicate uncertainty. For performers, uncertainty is often created by a perceived lack of preparation. Try reducing your uncertainty and you may as a consequence reduce your dread. Targeting only the dread doesn’t deal with the uncertainty and therefore doesn’t help.   

Reduce your degree of uncertainty with thorough and adequate preparation.

Performances that seem especially difficult for some can be viewed as an opportunity for growth for others. I believe that, more often than not, it is a mistake to decline an opportunity to grow merely because it seems too hard or requires too much effort. Take a look at the challenge and ask yourself the following:

  • Is this an opportunity for growth? What kind of effort will increase my certainty?
  • Or am I merely being set up for failure by a hater or antagonist?
  • Is this aligned with what is important to me?
  • Or will this derail my focus?
  • Who can I assemble in my support team that will help raise my degree of competence as I move towards certainty?
  • Or who or what currently exists in my environment that is negatively impacting my degree of certainty?  Are they vital? If so, how can I raise them up, too? If they are not vital, is this the time to remove/reassign them?

All of these honest and thorough questions will help you begin to investigate sources of uncertainty in situations that call for greater competence.

It’s helpful to remember that no amount of preparation can truly account for every single variable you will encounter, especially when it comes to performing live. Weather, unforeseen event competition, staff turnover, equipment failure, sickness, and other factors can affect the gig.

That’s why at some point, I came to accept that my attempts at preparation could only include areas in the field of my awareness. Moreover, since I’m not omniscient, I’m only prepared to a degree. If I waited for a guarantee that everything would work out perfectly, including my own performance, I’d never have picked up the guitar in the first place.  

It may help to develop a degree of tolerance for the uncertain. In the book, Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety, Dianna Kenny writes, “Failure to develop a realistic appreciation that to be human is to be imperfect may set up lifelong worry and rumination about each performance that becomes a psychological burden with the capacity to undermine their enjoyment and even performance of their art…” (ch10). Too much control issued toward uncontrollable factors will make a tired tyrant of any of us, so embracing the occasional moment of chaos and taking uncertainty in stride can lead to bright revelations.

Conclusion:

Investigating the root causes of dread can help prevent permanent and drastic changes that don’t actually help.  There’s nothing worse than being open to change but not open to truth.

It’s possible that in many cases, feelings of dread can be reduced by taking responsibility for that which has previously been neglected. It has been my experience that taking a position of responsibility rather than defensiveness was a positive step towards returning the joy to my performances.

Remember: Dread isn’t there to make you miserable. It’s there to give you a signal to realign your life to what is important to you, reconcile the disparities in your life, or assume a new level of responsibility in your present circumstances.