Performance Anxiety

The conductor nodded and gave a small gesture. 800 members of the audience turned their eyes towards me expectantly. Holding the first note in my head, I took a breath and lifted my horn up to my lips.

It was the gala concert of the season, and my community orchestra had decided to take on the mammoth Ninth Symphony by Beethoven. The Ninth has one of the most beautiful and challenging fourth horn parts in the repertoire (so challenging and lovely that it has become common practise for the principle horn to play it instead.) and I was about to play it.

Since I left university in 2001, my musical life took a turn from classical to more popular and jazz gigs. I was singing a lot, and although my intentions on keeping my horn 'chops' in shape were good, my poor instrument sat in its case a lot more than it had done in years. I missed playing, but I would get so frustrated with how I sounded when I did pick up the instrument, that I didn't stay with it for very long.

Then last year I decided to join a community orchestra to get playing again. I did three concerts with them, playing parts that were easy for me to pull off, and very much in the background of the orchestra. My chops were in better shape, and I got my horn serviced. I was really enjoying playing again.

When we began rehearsals for the Beethoven I wanted a challenge. I was playing fourth horn, and I spoke with the principle asking if I could keep the solo in my part. She was surprised, but said yes. I practised hard and rehearsals went well.

The night of the dress rehearsal, the conductor informed us that he would give a small talk to the audience before the performance, in which he would call upon various sections of the orchestra to play small passages of the piece. One of those instances would be my solo - the unaccompanied section where the whole of the orchestra stops to listen to an ascending horn scale.

I was terrified. It was difficult enough to do it in the actual moment of the piece, but to pull it off out of context at the start of the concert...

I didn't sleep very well the night before the concert. I practised all my deep breathing tricks, I reminded myself just how many times I had played the passage flawlessly in rehearsal and I warmed up carefully during the day and shortly before the concert.

Now I was sitting in my chair, a sold out crowd in the hall, and I was really scared.

The conductor gestured to me to play the passage, I lifted my horn, hit the first pitch correctly, and then stumbled horrifically. I took a breath, tried again, but it was even worse.

Feeling utterly miserable I let out a breath of exasperation and hid my head. The audience giggled.

Through my despair I realised it was a sympathetic giggle, as though they really wanted me to get it. And I had friends and family out there who I knew would be sending all of their hopes and positive thoughts my way.

I took another breath, put the mouthpiece to my lips, and this time I played it.

I was still mortified for messing up, but I was proud that I overcame the moment.

The concert went well, and when the time arrived in the third movement, I had another chance to show that I could do it, and I did.

Although I hated to stumble, it was part of the journey to achieving my goal, I really wanted to prove to myself that I could play the part.

Better to trip up than never try at all.


  1. Great story, and well done for getting through it and not letting a little trip up be the undoing of all your hard work.

    Thanks for inspiring me today :)

  2. Thanks (and you're welcome. I'm glad to return the favour!)