In my early teens I began to experience a severe anxiety of getting sick in public—a fear that I would never be able to live down the embarrassment, unsee the prying eyes, or worse, that I wouldn’t be able to physically make it through the moment without something horrible, and unsettlingly vague, befalling me.
Though I’ve worked for years to lessen this anxiety in many triggering scenarios, one that continues to prove perilous is performing, or even listening to a piece of mine being performed. In the audience, I fidget uncontrollably in my chair, dizzyingly nauseas, sweating profusely, clutching the program so tightly that by the end of the concert it is just a crumple of unreadable pages. I am petrified that I might throw up in my seat, or faint, or something equally embarrassing. When I perform, my anxiety only amplifies. I think that everyone is watching me in the audience; I know that everyone is watching me on stage.
In graduate school, somewhat unexpectedly, I became enthralled by performing data-driven instruments. As I realized that I wanted this type of performance to play a bigger and bigger role in my life, my performance anxiety didn’t wane but began to be matched by excitement. Conversely, the excitement gave me renewed energy to face my anxiety head-on. I decided to do so, in part, through my music—through performing.
Talk-back is such an attempt. The piece is a performance of a small panic-attack. Using recordings of both my real anxiety-statements (triggering thoughts) and talk-backs (short, positive mantras that I can think or say to dispute my irrational thoughts) the piece shows how my anxiety builds in performance situations and how I work to lessen my worries through cognitive restructuring. The work is divided into three continuous sections. In the first, three anxiety-statements trigger maelstroms of anxious thoughts, each explosion of worries more virulent than the last. In the second, waves of drones (extremely stretched-out recordings of my talk-backs) dissipate the chaos, calming me down. In the third, I play a series of the pre-recorded talk-backs, now intelligibly. Though their messages are heartening, I awkwardly “scrub” through the recordings, fighting to say each phrase fully, creating a sense of uncertainty. Am I really going to be okay?