Composed: An honest look into performance anxiety

A new documentary for musicians

BY RACHEL BRUERVILLE

 

Composed not only tries to offer a means to address performance anxiety, but explores where it comes from and why we don’t talk about it. 

–  Composed director John Beder

 

Performance anxiety! Oh, the joy!

I hope that my sarcasm comes across clearly in writing…

I am sure all musicians (and possibly even all humans) have experience forms of performance anxiety. Most people will have a story to tell – whether it be through direct personal experience, providing support for friends, family members or colleagues; or even after simply witnessing a live performance.

With performance anxiety so widespread, why is the subject so often considered taboo? John Beder’s new documentary Composed aims to provide some answers to this question.

Composed explores the many ways that performance anxiety can be experienced and addressed, as told through the personal stories of professional classical musicians. This groundbreaking documentary is about to tour Australia, with screenings at conservatoriums, schools, as well as in public locations throughout September.

We settled in for a chat with John to gain insight into his film.

A screenshot from this new documentary about performance anxiety.

 

What made you decide to make this documentary exploring performance anxiety? Are you a performer who has experienced performance anxiety yourself?

The idea for the film came about while meeting a friend for dinner on Degraves Street in Melbourne. I was living in Melbourne at the time and had a friend visiting from the United States who was playing with an orchestra in Asia and decided to stop by. This friend, who would eventually become a cast member [in Composed] was someone I’d met while performing, and we got into a discussion about beta-blockers. My undergraduate degree was in percussion performance, and I’d used beta-blockers for some of my auditions and performances, but never really addressed why I needed them in the first place. Perhaps it was having stepped away from music that allowed me to be so comfortable talking about this with my friend, but I was suddenly struck by how strange it was that these conversations didn’t happen during my time as a performer.

Initially, the idea was to talk solely about beta-blockers in the film, but we realised that this might not actually help the musicians’ community. Instead, we started to collect all kinds of advice and wisdom about addressing performance anxiety, and realised how big the gap was in information available to performers. Composed not only tries to offer some means to address performance anxiety, but explores where it comes from and why we don’t talk about it.

Why did you choose to specifically focus on the experience of professional classical musicians?

The simplest answer to this is that classical music was a big part of my past and though I studied jazz and rock music, classical music offered some uniquely stressful situations the others did not.

I’m sure there are jazz and rock musicians who would disagree, but I don’t think there’s any disagreement in the pursuit of perfection held so tightly by classical musicians and their audiences. Again, this is something up for discussion by both those in and outside of classical music, but I think from the start, classical performers are groomed to play their music mistake-free and as close to the written score as possible.

One friend who is a death metal musician told me he’s experienced extreme performance anxiety in large venues performing for thousands of people, but still wouldn’t dream of trying to perform to the silence of a classical music audience. He also commented on the fact that it’s okay for him to make a mistake but wouldn’t feel the same in a classical setting.

A musician plays in John’s film, Composed.

What are some examples of the kinds of stories we might see in Composed? Did any particular stories resonate with you more than others?

People coming to one of our screenings can expect to hear from musicians in high profile orchestras talking about the same struggles they may have faced themselves. What made me first realise that Composed could really help people was how incredibly helpful and touching the stories were to me personally, and not only as a musician. As someone trying to create a film from nothing, I had lots of anxiety about doing a good job and delivering something that could have an impact on people.

One story you’ll hear is from a friend of mine, Nate Martin. In the film, Nate talks about how awful he has been to himself, and the things he would say to himself that no one would ever actually say to his face. We can be brutal to ourselves, and this for me was important to hear as it came at a time when I kept saying [to myself]: ‘You’re not good enough to make this film’. In the end, it went from ‘you’re not good enough’ to ‘don’t you want to see how good you can be?’.

What are your aims for touring Composed to Australia?

My original hope for Composed was to simply make a movie I could be proud of. After almost a year of sharing it with folks, I’m now hoping to spread its messages with as many musicians as we can. We hope musicians and music fans will be able to take away the same things we’ve seen audiences in the US come away with. In Australia, and everywhere there is classical music, I think we can do a better job of supporting the challenges artists face. We need to stop ignoring what we all struggle with.

Why is this a documentary that every musician should see?

Not just musicians, but every person I’ve ever talked to about Composed, has been able to relate to the feelings of anxiety expressed by our cast. Anxiety is not something we deal with as musicians, it’s something we deal with as human beings. Even though we focus on classical music in Composed, everyone can come away with a better understanding of their anxiety and a feeling that they are not alone. Whether you’re a teacher helping your student, a friend offering advice, or someone dealing with it yourself, Composed offers a better way of talking about this issue while bringing us together when it’s so easy to feel isolated.

 

You can get along to an Australian screening of Composed this month in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Hobart. Look out for post-screening Q&A sessions with John. More information is available online.

CutCommon encourages healthy discussion surrounding health and wellbeing in classical music. We are a proud member of the Arts Wellbeing Collective, where you can find out more about health in the Australian arts industry. For youth mental health support, visit headspace.

Rachel Bruerville is an Australian composer and performer, who has previously written about performance anxiety in her blog, which challenges the stigma surrounding beta-blocker use.

 


Images courtesy Rhys Gray on behalf of Composed.

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