A stomach full of hyper-caffeinated butterflies

August 10, 2017 on 3:14 am by Michael Grey | In From Piping Today Mag, Stories, Tips | No Comments

Every June in the town where I live there’s staged something called Buskerfest. It’s pretty much what you’d expect: a festival of street performers. The whole of the main drag in town is taken over by a good cross-section of the busking world – and, yes – it seems there is a “busking world”, with events like the one in my town happening all over the world almost every day. The hardcore of the talent seemingly travel the world’s circuit of busker gatherings (sound familiar?) swallowing their knives and blowing fire out their bahookies at the drop of a hat. Almost literally.


The life of an itinerant busker has to be riskier than most (there, again, goes my remarkable and penetrating insight). The busker relies on the good graces of his somewhat random audience to cough up the coin and, if lucky, a dose of clattering appreciation. The busker absolutely must amuse, entertain and impress to have any hope of rent money. Often novelty isn’t enough (see said bahookie man) – the audience has to like the show a lot. It seems to me the appreciation of any good busker show is based, at it’s core, on excellence: A little savvy mixed with a lot of wondrous skill.

It wasn’t the meticulous sword swallower that caught my attention this time (their kind are so yesterday, don’t you know). No, it was the classic – iconic even – ball-in-the-air, gravity-defying juggler. If you’ve ever given juggling a shot – even three balls at time – you’ll know, the whole effort is a tricky game. On this day the juggler had six balls going, at least, and kept them flying for an impressively long time all while joking with the crowd. A great display of mental strength and physical agility – and showmanship. Where are the nerves? A juggler’s shaky day at work makes for dropped balls, unamused crowd and another week of groceries bought from Poundstretcher. With so much at stake it seems a remarkable thing that street performers, jugglers especially, aren’t angst-ridden basket cases.

Performance anxiety is something relatable to almost anyone (it’s to be seen if busker jugglers can be included here). In fact, it’s generally believed to be one of the most common of human phobias. Anyone who has had cause to be responsible for making something happen in front of a group of people, large or small, will likely have tasted from the sweaty, palpitating cup of stage fright. We surely know this in piping. Both bands and individual appearances – in and outside of competition – have been known to makes a shambles of planned performance steadiness.

An expert in the field, Dr David Carbonell, says performance anxiety is what happens when you focus on yourself and your anxiety, rather than your performance. This, he says, comes from a tendency to resist and fight your anxiety, rather than to accept and work with it. All of this is the result of thinking of the performance situation as a threat instead of a challenge. And busker-juggler types must revel in this challenge in a big way.

I understand explicitly Carbonell’s belief that a person can get so involved in their internal struggle to keep a performance on track that there’s never any involvement in the actual performance. I imagine the majority of competing pipers can, too. Instead of focusing on the tune, the music, the sound any artful effort can be wrecked by dwelling on the performance anxiety – and trying to get rid of it, to suppress it, to deny it. And all that just makes things worse. Cue performance train wreck.

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