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  • Writer's pictureIngela Onstad

Every Performer has anxiety, whether they call it that or not

I’m going to make a bold statement. Every performing artist suffers from anxiety at some point in their lives. This can show up as classic “stage fright” or in dozens of other ways. Let me take you on my anxiety journey. I call it "little fish syndrome".

Ingela Onstad's first headshot from her blog post on her personal anxiety journey
Ingela's first baby headshot :)

If I look back, I can view my life as a collection of successively larger ponds that I (the little fish) jumped in between.

Growing up in Santa Fe, NM, I was a big fish in a little pond. Santa Fe, although a popular tourist destination, is a rather small town with only 2 public high schools. By the time I got to high school, I had been taking different types of music lessons for years and I felt like I was a pretty good singer.

How did I know this? Well, like most of us, I got external validation like compliments, awards, and recognition that served as confirmation that I was skilled and had “talent” (I dislike that word, but more on that in another blog post).

I developed a sense of self that included “good at singing and performing”. I definitely noticed that there were other skilled people my age, and I knew that I was somehow in competition with them, but I don’t have any recollection of stage fright or performance anxiety that plagued me. If anything, I was just concerned with the roles I would get in plays or musicals.

I had an encouraging and supportive voice teacher (Hi, Marilyn!) and many people around me who were also supportive. So I decided to pursue singing professionally by applying to study vocal performance in college.

I remember auditioning for undergraduate schools very well. I would travel across the country to a school, arrive for my audition time, and see all sorts of other young people there who were my competition. I immediately got a sense that there was a lot I didn’t know about the world of music, and that these people were likely just as good as me, if not a lot better. I couldn’t really tell you how those auditions went, but I know I got through them alright.

I got rejected from 4 or 5 schools, and accepted at 3 schools. I chose to attend McGill University due to its relatively low price compared to the other two schools, and also because I had met two teachers from McGill, Bill and Dixie Neill. Even though I had never been to Canada (I sent in a videotaped audition), I figured it was a risk worth taking and I could always transfer if I didn’t like it.

SPLASH!!! - I jumped into Pond #2.

I had no idea at the time what this experience would be like. I took for granted that my admittance into McGill meant that I would be on-par with the other singers there. I’ll never forget the first studio class I attended. Bill had a lot of older students (Masters and Doctoral) in his studio and he and Dixie also attracted a lot of dramatic voices due to their reputations of working well with “big voices.”

(Side note: I do not have a “big voice” i.e., a dramatic voice, nor did I have any idea what that even meant at the time.) So when all of these people got up to sing at the first studio class, I wanted to sink directly into the floor.

Growing up, I was always considered mature for my age, did well in school, made good choices, and was kind of a nerdy, studious kid. I thought of myself as very adult. But, I’m also petite with a round face (even rounder back then) and probably didn’t look as “adult” as I felt. I became distinctly aware that my self-perceived maturity meant nothing here, and my “cute” appearance made me seem even younger and less experienced. That's my first headshot taken at age 19 at the top of the post.

AND not only did all of these students sing like ADULTS, they also LOOKED LIKE ADULTS. (Because, unlike me, many of them were actual ADULTS in their late twenties or even thirties or forties). I was absolutely shocked.

I got up to sing (I think it might have been Schubert’s “Lachen und Weinen”, but I was having a bit of an out-of-body experience, so who knows) and afterwards, a few students came up and fawned over me like I was a little kid. Or at least that’s how it felt at the time. They used words like “cute” and “adorable”. In one fell swoop, my image of myself as an accomplished singer with a mature voice for my age was destroyed. I realized I had SO MUCH to learn.

My time spent at McGill, while incredibly enriching musically, was definitely a hard road. At the time, I had no words or vocabulary for how I felt about myself or my music. I remember feeling great when things would go well for me and crushed when they didn’t.

Looking back, it seems like other people’s perceptions of me as an artist were the defining factor in how I defined myself as an artist. So - if I got a great compliment from a teacher or colleague, I was riding high. If I was criticized (or no one said anything about my performance), I was filled with self-doubt.

I’m not sure if I was even able to recognize this roller-coaster at the time. And I don’t think too many other people noticed it either – I hide things pretty well. They were likely too caught up in their own struggles to notice. Or perhaps they noticed, who knows? There’s no way for any of us to truly know how others perceive us.

By the time I got to the end of my degree I had grown a lot, but I was only 22 years old and my voice still needed time to develop. I got a few larger roles in shows, but even at that time I was aware that my teachers’ positions within the department probably granted me a certain standing that I may not have received in another studio.

Or perhaps I’m not giving myself enough credit? These things are notoriously hard to measure. But at the time, I felt sure that part of my successes were due to having the “right” teacher.

So even though I had some larger-scale success, I still felt like a little fish. Or maybe a medium-small fish on good days. And it was painful, because I was so aware of the “big fish” around me and I wanted so badly to be like them.

I don’t think I ever labeled myself as “anxious” or “insecure” at the time. First of all, this was 20 years ago and society was not talking about anxiety so openly. Second, I do not come from a family who talks about mental health or emotions. Third, I worked incredibly hard not to let on that I felt that way. I had no desire to be seen as what I thought of as “weak”, so I kept most of this stuff to myself.

At one point, I decided to visit a therapist at the school counseling center to talk about my “stress”, but after one visit I never went back. He spent most of the hour staring at my chest (EWWWW) and I was disgusted and chose not to return.

So there I was. I knew I was “stressed”, and I reached out for help only to come away completely unsatisfied and feeling violated to boot. I decided therapy wasn’t for me and I would just have to handle things on my own. And – not at one point in this period of my life did I call my feelings “anxiety”, which is really interesting for me to realize from my current position.

I’m going to continue this journey in an upcoming blog post.

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