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  • Writer's pictureIngela Onstad

Little fish in a big pond, or the story of my anxiety - part 2

As I stated in the previous blog post, I think every performer has an anxiety story to tell. This is the story of my anxiety throughout my career, even though I didn’t call it that at the time.

In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I fell in love with a fellow singer in my department. He was from Germany, so we decided that I would move there to be with him when I was able.


For those of you not familiar with the world of classical music, Germany is like the operatic promised land. There are so many theaters (80+) in Germany with a full-time orchestra and opera ensemble, not to mention theater and dance. Keep in mind that Germany is half of the size of Texas in terms of landmass, so 80+ theaters is AMAZING.

Ingela Onstad performance anxiety coach Courageous Artistry
Ingela Onstad singing in Oldenburg Germany

This was both an incredible opportunity and also very terrifying for me. I knew it was a huge move and had a lot of promise, but I also realized that I still had a lot of learning to do. I told myself things like “you’re too young, you’re not ready yet, your voice is ready yet, no one will take you seriously.”

I spent the first few years in Germany too scared to make any big moves. I didn’t feel ready to audition, I didn’t have the money for regular voice lessons or coachings, and I was pretty tied up with the day-to-day worries of living in another country (language, money, figuring how to live there legally).

A few years in, I convinced myself that I was MAYBE ready to do a few auditions, but definitely not ready for solo auditions yet. I eventually went to a few auditions: Rundfunkchor (State Radio Choruses), ZAV - a state agency that manages performers, and a few professional opera choruses. I came very close to a position in Switzerland, which was encouraging, but I probably averaged 1-2 auditions per year.

Looking back, I obviously felt totally paralyzed by my anxiety. And if you haven’t gleaned this fact already, I’m a total PERFECTIONIST, which often ends up in procrastination or avoidance.

But, once again, I didn’t have language for this at the time, I called it other things, such as “I still have maturing to do” or “my high notes aren’t quite perfect yet” or “I don’t really have the money to go to this audition” or whatever excuse I could come up with at the time to avoid things like:

· Having to show up and do something scary

· Deciding that only I knew when I was “ready” or “mature” enough

· Having to face audition-day jitters and feelings of inferiority

I can see all of that clearly in hindsight, but you know what they say about hindsight…..

I think one of the main reasons that I didn’t call it ANXIETY at the time was due to a few key factors. First: I didn’t think of myself as an anxious person, and to be fair, I probably wasn’t very anxious in other areas of my life. And no one ever labeled me as “anxious” or commented on my need to improve my anxiety.

Second: no one close to me talked about their anxiety or their internal struggles with having the confidence to take risks. I don’t think I had a lot of external context clues that this was a “thing”. I had never heard the phrase "impostor syndrome."

Finally: I convinced myself that the types of thoughts I was choosing to believe about my “readiness” were TRUTH – I had no knowledge of the power of the thoughts we choose to think, whether helpful or hurtful.

Eventually I had a successful audition that resulted in a year-long contract with an operetta chorus for a member who was going on maternity leave. Which, technically was probably SPLASH #4 into another new pond: the pond of working as a professional singer.

Strangely, once I jumped into this new pond, I wasn’t very concerned about being a little fish anymore. I assumed that if they hired me, I was good enough. BUT – while I did feel like I was “good enough” to be there, I was facing a new challenge.

The pond I had jumped into, while comfortable, wasn’t satisfying because I decided to label this pond as “Now I have confirmation that I’m not good enough to be a soloist and I’ll be relegated to opera chorus work forever.” And I don’t mean to diss opera choruses by any means, many of them are filled with FANTASTIC artists who have decided to choose the security of a chorus job (unionized, tenured, stable until the end of your career) over the insecurities of a solo career (no tenure, no union, only a few years contract at a time.)

But I had effectively taken a hugely successful moment in the career of any artist (well-paid, full-time employment) and turned it into something that wasn’t good enough. Man, the crap I put myself through! I mean, I'm sure I felt celebratory at first, but I quickly found ways to downplay my successes.

Looking back I feel sad for my younger self and her negative, perfectionistic mindset.

The events that followed after my stint in the opera chorus were in a similar vein. I continued to have full-time employment in a new city, first as a prompter at another opera house, which then turned into occasional solo roles, a few guest contracts here and there, etc. I still had a lot of struggles with feeling inferior, discounting my successes, and desiring something bigger and better.

I believed, like most of us do, that once I “arrived” at that magical point in the future I would suddenly feel “whole.”

I have lots of thoughts on the time spent in my final city in Germany, too many for this post. More on that to come. Luckily, this also includes stories of my successes and triumphs and moments where I felt like I finally “belonged.”

Writing this all down has been a very interesting process: although my life has changed a lot (I'm still an active singer but also work as a coach and therapist) this is probably the first time I have taken a really good look at my career in Germany through the eyes of my current job and skill set.

What have I learned? Anxiety and self-doubt can take many forms. It won’t always show up in the stereotypical way of the performer refusing to go on stage, vomiting in the wings due to nerves. I for one NEVER had an experience like that.

Anxiety may show up in the guise of perfectionism, procrastination, avoidance, self-doubt, or self-esteem struggles to name a few.

I’m extremely content with my current life, but I sure do wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I could go back to my younger self and help her identify her anxiety. Then she could have developed a toolkit and learned to take manageable risks to build her confidence. She could have perhaps saved herself a lot of heartache and silent struggle.

Maybe that’s how I ended up becoming a coach and therapist :)

If you relate to any of this or care to share your story with me, I’d love to hear from you. You can easily contact me and let me know if any of this resonated with you. Sharing our stories can lead to building communities where we feel seen and understood.

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