Staying Composed

Staying Composed: When Everything Going Right May Still Feel Wrong

Sometimes getting exactly what you’ve wanted will look and feel nothing like you expected.

Let’s imagine that you’re at a high-profile performance of music you wrote. You feel like you should be ecstatic; after all, you’ve wanted to work with this ensemble for years. Your family has flown across the country to be at this performance, and your closest friends are here, too. You’re happy with the piece and rehearsals have been going well.

You should – in theory – feel terrific. Isn’t this a highlight of your career? But in reality, you might find yourself dissociating from the situation. You might distract yourself by worrying about audience turnout: Shouldn’t there be more people here? Maybe you’re wondering whether one of your chronically late friends is going to make it to the concert at all. Maybe you’re thinking about how you’ll have to walk onstage for a bow, and you’re wondering if you should trade seats with the people closer to the aisle. Maybe you’re fretting over the pre-concert speech you have to give or whether the conductor will remember to take the middle part of your piece a little faster, since you only made that suggestion at the soundcheck an hour ago.

If you’re an anxious person in general, you’re probably going to carry some of that anxiety into even the most rewarding moments of your life.

When I’ve unintentionally brought my own anxiety into experiences like these, it almost feels like the event is happening outside of me or to someone else. It’s as if I’m uncomfortable accepting the importance of a moment like this, so I start looking for little distractions to deflect from its weightiness. 

…when I do feel anxiety threatening to creep into an otherwise wonderful circumstance, I realign my inflated expectations and worries with reality.

I don’t recommend this approach, obviously. It results in a severe, almost painful whiplash between happiness and unnecessary stress. I’ve had plenty of moments that do feel as wonderful as I’d hoped. I’ve experienced transcendent premieres, elated contest wins and planning sessions with collaborator friends that go so well that just thinking about our upcoming project is enough to leave me smiling for hours.

But when I do feel anxiety threatening to creep into an otherwise wonderful circumstance, I realign my inflated expectations and worries with reality. I remind myself that whatever happens, there’s only so much I can control. If someone misses their cue in a performance, it’s not my fault. If I trip walking up the steps to the stage, well, I’m only human. Yes, I’d love for everything to go as well as possible, but if it doesn’t, no one is harmed. Nothing suffers. These moments also end, no matter how they go. If a premiere exceeds my wildest expectations and everyone loves my work, it still ends. If it’s a disaster, then – mercifully – it still ends.

I used to expect any large-scale dream project to look and feel a certain way: life-changing, maybe. Ecstatically happy. Who wouldn’t be thrilled to get what they’ve dreamed of for years?

But now, when a major moment in my career approaches, I remind myself that it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it probably won’t be. But it also doesn’t need to be perfect to have happened. If I show up and I’m feeling just okay instead of absolutely elated, that’s fine. I don’t need to beat myself up further because of the gap between my expectations and reality. I’m allowed to show up with whatever emotions I’m carrying. At every performance of my music, I anchor myself in the current moment, redirecting my focus back into my body and grounding myself in specific details. Whenever I notice my focus drifting to worried thoughts, I take a few deep breaths. I ask myself how my body is feeling and notice where those feelings are located: my chest? My stomach? I try to label as many emotions as I can, without adding extra expectations or worry to them.

Then I remind myself exactly where I am: what state, what town and what performance venue. I remind myself who is sitting around me. No matter what may have gone wrong thus far in the day – a mix-up with tickets, a beloved friend who can’t make it after all or a terrible dress rehearsal – I remind myself that I’m grateful to be here. I remind myself of what, specifically, I am grateful for, which might be anything from knowing one of the performers onstage to the tremendous amount of privilege, luck and grace that’s gotten me to this moment.

I take a few more deep breaths. I feel my feet anchored on the floor. And then, finally, I try to experience the moment without expecting it to be anything more than it is. I’m grounding myself in my physical surroundings, yes, but I’m also trying to ground myself in time.

All of this, together, might sound something like this in my head, although not necessarily in this order:

  • Long breath in.
  • Long breath out.
  • I’m at my performance.
  • I’m sitting in Disney Hall.
  • I’m in Los Angeles.
  • My parents are here.
  • My partner is sitting next to me.
  • My friends are here; I can see some of them in the balcony.
  • I can feel my feet on the ground.
  • I can feel my heart beating faster than normal.
  • I’m a little nervous and a little excited.
  • Actually, I’m really nervous. I can feel it in my chest.
  • Deep breath in; deep breath out.
  • I’m comfortable in my seat.
  • I’m glad so many people I love are here with me.

This in-the-moment grounding exercise might not feel like an immediate solution to managing your anxiety and expectations, but for me, it always works. I instantly feel a little calmer and better overall. The trick is first recognizing that I’m dissociating or distancing myself from the moment, so that I can move myself through this grounding process. At the very least, I am more present. I am exactly where I am.

Even at a concert where I know no one in the audience, or where I fully expect a performance to be under-rehearsed, I move through this process. No matter how badly my pre-concert talk or the dress rehearsal have gone, I can anchor myself in each moment even as I notice it passing by.

If I’m by myself, that routine looks and feels a little different. I remind myself that I am here for myself, even if no one else is.

At one performance of “How to Go On,” my half-hour, secular requiem for a cappella chorus, I found myself sitting in the audience with no close friends or family around me. My 14-year-old cousin had died unexpectedly only a month and a half before, and with that fresh on my mind, I had abruptly burst into tears at the pre-performance talk. I was mortified, and as I sat back down in the audience next to another composer who was very sweet but whom I didn’t know very well, I longed desperately for someone whose hand I could hold. I thought of my partner, home in Los Angeles, and my parents, already asleep in Delaware, and then I gripped my own hands together tightly and kept them that way for the entire half-hour.

Lately, as I practice anchoring myself back in the present at concerts – and whenever else I catch myself dissociating – I’ve been adding this:

  • This is my life.
  • I lead a beautiful life.
  • No matter what goes wrong or right, this moment is part of my beautiful life.

Sometimes we need that reminder exactly when we’ve placed the most pressure on ourselves to enjoy something. Sometimes it’s okay to just sit with ourselves wherever we are, feeling what we’re feeling. When an anticipated moment arrives, there’s no use in making ourselves feel worse by insisting on how we think we should feel. This moment and these feelings are part of your life. Ground yourself not in your expectations, but in what’s actually here and happening all around you.


Dale Trumbore’s book, “Staying Composed,” will be available June 4. Stay updated on news of the release here.

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Dale Trumbore

Composer Dale Trumbore has been called “a rising star among modern choral composers” (AXS), and her works have been praised for their “soaring melodies and beguiling harmonies” (The New York Times). …more 

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