Mind Games: John Beder

Mind Games: John Beder

Madi Chwasta spoke to John Beder about Composed: a new documentary igniting the conversation between musicians about performance anxiety.

Mind Games: John Beder

Madi Chwasta spoke to John Beder about Composed: a new documentary igniting the conversation between musicians about performance anxiety.

Tell us about Composed - why did you decide to create this documentary?

Oddly enough the decision to start research for Composed came about while eating fish and chips on Degraves Street in Melbourne. I was living in Australia and working in IT, and by chance was catching up with an old friend I knew from my time as a classical musician. Before leaving the US, I had spent a number of years studying and performing as a classical percussionist pursuing a career as an orchestral musician. I’d received a Bachelor’s degree in music performance but since then had done little in the way of performing. One major factor in the decision to move away from music was my experience with stage fright. I’d first encountered it when I was around 18 years old and never really knew how to talk about it with other musicians. In the midst of this conversation, we discussed how strange it was that anxiety wasn’t talked about more openly. In the early stages of filming, the more musicians I spoke with the more I realised that there was an industry-wide consensus that as a community we desperately needed more conversation. 

What is your personal experience with performance anxiety?

My earliest memories of performance anxiety didn’t come until just before uni began. I had been a big fish in a little pond up until then and believed I was making sufficient progress as a percussionist and musician. Suddenly at 18, I was exposed to people playing at an incredibly high level who’d been studying for years longer than I had and I was terrified to be left behind. My hands would shake or my heart would race when performing for peers and that feeling unfortunately followed me to many auditions and rehearsals. Determined at first to succeed, I buried myself in practice and though the hours were there, I wasn’t doing efficient practice and wasn’t addressing my anxiety. Looking back now it all makes perfect sense: the causes of my anxiety are clear, but whilst in it I was left confused, angry, and depressed that I couldn’t perform on stage as I did in the practice room. Eventually that depression left me with a bitter taste for music and I decided to pursue another passion: filmmaking. I’d love to say I left performance anxiety with music, but it’s something I face in daily life as well. Today, after the last few years of being a student of both my own and others anxiety, I feel a deep sense of relief knowing all the ways I can start to feel better when faced with panic and that I am not alone.

Performance anxiety is a taboo topic amongst musicians - why do you think this is the case, and how difficult was it to get musicians to speak out about their experiences on a public scale?

As musicians we often tie our music making to our identity as individuals. For many of us it was the first way we were able to describe ourselves to others. “The musician of the family” is something I heard a lot growing up and loved having some way to separate myself from others. As this label is reinforced by others and ourselves, it makes challenges seem monumental and a threat to that identity we’ve so carefully built. Admitting any challenge you face can be difficult but when no one else seems to be struggling with it and when it threatens our identity (and sometimes our livelihood) we often choose silence over asking for help. 

When casting Composed it was very difficult to find musicians willing to talk about their performance anxiety. Many expressed sincere gratitude that the film was being made, but could not agree to be on camera. I should mention that none of the responses were because the musicians I ask didn't battle with performance anxiety, but instead because they didn't feel comfortable talking about it. Fortunately, through networking and persistence, we found the kinds of folks eager to change this conversation and happy to share their struggles and successes to help others. 

Did the process of creating the documentary change your perspective on anxiety and it’s “solutions”?

This is a great question, and yes it most certainly did. When leaving music I remember feeling like a weight had been lifted, as I’d no longer need to endure these high-pressure situations. No more auditions, no more recitals. Ironically, the most anxiety I’ve ever felt was actually during the making of this film. It didn’t take shape in physical reactions like shaking hands, but I was racked with mental anxiety about making a good film. I’d never made anything like this and the more we’d talk to people, the more pressure I felt to deliver something they could be proud of. People would express gratitude for making a film that wasn’t even done yet! It was torture for a lot of those months and many, many times I felt like giving up. What changed my perspective, which can be applied to anything we create as artists, is that this film does not reflect the person I am today or tomorrow. Composed represents my abilities as a filmmaker on Oct. 1st 2016 (the day we finished the film) and everyday since I’ve evolved and learnt things to help create the next project. This idea has been incredibly freeing and gives way to an excitement about making movies for the foreseeable future.

As someone who also has music performance degree, how did you end up in filmmaking? Were any of the skills you developed as a musician useful in creating this film?

I switched over to a focus in filmmaking in my last year and a half of undergrad at Boston University. A friend had lent me their video camera to document our semester abroad in London and was fascinated by how I could combine a love of music with moving images. I started auditing film classes and even had my senior recital include a 20 minute short documentary I’d made about an audition with the Boston Symphony.

Shortly after graduating though I put down both music and filmmaking to start paying some bills. It wasn’t until I was living in Australia six years later that I worked up the courage, and funds, to try making a feature film.

In the end, my time as a musician had a major impact on my ability to make this film. We sometimes forget all the skills we take away from studying something like music! For years I spent between three to six hours a day practicing and watched as my abilities improved. Sounds simple enough, but knowing what we’re able to accomplish when we putting in that kind of time and effort is a gift that shows up anywhere hard work is required.

You’ve been travelling around the world touring Composed. How have audiences responded?

One thing I’ve found incredibly interesting is the difference in reaction based on location. As far as I can tell it’s always positive but in some cases we’ve realised that our screenings might be the first time anyone’s even heard the words “performance anxiety”. Many times people will say thank you and express how up until seeing the film they had no idea others felt this way. In the UK and Ireland we could tell that this was very much still a taboo subject whereas in the US some schools have started to address it in their curriculum on a more regular basis. Even with the variance in discussion, people tend to compliment the scope of the film as they find it’s really not just for those debilitated with anxiety, but for anyone who wants to feel more confident in life’s stressful situations.

More musicians are beginning to speak out about their performing experiences. What would you like to see happen through a broader discussion about performance anxiety?

For me a big focus is getting schools to acknowledge that this is an issue and to offer more in the way of resources to students. A handful of schools in the US are offering access to performance coaches and are teaching their students how to run themselves like a small business, how to build a website, how to take care of their bodies and protect against injuries, among others, and I hope that this becomes more of the norm. Music schools have survived for far too long just following the same routine of training musicians for a very narrow set of futures. Many seem to be wearing blinders and don’t see that their students need more to prepare them for the ever-changing scope of what it means to be a professional musician.

What’s next?

To quote my favourite comic book growing up, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Before making Composed I had no idea if I could deliver a film or even tell a story effectively. While I’m still learning, making Composed showed me what’s possible with a film and how much good you can do with it. The next project will likely be a story we feel a responsibility to share. Social justice, climate change, and American politics are just a few of the areas where we’re doing research for future projects.

Composed will be screened in Melbourne on Friday the 15th of September and in Hobart on Monday the 18th of September.