My Baby is having a Wife in the Car! – How musicians deal with performance pressure
By Nick Parnell
Those were the words I blurted out to 000 as I pulled over in front of the Adelaide Festival Centre while my wife Ellie miraculously self-delivered our new baby daughter in the car on the way to hospital. My heart was racing, my hands were shaking and I couldn’t think straight – a classic sign of adrenaline kicking in. As I looked over to the passenger seat, Ellie was sitting there calmly with a newborn in her arms. “Is she breathing?” I blurted out. “Oh…, the cord is wrapped around her neck” Ellie completely calmly replies as she unwraps it. What!? But then we heard the faintest cries and all was well.
That incident has caused me to reflect on how as a musician I deal with pressure. I’ve become pretty good these days at dealing with the nerves most performers feel as they take to the stage. But I know many people for whom it is crippling. So how do musicians develop the mental toughness to get up in front of well-listened audiences and play thousands of notes (often from memory) in an emotionally and musically compelling fashion without crumbling?
Well, to understand the secret we must return to the beginning of that sunny December day when I found myself in that unimaginable situation of my wife Ellie giving birth in our car.
With the birth of our first child two and half years ago, we only just made it to the hospital in time – 30mins to spare to be precise. So we were determined to arrive with plenty of time for our new child’s birth. This is how the day unfolded:
9am – The midwife drops around to our house and checks Ellie out. “You’re not in labour” is the verdict. “Really?” I think. Then why is Ellie groaning a lot – I know I’m not the world’s greatest chef but surely those baked potatoes with sweet chilli sauce I cooked last night weren’t that bad? “It will probably be another week or two” the midwife advises us. So we resume our normal activities.
9:55am – Ellie is starting to make very unusual noises that reminded me of working in the paddocks of my parents’ sheep station. I’m now getting very concerned.
10:00am – I call the hospital and put Ellie on the phone to the midwife. Ellie can hardly talk. The midwife advises us “Something might be happening, but something might not be happening too”. Great advice – thanks!
10:05 – I make an executive decision -we are going to the hospital right NOW.
10:09 – As Ellie tries to get in the car, she announces that she can’t sit down. “Just get in there Ellie and put your seat belt on” I say in a panic. My heart rate doubles. To complicate matters, a courier turns up in a big truck to deliver some mallets I had ordered online. This 19 year old guy looks slightly freaked out as I tell him I can’t sign for the package now as my wife has just gone into labour.
10:13- Driving down Greenhill Road Ellie is very distressed. I’m telling myself “just focus on driving and don’t have a crash!”
10:22 – Its getting really bad now. Ellie is now screaming like a character out of the movie Alien. We are stuck in traffic on King William Road right in the heart of the city. I’m wondering if people in the cars next to us can hear the screaming.
10:23- Bloody traffic lights! Why did I come this route? I start beeping the horn, put on my hazard lights, and edge my way through the red traffic lights. Getting some glares from pedestrians. Hit the accelerator – “don’t crash, concentrate” I tell myself. Feeling a sense of doom coming upon me.
10:25 – Ellie yells “she’s coming”. I can’t repeat what I reply
10:30 – “Nick, pull over now!” Ellie cries as I fly over North Terrace. I duck into a bus stop strangely out in from of the Adelaide Festival Centre where I not so long ago performed. I try to dial 000 but dial 00000 because my hands are shaking. Eventually I dial the number and blurt out “My baby is having a wife in car!” “Sir, do you need ambulance, fire or police?” I glance over towards Ellie and see a little infant in her arms. Ellie calmly unwraps the cord from around the baby’s neck.
10:33 – Ellie is completely calm and in control. I’m a complete mess. Ellie tells me to just keep driving to the hospital as we are only 3 mins away. So we do.
10:36 – I run into emergency and explain the situation. The receptionist doesn’t say a word but just picks up the phone. Next thing I know 4 or 5 staff members come running out to help us. I open the passenger door and Ellie looks up at me with a goofy grin, still wearing her big aviator sunglasses, and hair still remarkably intact. The thought “I should get a selfie” flashes through my mind. But then in fear of the midwives’ reaction I decide I better not.
For the next fortnight, I would suddenly just starting feeling nauseous at random moments. I’m sure it was some mild kind of PTSS. But why did I fall apart in that situation? Arguably, many of my performance situations I’ve encountered have been equally as terrifying.
Well, there are many strategies and techniques that a musician can use to handle the pressure of live performance. But there is one trick that is a sure thing and this is it:
Practise performing in front of audiences, small or large, in as many different settings, as often as possible.
It could be in front of parents at home or in front of your school or university friends. It could be a small gig in your local café or a big music competition. The more you do it, the more you will become accustomed to the performance environment and feel comfortable. Start small, playing in non-threatening environments and build up to more high pressure settings. I make a point of performing new pieces in masterclasses before I play them in big concerts. It really helps me prepare mentally. The reason I freaked out at the birth was I simply wasn’t used to being in that situation. If I was encountering that scenario every day I’m sure I would’ve handled it better. The same principle applies for performing.
However, if you do happen to play a gig where the pressure affects you negatively, you could try to write a blog about the experience. Its good therapy!
Nick Parnell is celebrated as one of the most exciting vibraphone players in the world today. Also a leading music educator, he has recently established the Nick Parnell Percussion Academy. Visit www.nickparnell.com for more info.