5 Reasons why anxiety made me a better sound engineer

There’s still a lot of stigma to be found in the world in general, about anxiety. People who to tell you to: “Go out and get some fresh air.”

There’s still a lot of stigma that exists in the music industry about it, which is curious considering that people who work in the music industry are three times more likely to experience a mental health challenge or journey. Still, people worry about whether you can perform because you have had, or are still experiencing, symptoms of anxiety.

These examples (and there are so many more) only places more burden on the person who has had - or is currently dealing with, anxiety.

People that live with anxiety, can’t simply turn it off, they can manage it effectively and allow it to become a driving force for good in their lives, but chances are they will be dealing with it long term.

Let’s face it, if you have anxiety then the worst thing is to pretend that you don’t have it, or try to cover it up. However, I do advocate a positive journey with anxiety, try to find the ways that it can constructively add to life. If you’re destructive with anxiety then those destructive tendencies will overtake your life (and don’t get me wrong I have been there with self medication through alcohol, and other scenarios). Thankfully those particular scenarios are in my past and I drink alcohol very sparingly now. I never did drink during shows — the only exception being in the first six months when I was young and mixing pub gigs!

This article is a celebration of some of the things that anxiety has brought to my professional life:

  1. Anxiety makes me exist in a state of hyperawareness.

The type of anxiety that I have experienced; traumatic anxiety, makes me exist in an extreme form of fight or flight mode: it is a state of hyper awareness; a hyper sensitivity to the stimulus that surround me, including sounds. I have trained my ears through mixing professional concerts throughout the years, but there are extra nuances that I have been able to integrate into my knowledge of live sound through the experience of anxiety.

2. Anxiety makes me more prepared.

The slightly less serious state of anxiety is one where you don’t want to take risks — and risks must be taken, you just don’t want to take them without knowing that they’ve been calculated and understood. This is incredibly useful in a live music setting, where productions are out on the road for long periods of time. Equipment is mapped for use, prepared, double checked, and boxed for months of hard use.

This can be extremely useful if you’re touring with a excitable rock band who like to trash their gear.

3. Anxiety helps me to understand people who are under pressure.

There have been many, many, many times over the years when i’ve sat down with an artist and their band, just before they’re about to hit the stage, and had a inspirational chat. Even when we didn’t talk there have been many a comforting silence, a quick hug or fist pump, or an exchanged glance of: ‘You got this!’

Anxiety is existing in a strange cross between being completely in fear, and having a strange sense that what you’re going through is for the best. You have to believe that sometimes, it’s the only way out. It’s a very fine balance that is often thrown off, and I see that in performers who are about to hit the stage in front of packed crowd. They believe in what they’re doing, but sometimes they’re nervous about their performance; others get occasional stage fright; for many, it could be the biggest night of their lives to date, a culmination of years of blood, sweat, and tears. They want it, and my job, along with many other of my closest friends, is to support them to get it.

Experience of anxiety is also really useful in a sound check scenario, although actually having anxiety in these moments is not useful — there are things you can draw upon in that scenario.

There are many ways to stop yourself from falling into that anxiety hole, by the way, if you feel that you’re about to be triggered, so that you’re not completely disabled by it. More on that in another article.

For those of you who don’t know what a sound check is:

The equipment is loaded into the venue, set up, and tested by the crew. There can be lighting, rigging, local crew (heavy lifting and trucking), audio, audio systems, sound engineers (mixers), back line technicians (musical equipment specialists), tour mangers, managers, promoters, promoter reps, merchandise sellers, security, all in one place at one time, in a four hour period (if we’re lucky) to set up and test everything that we need to make the show work. As you can imagine, this can be tight for space, and so we’re working in close environments and often under time pressure. We all have to get along and make the show work smoothly, which is done through communication and compassion for the other person’s working environment.

When the musicians come on stage for the actual sound check (or rehearsal for the show) everything is running smoothly and it allows the band or musicians to run through an idea of how they want the show to run; make any adjustments on arrangements of the music; set out any ideas for aesthetics that they want for the evening, and many more things.

That is the plan, and generally you get enough time and there’s been enough preparation for all that to go smoothly. As you can imagine, there will be one occasion where you’re just up against the wall, and being able to communicate effectively in that scenario with people who are nervous and under a lot of pressure, makes all the difference. It can often turn the feeling of the whole tour around.

Through anxiety I have learned to communicate my feelings very well, and since, I don’t struggle to communicate with people in these scenarios.

4. Anxiety allows me to handle extreme amounts of pressure.

When it happens, I often think of anxiety as a big weight on my head and shoulders, especially in cases where I have felt numb in the past. A great way to get through these fleeting periods is to focus on the breath. The breath will always be there.

I have done this multiple times in scenarios where I have been under a lot of pressure at work, and it has served me well. The moment before a large arena show starts at FOH (Front of House, the place where we mix the sound for the audience), your hands are just over the mute buttons, ready to turn them on and start the show; just breathe. Allow yourself to get excited, shake your arms a little, bounce on your toes, feel your body, and go.

A festival scenario where no one gets enough time to do what they need to do. Acceptance that you tried your best, and the show still happens.

A manager standing behind you, listening to your performance; their opinion could be the difference between a continued relationship with an artist or finding another job!

Anxiety also allows the sense that everything is a learning curve, because it’s not a space that you want to exist in, it simply isn’t comfortable, so you try to find ways; tools, to deal with it so that you can exist in comfort in the future. It teaches you that you are sometimes compromised, and that you should aim for 80% success, because that is good enough.

5. Anxiety allows me to trouble shoot quickly.

The process of anxiety often includes confusion and a sense of numbing or overwhelm. In order to get out of these states it’s really important to observe. As I said before, observe my breathing, I will always have that, observe my feelings and where they manifest themselves in my body, understand what it is that I am fearful of that is overwhelming me — anxiety is a fear of the future.

In this sense I have developed incredible tools of observance and troubleshooting, and alongside the tools that I have built in the knowledge of live audio technology — audio routing systems, microphones, music equipment, audio console setups, and many more, I am able to trouble shoot these problems very quickly.

Anxiety has also taught me a very important skill:

How to think and act laterally.

It’s not always possible to think or act in a linear way with anxiety, it’s not always possible to bulldoze your way through it, or just continue what you’re doing until it works. It’s sometimes necessary to stop what you’re doing and have a cup of tea, or go outside and feel the fresh air, and although those things are not always possible in a live music scenario, the translation is: if something isn’t working find a lateral solution, and I guarantee there’ll always be one.

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Peter Middleton

Peter Middleton

Here to serve the shift in human consciousness.

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