July 1, 2011
I must have been only seven or eight years old when I first performed in public. My teacher, Mr. Moldrem, had me play two melodies, one from the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the other from Brahms First Symphony. Moldrem, well known for his ability to teach youngsters, presented his students regularly in concerts. Before the performance, we were herded into a small kitchen area behind the stage of what I remember as a neighborhood union hall. One by one, each of us was called upon by Moldrem to play. The idea that I would soon have to do the same suddenly terrified me. I had never experienced stage fright, nor had I any concept of what it was. In a desperate attempt to buy time, I asked the woman overseeing us for a glass of water. I must have figured that as long as I was drinking, my execution would be on hold. The plan backfired, however. My hand trembled so badly that I dropped the glass and it shattered all over the floor. A moment later, Mr. Moldrem pointed to me. My turn had arrived. I shook my head and refused to budge. Moldrem was a kind man but he must have made it clear that there was only one way for me to continue with my life. He gently coaxed me out onto the stage.
Cartoon courtesy of The Cartoon Bank
Then a little miracle took place. The audience comprised of parents and their friends clapped enthusiastically and the stage turned unexpectedly benign, even welcoming. Those smiling people were not my enemies but eager supporters come to hear me do well. I played the Beethoven and Brahms melodies the best ever.
I no longer drop glasses of water before performances but that same feeling in miniature persists every time I play. “Ten minutes to show time”, a stagehand announces over the dressing room loudspeaker and my heart begins to beat faster and my hands sweat as I continue to warm up. “Five minutes to show time”, and a voice inside me pleads not to have to go out onto that arena where I risk making a complete fool of myself. Then it’s show time. The stage door opens wide and I am for an instant gripped with a feeling of terror akin to the roller coaster’s first heart-stopping plunge downward. Inexplicably, when I step across the threshold and change from normal person into performer, nerves begin to fall away and I throw myself with relish into the music.
I suppose this “Lampen Fieber”, literally “lamp fever”, as the Germans put it, is genetic to some extent. My dad told me that he began taking mandolin lessons in secret after he retired. His plan was to learn the instrument well enough to eventually surprise his friends with a few simple pieces. Several months later, dad invited the friends over to our house and announced proudly that he would perform for them. When he began, however, his hands shook so badly that he could hardly play. “Now I know what you musicians must go through”, dad said rather sorrowfully.
Not all musicians get nervous. The great violinist Fritz Kreisler was said to have had ice in his veins in performance. I felt a twinge of envy when I first heard this. Wouldn’t it be nice to be unencumbered by nerves that often threaten me with lack of concentration, loss of control, and even stupid mistakes. But I wouldn’t trade places with any of those nerve-less ones. The shot of adrenaline that performing gives has also been responsible for me to often do what I did on that union hall stage long ago—play my very best.
Here’s a question whose answer might alleviate stage fright: Why the fear of failure? Is making a mistake or fluffing a run of notes really the end of the world? And if not, why the dread of it? Scott St. John, a brilliant former violin student of mine, had a momentary memory slip in a performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. He posted the recording on his website causing countless hits, lots of buzz, and a great deal of admiration for his confidence and good humor. I somehow doubt that Scott ever had a serious nerve problem. Another question, a mirror of the first one: Why the fear of success? Ridiculous, you say. Why would anyone not want success? But success brings heightened attention, attention brings expectation, and expectation brings exposure to criticism. For some, better to strive to be good at what you do, but not too good.
For those musicians who continue to struggle with stage fright despite all efforts, a little pill called a beta blocker has proven almost irresistible. Designed originally for certain heart problems and hypertension, this clever drug reduces the production of adrenaline and therefore the biological fight or flight response that is probably the source of nerves—and with few side effects. A friend told me recently that three of the four finalists for a major orchestra position used beta blockers this year at their auditions. Useful, yes, but were those beta blockers ethical in the disadvantage placed on the poor, un-medicated fourth finalist? Until concerts are turned into an Olympic event and musicians subjected to drug testing before every performance, it is a pointless question. Some will continue to use a beta blocker to alleviate stage fright for the same reason we take aspirin to relieve headaches. It works.
I’ve heard that meditation rather than medication before a performance can be effective. Also, arriving at a hall early enough to get to know it acoustically and visually helps turn the space into your performance partner rather than a menacing adversary. Those kind of simple, practical steps tailor-made to deal with specific nerve problems can sometimes be just as useful as beta blockers or five years on an analyst’s couch. I offer this example: The last movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time calls for the violin to play ethereally soft, drawn out notes in the slowest tempo imaginable. A case of stage fright threatens this evocative, otherworldly movement in which bow control is of the essence. I devised three sets of bowings for upcoming performances—one for not being nervous, one for being somewhat nervous, and one for being wildly nervous. The fact that I had a backup bowing and even a backup to my backup gave me the relative peace of mind and confidence to mostly use bowing number one, only rarely number two, and not once number three. I had managed to take the f-f out of stage f-f-fright.
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