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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Thank you for speaking out and about stage fright. Would love to talk more with you about it – and collaborate . Visit my blog on Psychologytoday.com (Music to my Ears)…..was invited to blog on this very subject. The topic needs more attention and it is a big impediment to many musicians’ (and others) professional and personal satisfactions. Will send you a couple of articles separately.
Bravo and keep performing and speaking!!!!!
Julie Jaffee Nagel
Having experienced stage fright a few times in my life, I can tell you it’s very much akin to experiencing an earthquake, which I have also experienced a few times in my life. I prefer the earthquake!
Re-post this blog at Halloween! You were lucky not to cut your hand on the broken glass at Mr. Moldrem’s recital. That might have changed the whole direction of your life!!
I am a â€˜professionalâ€™ scientist and an â€˜amateurâ€™ violinist (struggling for some years to reverse these labels). It never failed: if I didnâ€™t get nervous before a scientific talk I got scared (not enough energy to play with); if I got nervous before a violin performance I got scared (too much misplaced energy). Its getting better/worse â€“ the more I perform the less nervous I get, good – but the more I give scientific talks the less scared I get -bad. I once read that, every time, Heifetz was terrified before walking on stage â€“ is that true?
Thank you for writing about stage fright. I’m amazed at how many of my CMC student ensembles come off the stage after a wonderful performance and state “Ahh! I was so nervous! Didn’t you hear my bow shaking?!” Quite honestly, I didn’t and seemingly neither did anyone else. Which brings us to the conclusion that individually we, the performers, probably feel and hear the nerves more than the audience ever will, and with that thought it might bring some sense of peace to those suffering from stage fright.
This is a topic very close to my heart – yes, the heart that tends to race out of control when stage fright hits! On the one hand, it is reassuring in a way that even the best musicians in the world, like yourself, suffer from stage fright. On the the other hand, it is sad that it has to be so! Along with the two effective methods of overcoming this issue that you’ve already mentioned (and I’ve employed myself along the way) let me mention a third. A professional bass player friend of mine suggested a book called “Performing in the Zone”. The main gist of this book is to actually train yourself how to get into the correct mental state before and during a performance. Not all of what the author covers is practical for everyone, but there are some excellent suggestions.
My own story of the worst stage fright I’ve experienced lately was when I auditioned for the principal viola spot in a local community orchestra. I had prepared my Bach and the excerpts as thoroughly as I knew how. When I walked into the room to face the backs of the committee, my heart started racing… yet the preparation took over as I began the Allemande from the 3rd suite. It was almost as if there were two people – one with the racing heart, the other playing Bach. Slowly I was able to crawl back into the person playing Bach. And I won the audition. After that, I swore to find ways to never feel that way again.
Cheers, and thanks for all the great music over the decades.
Thank you for this wonderfully honest and open description of what so many of us live through all our professional lives. When you ask: “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?” I believe there is a very simple and direct answer to this which comes largely from the fact that virtually every piece we perform (I am a professional violinist) exists in a note-perfect iconic form on a recording. Audiences expect completely flawless renditions as the norm, sometimes readings so flawless that the musicality fades into the background like so much beautiful wallpaper. Aided by zealous critics, it is exactly that ” fluffing a run of notes” that often commands the most attention in a performance. Sometimes we are even competing with our own recordings which have been laboriously pieced together with 21st century technology and eradicated of any shadow of human failings. And yes, those fluffed notes that bring attention to the player can hurt careers. So there is plenty to fear. I believe until we embrace “live recordings” which are documents of actual musical “events” and not manufactured “products”, fear of losing the battle with technology will always hold its grip over our community of professional performers and will continue to hamper our desire to choose expression over execution in a public forum. Such a sad bargain.
Thank you for your insightful article on this important and ever-looming issue for performing musicians. I have heard many people describe stage fright in a similar way -terrified before going onstage, but once they start to play, they are able to calm down and play their very best. This is the case for most of my students.
But an interesting, and very different phenomenon happens to me, as a pianist. I can feel very confident and ready to play my best beforehand, but after I begin my performance, I can hit a spot, rather randomly it seems, and a small mistake can trigger a significant memory slip, that sometimes I cannot even recover from. At the moment the fear and panic takes over, I find it very difficult to ignore it and stay with the music. This can happen to me even when I am just playing for a student or for an audience that has little or no point of reference in classical music. I realize that part of the problem is that I don’t perform very frequently, and if you want to get to be good at something, you have to do it a lot. I have tried using beta blockers, but I’m not sure how effective they have been in my case. I don’t know what the correct dosage would be for me, but I may need a higher dosage. Any thoughts?
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