|‘Stage fright' by any other name can equally threaten musicianship|
by Robert Rawlins, Ph.D.
Robert Rawlins is assistant professor and coordinator of music theory at Rowan University in Glass-boro, New Jersey. He has published books and articles on various aspects of music theory and performance, including his regular contributions to the Bell.
Igor Stravinsky was one of the most celebrated musicians of modern times. So when he walked onstage in 1923, at the height of his career, to perform his own piano concerto, he sat down with complete confidence and launched into the work without a care, right?
Wrong. He was so nervous that at the conclusion of the first section he couldn’t even remember what came next. The conductor had to sing the next phrase for him because Stravinsky’s mind was a blank. “It was only by habit and sustained effort that I managed, in time, to master my nerves,” he later recalled.
It seems incredible that a musician of Stravinsky’s stature could be overcome by performance anxiety, but his plight was not unique. Many of the greatest musicians in history have experienced stage fright, sometimes to an extent that hampered their performances or even compelled them to avoid public appearances altogether.
Those of us who teach and perform music think about performance anxiety often. It simply goes with the territory. Through the years, we devise strategies to cope with or even capitalize on this phenomenon.
Following are some of the procedures or approaches that I have found helpful.
Be concerned, and do something about it. There is a difference between worry and concern. Worry is a negative and debilitating habit. But concern is often the appropriate response to an upcoming obligation that needs to be taken seriously. Begin practicing for an important performance weeks or months ahead of time. Prepare. First, this is a way of channeling anxiety into positive action. Second, being prepared will give you confidence when the big day finally arrives.
The hard part is over before you play a note. Suppose you have an important recital coming up in three months. You want to do well. So you begin practicing regularly several hours a day. You attend all of your lessons, listen to recordings of the pieces you’re doing, pick out your best reeds, and work on your stage presence. If you’ve done these things, when the day of the recital finally arrives, you’ve already won. You still want to concentrate and do your best, but you can ease your mind by telling yourself that you have already accomplished most of your mission.
It isn’t easy. We might think we’re encouraging ourselves when we say things like “This passage isn’t hard,” “This piece isn’t that difficult” or “There’s no reason I should miss this.” The problem is, we do make mistakes, and if we’re convinced that the music is easy, then we feel inadequate. In truth, playing a musical instrument is very hard. The amazing thing is not that we make occasional mistakes but that, with practice, we make so few.
Even at lessons, students are likely to complain, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I could play this passage perfectly at home.” It’s supposed to be that way. Accept the fact that you may not be able to perform at your absolute best under pressure. A realistic approach is to practice to the point that you have some “reserve” so that the pressures of performance will not cause you to falter and stumble.
Inexperience can work to your advantage. How do you view your inexperience? On the one hand, it might appear that more mature performers have little to worry about because they have so much stage and audition experience. But inexperience can be an advantage too. Audiences expect more of accomplished performers, which means there’s more pressure. Audiences are forgiving of young and inexperienced performers, as they should be. So if no one else is putting pressure on you, why should you put pressure on yourself?
Remember what music is all about. A colleague of mine has a favorite saying: “There’s no such thing as a musical emergency.” Of course, a professional soloist who has just broken his reed ten minutes prior to performing a major concerto may not agree with that.
But look at it this way. Some unknown paramedic living in the middle of nowhere deals with real emergencies every day. So do police officers, firefighters and parents. But musicians? A performer aspires to provide a significant and moving experience for the audience, but if he or she fails to do that, the only real harm done is to one’s own ego.
Look and act the part. It doesn’t take years of experience to develop a winning stage presence. All you have to do is appear to be confident and enjoying yourself. Chances are, if you start acting as if you’re in control of the situation, you’ll start feeling as if you are.
Professional actors tell us that when they play a role, they actually feel the emotions that the character is supposed to be having. This can work for musicians. Pretend you’re an actor and the role you’re playing is that of a world-famous concert soloist. You’ll feel better, look better and play better.
The audience doesn’t know what you’re thinking. The only way they will know that you’re nervous is if you act nervous. I’ve seen performances that included numerous mistakes yet made a very positive impression. If a musician plays with poise, confidence and expression, the audience won’t ask for more.
Smile. I know—this sounds like something your grandmother taught you, but we often forget the powerful effect a smile has on people. It exudes confidence, disarms enemies and wins friends. A performer who walks onstage, makes eye contact with the audience and offers a sincere smile wins them over immediately. After all, they came to enjoy themselves, not to watch you work.
Other techniques can be added to this list. We all have our favorites, and some will be more applicable than others, depending upon our individual personalities and the nature of the performing experience. But all of these suggestions center on one principle: music is supposed to be enjoyable for both the performer and the audience.
The next time performance anxiety nags you, remind yourself how diligently you’ve practiced, and say to yourself, “This is what I love to do. I’ve worked hard to be where I am now, and I’m determined to enjoy this experience.”
This article was made possible by G leblanc.