As part of my music college classes like in most music colleges I have top lay in front of other people. What’s the point in doing a degree in classical performance without getting up and actually performing? It’s true. And though I love performance (to the people that know and love me best I can be quite a dramatic personality) and performing music is what makes up my hopes and dreams for the future… I still get horrible stage fright.
There’s something incredible about the feeling of being nervous. The physical side effects of the chemical changes that go on in your brain for instance; the butterflies, the twitchiness (in my case), the palms of your hands sweating… People get varying degrees of these symptoms and the severity of your fear can make performance impossible. Yet can we truly perform an ecstatic awe-inspiring beautiful performance without it?
I suppose like anything it’s about balance. Too much of it and you’re in trouble; there are so many musicians around the world who give up their performing careers due to the fear. One amazing example of this is Sara Solovitch who gave up playing age 19 and found decades later that “while my (her) fingers could no longer fly across the keys, my fear was right where I’d left it”. Her article in the Guardian newspaper discussed her experience of learning not to try and remove the fear, but to learn to cope with it, to use it to make her performances, utilising her fear in a different way, learning to ride it.
However not all are able to learn to work with it for all kinds of different reasons, I famously remember the day a tutor who will not be named advised us “not to rule out medication” as a way to get through a particularly stressful performance. Some people were extremely shocked by this, but you only have to google musicians and mental illness or musicians and addiction for piles of articles and scholarly papers to come up on the subject. Though the exact figures are not known there are a number of musicians who use beta blockers to cope with the stress and anxiety of performance. Some who do have found that though the physical symptoms of the anxiety have gone, the ability to care about your performance and connect with it emotionally have also diminished. If you are interested in any of the things I have touched upon in this paragraph please take a look at the channel 4 documentary Addict’s Symphony which is all about musicians with addictions, many of the musicians have issues stemming from anxiety and stage fright.
So… if having too much performance anxiety can ruin your ability to perform but not enough adrenaline causes a potentially “deadened” performance then are we effectively screwed? I don’t think so. While just trying to “relax” may not be an effective piece of advice there are ways of I suppose ways to relax into the adrenaline. As Sara Solovitch said in her article she finds that the best musicians ride their adrenaline.
For me the struggle has always been very concious. I go between enjoying the feeling of anticipation and that “in the moment” sensation, to finding it impossible to keep the intrusive thoughts out of my head, the ones of failure, not being good enough. Though logically I know this is ridiculous, I always worry about whether or not people are looking at my thighs… Enough about my thighs! – Another thing I have noticed about stage fright is that the more in control of my day to day life I feel, the more in control and able to enjoy my performance I become. I don’t know how much of this is conscious or not, but I hope this is insightful to anyone struggling with performance anxiety or feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It is possible to overcome performance anxiety and enjoy the elation of performance, however long it takes however you need to achieve it.