There are two principal “curses” that weigh on a musician’s life: practice and stagefright. But while we can’t do anything to avoid the curse of practice, there are many things that we can do to avoid the curse of stagefright. Deactivating the potential bomb of stagefright is probably the hidden goal not just of the entire psychology section of this website but rather of the entire website: being comfortable with our instrument, with ourselves, and with others (audience, public), are prerequisites for enjoying the experience of public playing and it is this enjoyment that is the ultimate solution for problems of stagefright.
Much has been said about music’s ability to calm the mind, soothe the soul, tame the savage beast in us etc. These references to the marvellous, magical, mystical, transformational, spiritual, and calming powers of music are perfectly valid …….. for the listener. For the player, however, the situation can be quite the opposite, especially where public performance is involved.
THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
As all musicians know, the stage can be a very lonely and terrifying place to be ……… but it can also be a wonderful place to be. Playing music for others can be an intense spiritual, emotional and physical experience comparable to any of the greatest of life’s moments. But this same experience – when it is not going well – can also be “hell on earth”. Musical performance, like love, can be a double-edged sword: a potent source of both the greatest pleasure and the greatest pain. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity applies very well to our sensations of time on stage: we can enter a nirvana zone of timeless joy …….. or each second can feel like hours of the worst imaginable torture.
STAGEFRIGHT AND SOCIAL PHOBIA
Often, stagefright has very little to do with playing our instrument nor with music in general but is rather a simple manifestation – albeit greatly exaggerated – of a feeling of discomfort in social situations. Playing music for others is a very specialised social interaction in which a natural shyness can rapidly metastasise into something much more crippling. Unlike in a normal interactive social situation, when playing, we become very much the centre of attention: we are being observed at every moment. This greatly amplifies any feelings of social insecurity that we may be feeling. For the average non-musician the most commonly stated fear is of public speaking. The fact that what we musicians do in public is so much more emotional and complex physically and intellectually than reading a speech also vastly increases our sense of intimate exposure: of being , as it were, “naked” on stage.
Vertigo (fear of heights) has an awful lot in common with stagefright. Try this simple mind experiment:
Find a line on the floor and walk along one side of it …….. now go as close to the line as possible without stepping over it …….. now balance on one leg with the other foot/leg swinging in the air on the other side of the line ……. now lean your body over the line. Easy, no …….. ?
Now, let’s imagine ourselves doing the same nonchalant exercise along a real cliff edge, a precipice. Physically, nothing has changed on our side of the line, but psychologically everything has changed. Not many people have the confidence to walk along a cliff edge without feeling vertigo/fear. If you are one of them, then musical performance is definitely for you! Most of us however become temporarily mentally ill, no longer in control of either our body or our mind. As we get closer to the edge we lose all power in our legs and all control over our balance. Our heart is pounding and we can’t think clearly. We may have to lie down in order to not fall over the edge. If we go any closer, our fear will actually make us fall ……. and it certainly won’t be a fall towards the safe side ! As long as there is no fear (in this case, of falling), we are able to do all sorts of virtuoso tricks along that line. But as soon as we realise that we can fall, and become aware of the consequences of that possible fall, then we are transformed from a playful, nonchalant virtuoso to a quivering terrified jelly.
This is stagefright. Just like vertigo, it is pure unadulterated fear, not of our activity as such, but of the consequences for our integrity of doing it “badly”. In fact, the similarity between the words “fall” and “fail” is curious and, perhaps, revealing. Whereas a physical fall can seriously damage our physical integrity, a bad musical performance experience (a “fail”) can seriously damage our psychological integrity. Although the psychological damage is less visually dramatic, that doesn’t mean that it is less serious. For a mountaineer who falls and breaks his leg, recovery from the psychological damage (to their self-confidence) may actually be more difficult than their physical recovery.
Fear sucks the blood out of our hands making them cold and clammy, but also sucks the strength out of our muscles. When hanging from a mountain edge or being eyed by a hungry predator, the “flight-or-fight response” (which gives energy, heat, sweat and movement in a threatening situation) would definitely be more useful than this cold paralysis. But being on stage doesn’t encourage this fight-or-flight response, at least not externally. Once we walk out onto the stage, the running away (flight) response to fear is no longer possible – we can’t even lie down and close our eyes (running away internally) – but can only continue following that narrow mountain path along the precipice, sometimes closer, sometimes further away from the danger according to the difficulty of what we have to play (but mainly according to how we feel about it).
Stagefright – in fact, any fear – is a self-defence mechanism to stop us from getting into situations in which we can get hurt. But, unfortunately, when this “healthy” fear gets out of control, then it can actually cause us to get hurt. Fear can make us fall off the mountain in the same way that it can make us fall off our internal cliff of self-doubt in a performance situation. And to make matters worse, fear can develop into a phobia in which “fear of the fear” creates self-reinforcing anticipatory anxiety that not only feeds on itself exponentially but also can become present permanently, even when we are a long way away from any cliffs or performance situations. Is it any wonder that so many musicians take a fancy to alcohol, or resort to beta-blockers, in order to neutralise/minimise/forget about this psychological black hole ?
Fear is a primal emotion that does not listen to reason. Stage fright, with its loss of physical, intellectual and emotional control, is a potent form of “insanity” that can affect (almost) anybody. Fortunately, it is (usually) only temporary, and arises only in response to certain specific situations.
Unfortunately, talking about stage fright is like talking about other forms of insanity, or in fact about any powerful, deeply feared and little understood subject such as sexuality, anxiety, eating disorders, emotional insecurity, nervousness, suicide, mental illness, death etc. The fear of “putting ideas into people’s heads”, “opening Pandora’s box” or simply saying the wrong thing (and thus making it worse) is so strong that we generally prefer to say nothing and pretend that these subjects don’t exist. All of these “bad” things are “taboo”. It is much safer to stay on the emotionally neutral ground of technique, Mb, cm3, €$ etc.
This avoidance of discussion of a problem always occurs when we don’t know what to say or how to approach the subject. It is so much easier to just bury our collective heads in the sand and escape into an artificial Disney fantasy world where problems don’t exist, often with the help of TV, religion, alcohol, drugs, sex, entertainment etc. This is both strange and sad because these problems, issues, and questions are not only universal, they are the defining elements of humanity, of what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Animals don’t have these existential issues of “why”.
Fear disrupts our spatial and bodily awareness, making even the most simple, natural, automated activities like breathing, balancing (standing), walking or talking, awkward and difficult. Under these conditions, the highly complicated task of playing the cello can become quite impossible.
It hurts to do badly, something that we not only love but also know how to do. Playing badly in front of other people (who you also love) hurts even more. To play well, thus having the satisfaction of seeing all our hard work, passion and enthusiasm rewarded, requires that we enjoy ourselves – that we find pleasure in the experience. To achieve this state, it is essential that we reduce, as much as possible, this fear. Wonderful music-making is basically incompatible with fear.
HOW TO REDUCE THE FEAR:
Let’s look first at the less healthy methods. These are the ones that we want to try to avoid using.
1. REMOVE ALL CLIFFS:
We can always move to Holland to escape the mountains, or, in its musical equivalent, we can avoid all performance situations in order to remove all performance anxiety. This is a radical option – and certainly not a happy one! And besides, our fear of heights is still there. Even though we may have escaped the mountains, there are still high buildings, lifts and windows, so in fact, our fear might follow us, causing other types of less intense human emotional interactions to also start to produce fear and anxiety. Mountains and cliffs are not just an inevitable part of nature and of life. In fact, even though they are hard work – and scary at times – they make life interesting, as anyone who has lived in a boring perfectly flat area will know. Fleeing the mountains is the “give-up” option.
2. I’M OK, YOU’RE NOT OK:
By despising or hating our audience we can defend ourselves from our sensitivity to their opinion about us, thus eliminating their ability to intimidate or hurt us. This is very sad as 99% of people who go to a concert are nice, kind, music-lovers who only want to share our enjoyment of the music. They want to be taken on a spiritual and emotional journey rather than participate enthusiastically in a public execution. Glenn Gould was an incredibly sensitive musician with a profoundly intimate, emotional approach to music. He had this to say about audiences: “I detest audiences – not in their individual components, but en masse. I think they’re a force of evil”. He was definitely not a superficial showman-extrovert, didn’t enjoy being on-stage and retired from public performing to dedicate himself to recording. Click here to watch his Beethoven Sonata Nº 3 with Leonard Rose on YouTube and you can see his soul, Beethoven’s also, and that of all humanity.
Narcissism, egoism, superficiality, selfishness and insensitivity to other humans, are common side-effects in musicians of using this type of protection from stagefright and hurt. Politicians and actors (and mass murderers) trying to desensitise and distance themselves from their emotional vulnerability also use this technique.
Now let’s look at some more positive techniques of fear reduction, that don’t have any negative side effects.
Our self-confidence is our psychological backbone, maintaining our emotional integrity (structure) in the same way as our spine maintains our physical structure. Whereas damaged confidence produces “psychological lumbago” (occasional or chronic moderate fear), broken confidence produces psychological paraplegia or, in severe cases, tetraplegia! (terror, phobia). Confidence, like a tree or a building, is strongest when it grows slowly, and it needs deep roots (foundations) in order to withstand the inevitable stresses and strains of a musician’s life. Please read the page dedicated to this subject (Confidence), because the time and effort we dedicate to building and protecting this most vital psychological element are undoubtedly as valuable – if not more so – than the time we spend practising.
For a climber, as for a musician, self-confidence makes the cliff irrelevant: it no longer matters if it is 1cm or 1000m high. We are aware that it is there and we treat it with respect, but rather than it making us afraid, the presence of the cliff just concentrates and focuses our mind. Building, and then protecting, healthy self-confidence, is perhaps the most important tool for overcoming stagefright and anxiety in general. The “confidence” to which we are referring here is basically a “social confidence”. The more we are uncomfortable, tense and anxious in social situations, then the more likely it is that we will be uncomfortable, tense and anxious when playing (or speaking or performing anything) in front of a group of people. Very often, stagefright is just another manifestation of a certain degree of “social phobia” which in fact has nothing to do with music or our instrument. The more we can reduce our “social phobia” the less likely we are to suffer stagefright.
2. MAKE THE CLIFF SMALLER:
For musicians (but not for mountaineers), the height of the precipice is purely subjective: we create it entirely in our own minds. The cliff height changes according to our state of mind: diminishing as our confidence increases, but growing as we give more and more importance to the performance. In a performance situation that we consider easy, pleasurable and unintimidating, the “precipice” is a harmless few centimetres and we can be playful virtuosos again! Sadly, when we love (or want) something deeply, we can be easily tempted to give it too much importance. This is almost always MORE harmful than giving it too little importance !! (See Trying Too Hard). There are various ways we can make the cliff smaller:
2.A. LIVE IN THE NOW. Living in the now can remove a lot of this excessive importance (anxiety). If we practice giving our total attention to what we are doing at any particular moment, but especially when we are playing or practising, this mental habit will serve us well in performance (and pre-performance) situations.
2.2 PLAY EASIER PIECES. If we only perform pieces that we can play comfortably and well at home (in the most unstressful circumstances), then we have a much greater chance of enjoying the performance experience. This is the first and most fundamental step to building performance confidence. If we are tense or uncomfortable with the instrument, the piece or the passage at home, then this will certainly not get any better when we are playing it in front of other people who are watching us intently. Playing extremely difficult pieces is something we should do in public only when they (the pieces) no longer feel extremely difficult! Otherwise, we are running the risk of a bad performing experience, and consequently damaging the roots of our tree of confidence.
2.3 PLAY IN NON-THREATENING PUBLIC SITUATIONS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. Hospitals, old-peoples homes, schools, weddings, restaurants, cafés, pubs, street music etc are all performance situations in which we can feel freer and more at ease than official “concerts”. It is in these non-threatening situations that we can build up (or repair) our performance confidence.
3. PLAY WITH, NOT FOR:
Playing with others is a very useful intermediate (preparatory) step on the path to being able to play comfortably for others. It is helpful if we can bring that feeling with us onto the stage, and while performing, focus our attention on our colleagues (and on the music) rather than on pleasing an audience. In fact, the idea of playing “for” anybody is quite possibly a little toxic. It might be more helpful instead to think that we are playing “for the universe”, and that the public has just come along for the ride. Taking this reasoning a little further it might even appear that we are playing comfortably “in spite of” the public !!
4: IMMUNOTHERAPY: PRETEND WE ARE PLAYING IN PUBLIC
With vaccines, our initial exposure to a “detoxified” pathogen is preventive in the sense that it prepares our body for a future potentially-dangerous exposition to the “live” pathogen. If we, in a worst-case scenario, consider an audience as a potential pathogen, then we can immunise ourselves against its harmful effects by simply pretending that we are in its presence, being watched and observed, even when we are in a totally relaxed environment. Instead of savouring our relaxed, unstressed state away from the stage while dreading our passage onto the stage, why not pretend that we are already out there? In this way, we can avoid the sudden shock of going from the quiet anonymity of “backstage” into the intense glare of the spotlights.
PHYSICAL APPROACHES TO REDUCING STAGEFRIGHT AND ITS SYMPTOMS
The above ideas are all “psychological”. We can also work on stagefright from a purely physical perspective. For example:
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE WARMUP
Having a long, gradual, peaceful warmup is also extremely useful, not just for the body but also for our mental tranquillity. Being absolutely warm and feeling absolutely comfortable with the instrument before walking out on stage significantly helps reduce anxiety. Turning up at the last minute in an effort not to worry about the performance (or to postpone that worry), on the other hand, is like an ostrich burying his head in the sand in order not to see the danger approaching. A good “warmup” also has great value as a “calmdown” !
MUSCULAR TENSION IN STAGEFRIGHT
Once we are on stage, we can’t run away, so the only option left to us of the “fight-or-flight” response to fear is the “fight” option. Unfortunately, fighting involves usually great muscular tension, and this wreaks havoc on the delicate muscular control needed to play any musical instrument, but even more especially bowed-string instruments. When we grip our bow as though it was a self-defence weapon on which our life depends, then the sound it will make will also resemble the noises of a brutal armed conflict.
The wonderful Johannes Möser has an interesting approach to this problem. He says “when our bow hand seizes up with tension, simply telling it to relax-and-be-natural is not going to work because if we allow the hand to do what it naturally wants to do, it will tense up (a natural reaction to fear) rather than loosen up. What we need to do instead, is to actively force the hand (wrist, knuckles, fingers) to move, against its will, deliberately breaking the vice-like grip into which it is frozen.
PRE-CONCERT SWIMMING, STRETCHING, YOGA ETC
Gentle, peaceful, slow exercise in a warm environment not only has the wonderful physical effect of loosening up our large muscle groups but also relaxes our tense mind. Going for a gentle (and warm) swim a few hours before a stressful performance is like a mind-body meditation and can be more effective than many purely psychological relaxation techniques. Simply floating in/on water has a deeply calming effect. The water cradles us both psychologically and physically as though we were in the womb, and its gentle resistance encourages our movements to be fluid, smooth, large, coordinated and slow.
IS STAGEFRIGHT A NEUROSIS ?
No. In fact, stagefright is an absolutely natural, normal phenomenon.
Communicating, sharing our deepest emotions, is something we normally only do in intimacy, with reciprocity, with people we know very well, and spontaneously when the feeling takes us. Musicians, however, have to do it at a pre-programmed time, in front of large groups of people who we don’t even know, and who just sit there staring at us! Let’s not try to pretend that this is a “natural, normal” situation !!
To say the same again but with different words (this subject deserves repetition): throughout millions of years of human evolution, our communication abilities have developed in intimate relations and within small groups of familiar people. Mass communication, and performances in front of large numbers of unfamiliar people, are relatively new and rare inventions on an evolutionary scale. During most of the history of humanity, if we were being carefully observed by a large group of strangers it probably meant that we were about to be converted into lunch for the neighbouring tribe, sentenced for a crime or sacrificed to the gods. So this fear of being the focus of exclusive collective attention is instinctual, programmed into our genes, and it’s therefore not surprising that even in “normal” people (non-musicians), the most frequently encountered terror is that of public speaking. A neolithic man watching a modern-day music performance would probably think that the musician was passionately pleading to have his life spared! Even young children are usually very shy at the thought of having to perform in front of many others, at least for the first time. (Then, if it goes well, they get a liking for it and you can’t keep them off the stage!).
All this shows that fear of performing is actually “normal”, whereas “enjoying performing” is a learned skill, an acquired taste. The following quote is by a now-very-successful singer who started her performing “career” slowly and was allowed to overcome her fear gradually: “In those early days, I wouldn’t turn around to face (sing to) the audience. I was too frightened. But nobody forced me and I slowly turned around, slowly opened my eyes, slowly began to say hello. And now they can’t shut me up!”
This quote illustrates two very important points:
1. Like all learned skills, it is best acquired gradually. Swimming can be a great pleasure but throwing somebody into deep water before they are ready risks traumatising them for life. An audience for a musician is like water for a swimmer: it is better that we start swimming in shallow safe water (a small audience of people who love us unconditionally!) before gradually advancing into deeper and rougher seas.
2. Although it can be terrifying, performing can actually become very enjoyable – even addictive. The audience for a musician is like the frog for the princess in the fairy tales. At the beginning (or in unfavourable circumstances), it is an ugly, repulsive, cold-blooded, slimy, unlovable and sometimes poisonous beast. However, when kissed, (in favourable circumstances) it can turn into a handsome prince!
Learning to kiss the frog (to be at ease on stage and to enjoy performing) is a seriously neglected area in most musicians’ training. Far too often we are not allowed to perform until we have dominated both the instrument and the musical language. This is a recipe for disaster, as, under the influence of “vertigo” (stagefright), these highly sophisticated skills can disappear as if in a magic trick. From the very beginning, students should be playing, singing, acting, talking, dancing, telling jokes, reciting etc frequently for anybody who will listen, so that performing no longer becomes a special, momentous, rare and potentially traumatic event.
Getting up in front of people and doing absolutely anything that stretches us to the limit (or beyond) of our capabilities is a great way to undermine our self-confidence. We might be able to get away with it on a good day, or when we are young, but in the long term this is unsustainable and a sure recipe for anxiety as well as emotional and nervous burnout. For this reason, in order to build our confidence, the material that we “perform” should be well within our technical limits so that we can enjoy our performance experience, dedicating our energies to the emotional communication that is (or should be) at the centre of the musician’s performance objectives.
At some stage in their life, almost all musicians, classical and popular, geniuses and mortals alike, are affected negatively by stagefright. A library could be filled with quotes about the effects of this “performer’s curse” on even the most wonderful musicians. Below I include some examples.
Leonard Rose: “I bordered on hysteria. I began to worry some three or four months in advance, shaken by the realization that this Cleveland debut as a soloist (Lalo concerto) was perhaps the most significant engagement in my career to that date. The nervous toll was excessive. I lost ten to fifteen pounds worrying.“
Leonard Rose’s daughter: “When my father had to play a contemporary piece like William Schuman’s Cello Concerto, we watched him agonize for a year. He wanted every note to be just right, and that piece is horrendously difficult, so he was driven to distraction.“
Pablo Casals: “Throughout my career, nervousness and stagefright have never left me before playing. Before each of the thousands of concerts I have played, I feel as bad as I did the very first time.”
Adele: “I’m scared of audiences. Before one show I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once I projectile vomited on someone. I just have to put up with it. But I don’t like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot.“
Barbara Streisand: Streisand developed serious stage fright after forgetting the words to a song during a performance in Central Park in 1967. After that incident, she disappeared from the stage for almost three decades.
Donny Osmond: “There was a period when I would rather have died than walk out on stage and sing“.
SOME OTHER IDEAS FOR REDUCING STAGE FRIGHT:
INSTRUMENTAL TECHNIQUE AND FAMILIARITY WITH THE REPERTOIRE
The easier our music feels when playing it in a stress-free situation, then the less anticipatory fear it should produce when we have to do it in public. In other words, the better our technical mastery of the instrument, and the better we know our music inside-out and upside-down, then the less stage fright we should have. If we are still afraid, then we can work on these issues without the instrument.
COMMUNICATION SKILLS WITHOUT THE INSTRUMENT
The most common fear for non-musicians is the fear of public speaking. This is interesting for us musicians because speaking requires no specific technical practice (preparation) or skills. For musicians with a tendency to stage fright, practising our communication skills without the instrument – just with the voice, eye contact and body language – is a very useful approach to overcoming performance anxiety. A conversation is a non-instrumental version of chamber music. A public reading or speech is a non-instrumental version of a solo performance. We can also experiment here with the difference between reading from a practised text, improvising, and reciting a text from memory. All of these have their exact musical parallels. Theatre (acting) is another possible element in this palette of activities to reduce stagefright by improving our non-instrumental communication skills.
HOW MUCH OF THIS IS ABOUT “ME”?
If we can reduce the importance of “me” in a performance by increasing the relative importance of both the impersonal, timeless, egoless content and of the contribution of the other participants (including the composer), then this can help us to have a more healthy perspective on a musical performance in which we are participating. In the long-term view of things, we are after all just a lucky participant, or a mere agent of retransmission, in a miraculous occurrence of the universe in which the work and inspiration of so many other people have cumulated.
“SHOWING OFF” OR “SHARING OF”
The word “performance” evokes a certain idea of “putting on a show“. It is hard to find the place of sincerity in the world of show business, so shy people may benefit from avoiding the word “performance”, and think of public playing more as an intimate, sincere “sharing of” rather than an extroverted “showing off”.
It is hard to know whether the discoverers of propranolol and the other related “beta-blockers” deserve a Nobel prize or a long prison sentence. Beta-blockers essentially block the effect of the adrenalin that our bodies pump out by the gallon when we are under stress. This is a most wonderful emergency technique to totally defuse a potentially out-of-control situation, allowing us to play our best instead of our worst, but is not a healthy long-term solution for chronic problems of stagefright because it does nothing to reduce the quantities of adrenalin that we are producing. Abuse of beta-blockers can quickly create a situation in which we no longer trust our own ability to deal with performance stress without their biochemical aid. In this sense, they are rather like cortisone, sleeping pills, anxiolytics etc: miracle short-term drugs that get us through a difficult moment, but at a price of deeply negative side-effects when overused.
If however, we use an occasional beta-blocker when our confidence is at a low and our stagefright is at a high, then this can actually restore our confidence in our playing, reminding us that we can actually play well (and feel good) in performance. Recapturing this feeling of relaxation and pleasure in our playing is very important when we are in a rapidly downwardly spiralling vicious circle of tension, fear and insecurity. Beta-blockers do it in 20 minutes, whereas all the more “natural” techniques mentioned above require an almost permanent adjustment of our behaviour and state of mind.