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Stage Fright Part 1: are we too ashamed to talk about it?

Imagine this scenario: one of the world’s finest symphony orchestras is preparing to go on stage, at, let’s say London’s Barbican Centre. Musicians are tuning up, putting resin on their bows and warming up their instruments. It seems totally normal and you would almost think that everyone was so professional and so used to giving concerts that they didn’t suffer from stage fright at all. But the reality can be very different.

Chris is going over his flute solo silently in his mind, his heart beating wildly and his breathing short and sharp. Despite his professionalism and years of experience, he is terrified and hardly slept the night before. Naomi, one of the second violins, doesn’t feel quite so pressurized because she is surrounded by other players and never plays solos, but try as she might, she always ends up chatting incessantly and nervously about anything at all, just before she goes on stage. It is her way of releasing excess nervous energy. And Suzy, the cello soloist, has just stopped herself from throwing up and is now pacing up and down her dressing room, breathing deeply.

These are a few imaginary examples of what can happen when professional musicians are about to go on stage. Nobody talks about stage fright, certainly not in professional performing circles. Musicians backstage at the Barbican wouldn’t have shared their anxieties to each other, for fear of losing their credibility and more significantly, their employability. Stage fright is considered taboo. It’s not only considered taboo, but also shameful. I have known many a highly successful, seasoned professional, who has confided in me, their deep, deep shame at having nerves that cause them such distress. They will lie to pretend they don’t have them, suffering in silence so that no one knows their big secret, their ‘weakness.’ And it is often the case that the greater their success, the bigger and more shameful their secret becomes.

Cartoon of scared looking french horn player

I have given many talks about how to deal with stage fright to teenagers at schools, who are about to give recitals that will be assessed and marked as part of their final year exams. When I ask how many of them feel nervous when they are about to perform, hands go up slowly and tentatively until every hand has gone up, including my own. They look around, amazed. They have no idea that anybody else goes through the same experience as them and the relief in the room is palpable. How wonderful if we could learn from early on that having a form of stage fright isn’t taboo or shameful, and that feeling that way simply exacerbates the problem.

Stage fright happens as a result of an overdose of the body’s production of adrenalin from a perceived threat. The body interprets walking on to a stage to give a presentation as the equivalent of coming across a sabre-toothed tiger in the jungle. A small dose of adrenalin can be an advantage when you’re performing. It heightens everything, keeps you alert, ready to perform at your best. But too much can have a crippling effect. The perceived threat can come from so many different directions: too much pressure, fear of looking a fool, thinking everyone will criticize you, not feeling good enough, not preparing adequately. It may be only a ‘perceived’ threat, but it is very real and can cause enormous distress. Stage fright is more common than we would like to think. An enormous number of people are suffering from it, silently, not daring to own up to it. Understanding and recognizing this can be the first step towards letting go of its hold on your life. So, what’s the next step? Maybe finding a way of sharing it with an empathetic, compassionate person, someone who respects and acknowledges your feelings – someone who just gets it! This can take the valve off the pressure cooker and begin the journey towards healthy, enjoyable performing…and free of stage fright! So, there we have it: an introduction to stage fright as something that looms large in a number of professional musician’s lives. Since writing that in 2013, despite having taken my talks and masterclasses all round the world to the various different musical institutions, I have only touched on professional scene with some forwarding thinking orchestras along with individuals who have come to me for private sessions. The taboo issue is still very prominent in the professional arena and I still have a strong feeling that those guarded structures cannot be easily penetrated. Nevertheless, there is change happening and this change is starting with the musicians who are studying now, supported by the professionals who are teaching them. The institutions (conservatoires and music departments of universities mostly) that have for so long been places where performance anxiety really got a strong hold in young, sensitive musicians, are now the places that are starting to address the issue. But I have to add here that they are only at the beginning of the journey: there is a long way to go yet and a lot of attitudes to shift, but doors are opening and overall, it looks promising!


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