Stage Fright: Classical Music’s Dark Secret

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Stage fright is like madness; it comes without warning, out of a blue sky. That’s how it came to Scottish pianist Steven Osborne, one of the most intelligent and sensitive pianists around. About ten years ago, during a performance of Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto, he suddenly started worrying that he was about to forget the next note.
“The feeling got stronger and stronger,” he recalls now. “I didn’t actually forget anything but it felt like the water was rising and lapping just under my nose.” Osborne was so disturbed by this experience he sought help from a cognitive therapist. “I learned a few tricks, like imagining I was somewhere lovely and unthreatening before a performance, like a flowery meadow. It helped, but I never felt it was a long-term solution.”

Osborne is not alone in his suffering. Many musicians have similar terrors, and often they involve alarming physical symptoms such as a racing heart and trembling fingers. Classical performers are especially prone to it, because accuracy and virtuosity are at such a premium. Make a mistake in a jazz break, and few will notice; make one in a string quartet and everybody will.
There are various ways to tackle this debilitating condition. One of the most popular is also one of the easiest: you just take a surreptitious swig from a hip flask, as many orchestral musicians have done and still do, or you pop a pill. These dull the feelings of anxiety that can lead to mistakes. A 2012 survey among German orchestras found that almost a third of musicians used Valium or beta-blockers, which are far more effective than alcohol, and with fewer sideeffects.
The problem is that, by dulling nerves, pills or alcohol also dull the edge of tension and inspiration that makes for a great performance. They also treat the symptoms not the cause, says Aaron Williamon, head of the Centre for Performance Research at the Royal College of Music. “Basically there are two components to stage fright,” he says. “There’s the automatic physiological response to being in a stressful situation, things like dry mouth, racing heart and so on.”

Then there are the psychological aspects, which include unhelpful thoughts, like imagining the performance is going to be a disaster.

“The first one you can treat with things like exercise, which lower the amount of tension-inducing hormones in the body, such as cortisol,” says Williamon. “For the second one, cognitive therapies are very effective. It’s a matter of getting the musician to think about the situation in a more rational way. For example, instead of thinking that the audience is the enemy, and the performance will either be perfect or a disaster, you retrain the performer to accept that there will inevitably be a few mistakes, and the audience is on their side.”
Steven Osborne treated his stage fright the same way he treats a piece of music – as an interesting challenge to which he had to find his own solution. He’s never used drugs and is sceptical about the benefits of cognitive therapy.
“That’s the method of sports psychology: ‘Get rid of your anxiety and you’ll achieve peak performance,’” he says. “But I’m not sure that’s right for music. It overlooks the fact that music is an embodied experience; you’re making emotional experiences come alive for other people, through your body. If you screen off that side of yourself, it means there’s a whole range of emotions which become unavailable to you.”
Instead, Osborne holds a view which seems almost perverse: he treats stage fright as a “friend” that should be embraced.
“You shouldn’t battle against it,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of richness you can gain from [the condition].”
Is he advocating the old romantic notion of “suffering for one’s art”?
“No, not at all. In fact the times when I play best are the times when I feel least anxious.”
So, stage fright is good – sort of – as long as it produces no anxiety. We’re getting deep into the realms of paradox. But Osborne eventually reveals the thread which will guide us out of this labyrinth. A few years ago, he read a newspaper article about mindfulness, which aims to focus our attention on the moment, rather than constantly fretting about the past or planning for the future.
“It really seemed to click with me, so I did a couple of eight-week courses. What I liked about mindfulness is the way it never forces things. If you catch your mind wandering, you just go with it, and observe the wandering. We’re never happy with the way things unfold by themselves, we always want to force them this way or that. I find this very much in practising the piano. It’s amazing how much aggression you can unleash against yourself, when things aren’t going the way you want them to. This is very counterproductive.”
Source: The Telegraph

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