My hands feel like water-logged sponges. My fingers are numb and almost immobile. My legs are leaden, my mouth is as dry as is humanly possible and I feel like I have just been punched in the stomach by Jordon the fat terror of my junior school playground – in short the exact opposite of everything you want before you sit down and play a solo piano recital beginning with everyone’s favourite something (if you’re really unlucky; a Bach fugue). On top of that I have been stuffing my face with bananas for the past three hours because someone, somewhere, sometime, mentioned in passing, that they improve your concentration. These are the last twenty minutes before any concert I have ever given. They are also just the external, physical manifestations of a far greater psychological problem: Stage fright.
One week ago I had what can only be described as a relapse. During the first round of a competition the clammy claws of EZ EF got a hold of me.(Stage Fright - but I abbreviate it to this, because I think it sounds more like a banned, industrial, east german, washing detergent, which seems a fitting analogy - I also go hard on the Z when I say it) I can already hear the chorus of "just get on with it - everyone gets nervous" or my favourite "stop being so dramatic." And yes...everyone does get nervous and yes - dealing with it is nothing new. But stage fright is something slightly different from the old 'last minute' nerves - it encompasses a whole different set of psycological neuroses and terrors. It is hard to explain exactly how, but those who have it will know.
It begins long before you ever reach the stage - in my case around two weeks prior to the performance. Sleep becomes something almost unobtainable, fleeting at best, punctuated by recurring visions of self destructing on stage - bright lights and bangy cadences, stumbles, slips, nausea and an eventual break down mid phrase. During the day, I am suddenly gripped by panic - it can be anywhere - during practice, during eating, during walking, showering - it doesn't matter. It usually results in sprinting to a piano and doing the worst and most inefficent twenty minutes of practice known to the musical world (although I do have a couple of pupils who would give me a run for my money.) Sadly this does not really subside and this is one main difference between being nervous and stage fright. Stage fright persists up until, for the duration of and often continues a few days after the concert, because the truth is that the thing you are afraid of is not really connected to the stage. There is no aleviation of nerves after you settle into the the concert, no aclimatisation - there is just an on going fight with your body and your psycology. Interestingly, the thing which is most misunderstood about stage fright is the idea that there is a loss of control. Often the problem is the exact opposite. Out of panic, you try to control everything - you lose perspective and create your own physical inhibitions. You see a piece as a series of notes that have the potential to go wrong and rather than working with your body, you work over-time against it. The final nail in the coffin is that your body goes into the so-called "fight or flight" mode and is pumped with adrenaline. As such your senses become horribly destorted. You literally do not hear what you play, your sense of Tempo is at sea as you heart beats a million miles an hour and your sound palette can be reduced to the crudest of loud or quiet.
I have suffered from stage fright since I was 15, though it reached its crisis about two years ago during the preliminary round of a piano competition - and only then did I begin to seriously start to confront it and accept it for what it was. - - At this point I would like to interject on my own behalf. I am not completely down and out. I have won some competitions, am lucky enough to receive good concert opportunities, and most importantly have the great privelage to believe that I have touched some people with my playing. Among other things, I directed my own festival and have had my own compositions performed. I say this not to boast - especially as it is simply nothing to boast about - but to offer encouragement to any students or young professionals who feel there is no place for them to go, who feel this cut-throat music world has nothing to offer them - and perhaps even more sadly, who feel they have nothing to offer in return - -
Suffering from stage fright means excepting a few things. The hardest of which is that you will have to work in some cases twice as much as other musicians and often with very different methods in order to bring a certain degree of security to your playing, which then enables you to perform consistently at a high level.
What it does not mean is that you have nothing of value to express or that your dreams of performing Brahms 1. piano concerto in a big hall with everyone clapping, while someone, somewhere has descreetly pinned down Jordan and is force feeding him bananas (sorry - maybe too much...but he really did a number on me when I was in Junior school) - that those dreams lie in tatters at your feet. Dreams seem to be poisonous today - it is all about being realistic. I don't see them as being mutually exclusive. You need to keep the dream - because when we are honest, no one is striving for excellence in order to play a staggering concert for their parents and close friends, an audience which has already sworn allegiance to you (as noble as that is) - so yes keep it - but realise, that you may have to find a very different, personal way, to capture that dream.
As to how one (or specifically myself) deals with (and on occasion fails to) EZ EF...that comes next week.