Chances are, you know the feeling: the racing heartbeat; the clammy palms; the snakes in your stomach; the terror that ridicule and infamy may be close at hand.
Stage fright is not limited to a select few. Actors, athletes, broadcasters, teachers, politicians, royalty – all are susceptible. And that goes for anybody required to give a performance, be it a sermon, PowerPoint presentation or karaoke.
Fear of public humiliation is a universal emotion and one that manifests itself in a universal way. ‘That’s the flight-or-fight response,’ says Dr Philip Fine, senior lecturer in psychology at Buckingham University. ‘Even though there may be no bear coming at you, no cliff you’re about to fall off, there is a fear of what might happen, of looking stupid.’
But when it comes to music-making there’s a strange conflict at play. That’s because symptoms of the flight-or-fight response, including trembling fingers, muscle tension, shortness of breath and slippery palms, can interfere with the physical precision required to sing or to play an instrument. This may help to explain why stage fright remains such a taboo among musicians. ‘Stage fright is so common in performers,’ says pianist Steven Osborne who has given several talks on the subject. ‘But it’s seen as a weakness, as if it were a cancer that you could cut out.’
Easier said than done. And when anxiety is extreme, it can be extremely difficult to ‘cut out’.
‘I used to have big red blotches on my chest which was adrenaline caused by nerves,’ says soprano Dame Anne Evans, one of Bayreuth’s most famous Wagner interpreters. She recalls one particular occasion when, as a young singer with English National Opera, she sang her first Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata: ‘For the big first-act aria, which is a nightmare for any soprano, I was so nervous. My heart was beating so fast. The next thing, I was out of myself and watching my performance from the wings. It was extraordinary. Then at the end of the aria I was back inside myself and it had gone quite well. I think maybe I might have had a heart attack if I had stayed in my body.’
But what exactly is it that professional performers fear?
Cellist Steven Isserlis, who admits to feeling acute anxiety before he goes on stage, has a particular fear of memory lapses, ever since he had a big one in his early twenties. ‘I’m often quite relaxed when I have the music there. But forgetting is just horrible – the feeling that you’re out of control,’ he says. ‘There’s that famous football manager who said “it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that”. And that’s how you have to feel about music. I remember my bad performances forever.’
Steven Osborne, however, is a touch more sanguine. ‘Being a brain surgeon: that’s a job with pressure,’ he says; ‘you make a little mistake and somebody could die. But on stage, you play a wrong note and probably 90 per cent won’t notice.’
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Evidently, control is inextricably linked with stage fright. That’s partly why thorough preparation is so crucial. But there’s more to it than that. Research has identified various personality traits that are often associated with anxiety, including introversion, neuroticism and perfectionism. On the whole, musicians convinced that minor mistakes will ruin their performances are more prone to nerves than those who prioritise ‘the bigger picture’. The Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein seemed to understand this when he said, ‘Never mind if I miss one or two notes. The big line is the thing… I think I am the champion of playing wrong notes, but I don’t care. And the public doesn’t seem to care much.’
Which is just as well. Because, for many performers, what the public does think is a huge source of anxiety. ‘I always used to hate it when I got told there was such-and-such a promoter in the audience,’ admits Osborne.
The presence of critics and musical experts can be equally disturbing: an aspiring cellist probably wouldn’t feel reassured knowing that Steven Isserlis happened to be among the listeners. Isserlis, for his part, confesses to feeling very nervous when performing in front of his students. ‘After tearing them to shreds you don’t want them to tear you to shreds,’ he says. And when the audience does make its displeasure known, that makes things so much worse. ‘It’s a bit like a blood sport,’ says Evans. ‘If the public doesn’t like a singer, they will boo. It hasn’t happened to me but I have seen it happen to people and they lose their confidence completely.’
In their book Psychology for Musicians, Andreas Lehmann, John Sloboda and Robert Wood divide anxiety-related factors into three categories: the musician’s personal characteristics, the circumstances of the performance and ‘the musical task’ in hand (the difficulty of repertoire, for example). But bring out the microscope and the list of triggers looks potentially endless, ranging from the size of the concert venue and the significance of the occasion to what the musician ate for lunch.
Unsurprisingly, the impact of anxiety on performance is also complex. At times, it can be beneficial.
‘Although I hate the nerves I feel, I also know they stop me from getting blasé,’ says Isserlis; ‘nerves give my playing an added intensity’. But it can also be a hindrance, as Osborne points out: ‘When I don’t have any nerves I feel like I connect much more directly with the audience. Think of those long conversations with friends when you’re relaxed and can really get in touch with what you’re feeling. To me, performing should be like that. Nerves can add a certain excitement, but I think you lose much more than you gain.’
According to a psychological principle named the Yerkes-Dodson Law, there is an optimal arousal level, at which performances gain a certain ‘spark’. Without it, the result can be dull, but when nervous energy is too intense, slip-ups start to creep in.
In the worst-case scenario, this can end in a vicious circle, with mistake piling on mistake once the performer is convinced that things are not going well. Isserlis compares performing to being on a tightrope: ‘You could easily step off and plunge into the darkness.’
Some find the risks so terrifying that one wonders why they put themselves through it at all. The violinist Thomas Gould, leader of the Britten Sinfonia and the Aurora Orchestra, has a theory: ‘Performing is an almost drug-like experience. I think that’s why some soloists and other musicians lead quite high-octane lives outside their music-making: they want to recreate that high. They might have gambling addictions, or alcohol or drug addictions. And the biggest one is women addictions.’
The twist here is that Gould himself suffers not from stage fright but from ‘stage addiction’. He puts it down to confidence. ‘I actually get more nervous playing football because I’m not particularly good at it and I always end up playing with people who are much better. But playing the violin is the thing that I’m good at.’
That’s the sort of reasoning that might also suggest that nerves fade with increased experience. Certainly, that appears the case with violinist Julia Fischer. ‘I don’t get nervous,’ she says. ‘I guess you can compare performance to journalism – the first time you see your article in print it’s exciting, but when you’re churning articles out every second day you stop even looking for them in the paper.’ Not everybody shares Fischer’s philosophy, however. ‘When you’re young you don’t have quite as many nerves as when you get well into your career,’ says Anne Evans, who is now in her 70s; ‘when you’re just beginning, people don’t expect so much of you as when you’re really into the big time.’
Whatever its causes, stage fright is, in short, potentially fatal to the careers of even the most able and experiences of performers. The good news, however, is that in many cases, it can at least be managed – Alexander technique, systematic relaxation and drugs including Beta-blockers target physical symptoms while psychoanalysis, meditation, hypnotherapy and cognitive behaviour methods tackle the anxiety itself. Plenty of musicians have coping mechanisms of their own: Osborne will take a bath before performances; Isserlis drinks strong coffee and listens to The Beatles.
Sometimes a well-worded pep talk can do the trick, as Evans found while singing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth: it was her first Die Walküre and just before Act II, when Brünnhilde makes her entry, conductor Daniel Barenboim came into the dressing room. ‘He took one glance at me – I was obviously looking white – and he said, “You know, Anne, the first act has gone really well, so don’t f**k it up.” It pricked the bubble and made me laugh,’ she recalls.
But when nerves do set in, despite best efforts, the best policy can be acceptance. ‘If you think “How can I cure my nerves to ensure that I’m going to give a great concert?” that’s the wrong starting point,’ says Osborne. ‘But if you allow yourself to realise that you’re human, that the performance might not go well, but what you want to do is to connect
to the audience, then that’s the ideal.’
This article first appeared in the August 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine.