Embrace your stage fright, practice your performance
By Prof. Lihay Bendayan, Head of the Violin Class, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance
Performance anxiety may seem like an undesired partner in our lives as musicians performing live on stage. We might view stagefright as an inevitable part of the “job” or a constant factor to contend with during the long journey to becoming a professional concert musician. Consider the fact that we work very hard for only « one shot » in front of the public. Yet, the fact is, that music only lives through time – and there is no guarantee of success for the notes that follow.
These circumstances are only two of the many good reasons, which might explain why stagefright seems so omnipresent.
In the complex process of forming bright violinists, I always find it interesting to observe how a small range of physical symptoms common to most humans in stressful situations – cold and/or sweaty hands, a racing heart, a dry mouth – can diminish the quality of their musical performances in so many ways, from memory lapses to shaky hands (and shaky sound), intonation accidents, difficulties in shifting, difficulties controlling rhythms and tempi, problems with expressiveness, difficulties hearing or listening to the accompaniment and even difficulty safely holding the instrument. The range of consequences to the physical and psychological tensions is indeed very large and some students might experience combinations of several symptoms simultaneously and at various levels of severity.
How often have I observed that students are surprised when after a good week of solid practicing at home, they arrive for their lesson* and play…well, not as well as they had expected to play. A demanding teacher, a low self esteem, a stage or a jury can summon the nervousness that leads to players sometimes to play significantly below their ‘usual’ level. What are the differences between practicing and performing and how can we practice to prepare the performance if those are two different things?
The goal of this article is to help you better understand the mechanism of stress and to provide you with some practical advice which I believe can bring concrete results.
- Understanding the mechanism of stress**. Is fear necessarily a bad thing?
Fear triggers a release of adrenaline into the blood vessels in our body. In parallel, a more rapid heartbeat and deeper breathing elevate the amount of oxygen in our blood; this oxygen is transferred to our muscles and increases our capacity to run faster or, very quickly climb a tree if we are in danger. In fact, this fight-or-flight defense mechanism triggered by fear significantly increased our chances of survival in the unpredictable dangerous ancient world. Nowadays, the same mechanism is triggered naturally and involuntarily when we feel we are in danger or if we feel judged.
Our instinctive reactions are exactly the same when we encounter modern stressors: an exam, playing (or speaking) in front of an audience or, standing in front of an orchestra. Therefore, when you are standing on stage, symptoms of stress will most likely be on stage with you, too. Unfortunately, attempts to prepare psychologically for a concert, with the hope of completely dispensing with stress when we get there, will often lead to an unpleasant surprise. I believe it is a better strategy to internalize that stress will certainly be present and to prepare for it, rather than think you can close the door to it in advance. So now, when you and your symptoms of stress are on stage together, the most important thing to do is to embrace the stress – not fight it.
In fact, the more you concentrate on the symptoms, on trying to reduce or control them, the more they will increase. Remember, the symptoms are there because it is normal – not because they confirm that you are not ready enough, that you are going to have a memory lapse, that you don’t want to be on stage, or that you have been playing the instrument for twenty years just to please your mother! All of these are negative interpretations of objectively natural reactions. Our interpretations, not necessarily the symptoms themselves, become the triggers of further anxiety. Therefore, to the extent to which you ignore and demystify those physical aspects, and rather concentrate on the music (as a good example), the more quickly the unwanted feelings and your negative perception of them will disappear. With the addition of more and more experience on stage, the same physical symptoms which you first learn to ignore and later on to accept, can finally become an important source of positive energy which you shall transform to add value to your performances. Instead of having a negative impact, this energy can become a powerful tool which might even enable you to transcend yourself and constantly elevate your capacities.