Is there a musician alive who hasn’t experienced the sabotaging interior conflict of stage fright?
There might be a lucky few. I’m not one of them.
In my career as a cellist and a professor of cello, I’ve noticed something happening again and again. A performance–my own or someone else’s–is going reasonably well, and then an unexpected mistake changes everything. It might be a wrong note, a badly missed shift, a momentary memory lapse.
In the split second after the mistake, things can go two ways. There’s a possibility that you recover, and the rest of the concert goes without incident. But the greater possibility, especially with inexperienced players, is that you withdraw into yourself. Your stance hunches or stiffens as you berate yourself over and over for your mistake. The concert goes on in the present, but you’re stuck in the past, obsessing about what went wrong. You spy someone you really respect in the audience. “Oh no! What will she think?” Your confidence plummets. Your tension builds. You miss more and more things. Your carefully-planned expressiveness disappears in the distracting mess of wrong notes. You lose.
This phenomenon appears in different guises and levels of seriousness. Sometimes you get a slight jolt of the fight-or-flight response, but you can get through the performance without catastrophe. Other times it hits you so hard that you think you might be going to die.
(I once knew a successful violinist who kept going to the doctor because he was convinced he was having heart attacks, even though tests showed that he wasn’t. Eventually his doctor said in exasperation “Look, your heart’s in perfect condition. What you’re having isn’t a heart attack, it’s an anxiety attack. The only thing I can do for you is refer you to a psychiatrist.”)
Here’s what I think is going on. Performance is one of the most vulnerable experiences known to humankind. And performance anxiety, its shadow side, is a universal experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or at the very top of your profession: you are up in front of others, exposing the most vulnerable part of yourself for the scrutiny of seemingly judgmental observers.
The only other experience I can think of that is so universal, and so vulnerable, is the act of declaring that you’re in love.
Human beings crave romantic relationships. Sometimes it goes very badly, but that doesn’t stop us looking for love. You can tell someone you’re in love with them, and it can go two ways. The one we all hope for is that the other person is delighted, and informs you that they love you too. The other, the one we dread, is that they reject you, even ridicule you.
In other words, you could come out of this exhilarated, or humiliated.
Now, it’s no accident that there are entire industries devoted to teaching people how to fix their problems. I haven’t counted, but I’m pretty sure there are as many on conquering your anxiety as there are on solving your romantic woes.
Confession: I have an entire bookshelf full of self-help books on performance anxiety.
You know what? None of them really worked for me or my students.
Because all the authors were fixated on calming people down. Breathing, yoga, affirmations–I’ve tried them all. They do have a certain calming effect on me, but I cannot truthfully say that my best self is a calm person. Because calm is the very last thing I want to be when I am performing.
Here’s the real problem. Stage fright isn’t caused by a lack of calm. It happens when we withdraw into ourselves. We aren’t thinking about other people. If we consider the audience at all, it’s “Oh no! What will they think? There’s someone who knows my piece really well. He’ll think it’s awful!”
Me, me, me. Not “Beethoven, Beethoven, Beethoven.”
Thinking excessively of yourself–narcissism–is the enemy of success.
What “they” think is a moot point. Chances are the majority of the audience are thinking perfectly benign thoughts, and have instantly forgiven you for your mistake–if they even knew you made it. But ultimately, we cannot know what goes on in the hearts and minds of others. Moreover, we have no control over what the audience thinks.
That we can’t control other people’s thoughts and actions is one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn as a colleague, teacher, mother, wife, and friend. The only thing we can control is our own reaction. This includes, of course, our “withdrawal response” after something’s gone wrong in performance.
The lifelong challenge of this is to learn to look the audience in the face and have the courage to share our passionate love of music with them.
Human passion is a given. I don’t need to ask my students if they’re passionate about music because I already know the answer. You don’t go into this profession if you’re ambivalent about music–goodness knows you aren’t doing it for the giant salary or the easy lifestyle. My students are here because they had an experience in childhood or adolescence that was so transformative, so life-changing, that they knew they had to give their lives to music.
Mine came when I was about seventeen and heard my teacher, Alexander Ivashkin, performing Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. I left the hall shaken to my core, knowing that my life would never, ever be the same. My teacher was a great speaker of the truth, and used his cello to take his listeners on a cathartic journey of mourning and declamation and redemption and joy. It was at that moment that I realized that it was music or nothing.
I wanted to take that feeling and bottle it so that I could keep it forever.
And that’s what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it, in our endless search for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s elusive concept of flow. We seek to capture that magic, that elevated feeling we had when we “knew.”
It’s really hard to capture those. They are so easily forgotten and lost amid the daily grind of all the difficult, time-consuming things we have to do to get good at music.
I used to like to joke to students complaining of performance anxiety that they should be glad that they aren’t doctors. “In our profession, if we screw up, no one dies.” I thought that by making light of the situation, I could give them some comfort.
It didn’t work. Because it wasn’t truthful.
Can we please stop pretending that music isn’t a matter of life or death?
Along with love and conflict, music is another universal part of what it means to be human. As performers, we have the power to transform lives. There are things going on in other people’s lives that we can know nothing about. Humans are naturally secretive: who knows what suffering, what pain, what brokenness they are experiencing at the moment they walk into the concert hall? We, the performers, have the chance–even if only for an evening–to heal them, to help them forget.
That’s some powerful medicine.
But if we are to make this connection with the audience, we must do the hardest thing in the world. We must deliberately drop our armour and make ourselves vulnerable.
What do I mean by armour? Let me explain my metaphor in cinematic cliché. Imagine a battle scene at the end of a film set in the Middle Ages. Both sides have lost many knights, and we’re down to the hero and his implacable foe. The hero isn’t doing too well. He’s lost his horse, he’s lost his sword, he has a bunch of stab wounds. The foe, by contrast, has a few scratches, but has managed to keep all his equipment. He’s winning.
Then the hero does something that on the face of it, seems completely illogical. He stops. He drops his last weapons. He takes off his helmet and throws it on the ground. He starts unbuckling his breastplate. He walks directly towards his foe, looks him in the eye, and starts… talking to him.
This can go two ways. The foe could, of course, take the opportunity to stab the hero in the heart with his sword. Or, transformed by the hero’s unexpected act of making himself vulnerable to death, he might actually…just talk back. There might be a conversation, a back-and-forth exchange of reason and commonalities. While it’s unlikely that they fully resolve their differences and hug, they might at least declare a truce.
The hero knows what a huge risk he’s taking. He’s opened himself up to getting stabbed. The worst could still happen, but he takes off his armour anyway.
When you’re the performer, you’re the hero of your own drama, and you’re every bit as vulnerable as our brave knight. You can choose: do I withdraw into myself, adopt a self-protective stance by hunching my shoulders and bowing my head in shame over my cello, or do I go into this with my head held high, my gaze unflinching, my heart bared, fully aware of the possibility that I may be stabbed to death?
Let’s stop talking about movies for a minute, and turn to some peer-reviewed research that’s had a revolutionary effect on how my students and I deal with our performance anxiety. Remember Amy Cuddy’s viral TED talk about body language?
In her follow-up book, Presence, Cuddy shows us that when you adopt a powerful stance, such as standing with your feet planted apart and your hands on your hips, actual chemical changes occur in your body that improve your performance. “Don’t ‘fake it till you make it,’” Cuddy advises us, “fake it till you become it.”
As I speed-read my way through this book, gulping it down as if it were the Da Vinci Code, I started trying out my power poses. I tried to be mindful of my stance so that I could catch myself slumping over with bad posture, hiding my feet under my chair, trying to make myself smaller by crossing my arms or hunching my shoulders. Whenever I noticed that I was doing these things, I redirected my stance, uncrossing my legs and arms, opening out, allowing myself to be tall.
(This is hard to do when you’ve been five feet, ten inches tall since the age of eleven. I’m really used to feeling like a proper girl ought not to take up so much space.)
Then I tried it out in performance. Before concerts, I stopped practising up until the last second, and instead just stood backstage with my hands on my hips, feeling the natural power of my stance surge through my body. My breathing seemed to deepen. My self-sabotaging tension–always the worst symptom of my anxiety–seemed, if not completely gone, at least lessened.
And I came to the realization that even if I armed myself with the protective body language of powerlessness, such as crossing my arms over my body, I might reduce my chances of getting stabbed in the heart, but at what cost? I would still be powerless. Whereas if I opened up my body language, I made myself more vulnerable to attack, but paradoxically felt far more powerful.
My stage fright and I laid down our swords, took off our armour, and made friends.
At around the same time, I read a peer-reviewed study on the subject of performance anxiety by Alison Wood Brooks of the Harvard Business School. In this game-changing experiment, Brooks asked groups of students to perform a number of tasks that most people find anxiety-provoking: to sing in front of an audience, to compose and deliver a speech, and to take a math test. One group of students were told to try to be calm. Another group had no specific instructions for how to feel. Another were told to reappraise their anxiety as excitement.
Woods evaluated her groups in a number of ways, from measuring their heart rates to rating their performances. The result in every case was that the “calm” group didn’t do much differently than the control group. The “excited” group, however, fared significantly better.
This information changes everything for us performers.
For my next recital, I added one more thing to my pre-concert power poses. I also affirmed to myself “I’m excited that I get to show the audience this amazing music.”
Every time I had a little slip in that concert, instead of my usual self-berating response, I redirected my focus to “I’m excited. Excited that these people showed up to hear me play music I love.”
Mistakes, after all, are in the past. We can do nothing about them now. There’s no do-over, no rewind button, no time machine. It happened, and the choice is yours: you can sit there in the past with your mistake, or you can reframe your feelings and stay in the present with the music.
I kept saying to myself: “I’m excited to be here, excited so many people showed up, excited to show them Brahms and Beethoven.”
And after a while, it was true.
The next morning, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I recognized this as what Brené Brown calls the “vulnerability hangover.” I wrote in my journal: “There was a moment in last night’s recital when, during the slow movement of Beethoven’s last cello sonata, the music seemed so exquisitely, heart-stoppingly beautiful that I had trouble not crying.”
And then I burst out laughing, because I realized that I’d found that seemingly effortless, high-as-a-kite feeling that everything’s going so smoothly, the music might as well be playing itself. There it was, that transformative feeling that inspired me give my life to music in the first place. And I found it by opening myself up to be my most vulnerable, by forgiving myself instantly for the imperfections of my performance, by thinking about music and other people instead of about myself.
What I didn’t find was a magic bullet that will help me replicate that every time, because there isn’t one. There’s still a possibility that the concert will go badly. There’s always a chance that when you tell a person you are in love with them, they won’t love you back.
But that doesn’t stop you telling them you love them anyway. There’s this motivational slogan you see on posters in high school gymnasiums, “Failure Is Not An Option.” But it is. Failure is always an option. Because if we didn’t open ourselves up to the possibility it could happen, we would also miss out on the possibility of love returned.
I’ve concluded that stage fright will never go away altogether, but that we can coexist with it. (“Good evening, anxiety! I had a feeling you might be my accompanist for the concert tonight. Nice tux. Hey, I sure am excited about playing Bach’s cello suites together for these great people who are already taking their seats in the hall. Let’s just stand here with our hands on our hips for a minute, shall we?”)
We musicians can show up and declare our love with no expectation that it will ever be returned. We are armed with nothing but passionate love and our desire to share it.
The audience, after all, will forgive you for just about anything–except for playing without love.