Stagefright: Palms sweating, heart racing, stomach in knots. Most people have experienced this feeling one time or another presenting school projects, getting interviewed, or performing in recitals. In an article in The New Yorker called “I Can’t Go On! What’s Behind Stagefright?,” Joan Acocella names several famous performers who have experienced stagefright such as Stephen Fry, Laurence Olivier, Barbra Streisand, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Daniel Day Lewis. The cause of this nervousness is unknown, but Acocella attempts to uncover what can be done about it.
People who are shy and/or introverted are most likely predisposed to stagefright. It’s taxing enough to have a simple conversation with regular people everyday, let alone get up in front of people and perform. Acocella also writes that perhaps culture and audience expectations create a sense that the performer must be perfect, and of course, entertaining, making the performer worry about making a mistake. Additionally, some performers, particularly solo concert instrumentalists, spend hours on end rehearsing alone , which sometimes leads to difficulty or stress interacting with others.
So what’s the cure? Several performers take Beta-blockers, which are harmless pills that inhibit those stagefright jitters. Practicing calming activities such as yoga or meditation may also help to deflect performance nerves. Perhaps we could alternatively learn to perform through it, knowing that we have it, and creating techniques to be successful despite it.
As a pianist and an introvert, I cannot remember a time I was calm speaking in front of people or performing in recitals. My heart beats fast, my hands and feet tremble, and my stomach gets butterflies. However, after a performance goes well, I am flooded with immense joy and the desire to do it again, which usually drives me to continue despite the stagefright. When I was in high school, I performed a Brahms Intermezzo for a master class. I had performed this piece in a competition and won, but right before I played for this class, I kept running through the music in my head, and my mind was blank. I was getting nothing but commentary out of this class, and I knew I could be successful playing this piece, and yet my brain made up thoughts that convinced me otherwise. When I sat down to play, I couldn’t get passed the first two measures. I couldn’t remember any of it, and I was mortified. Thankfully, the master teacher and other teachers in observance recounted all the times that that had happened to them, which made me feel slightly better.
Once all the worries of stagefright come true, it is hard to not become prisoner to them forever afterwards. As I studied piano through college, I had to learn a completely new way to memorize music in order to overcome those thoughts, but it worked. I have to have check points in my music, so if I make a mistake, I can keep going as if nothing happened. A lot of people memorize tactilely, but once the nerves kick in, that is the first thing to go, so we have to also memorize visually as well as theoretically (chords, progressions, etc.). These techniques did not cure my stagefright, but they did help me to once again be successful in my performances.
Once I began teaching, the director of the music school at which I taught encouraged teachers to get students’ recital pieces ready a couple months in advance so students would have played their songs so many times before the performance that it would be no big deal playing it one more time on the recital. I have taken this approach as well as all the techniques that I had to use to help my students with their stagefright.
Everyone has to perform at some point in their life, whether it’s speaking, acting, or playing an instrument. Many will experience stagefright. As a piano teacher, my goal for my students is for them to experience performance and build the skills to cope with and push through the nervousness to be successful, which hopefully will carry through into other aspects of their lives.
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Owner and instructor at Keys Piano Studio in Athens, Georgia.
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