Perhaps because the topic is in my mind, it seems as though every time I turn on the TV or listen to the radio I hear another instance of a performer whose career was blighted by panic and performance nerves.The most recent reference was on Radio 3 (the thinking person’s Radio 4!), during a programme about the Swiss-Romanian pianist Clara Haskil.
The prevalence of the condition is truly mind-boggling. And the most interesting thing about it is that it isn’t just us amateurs who struggle and suffer. Some truly great professionals have fought their panic every performance night. Laurence Olivier survived by asking his fellow actors not to look him in the eye while onstage. Ian Holm, according to the website IMDb, developed severe stage fright in 1976 while performing in The Iceman Cometh, and has barely returned to the stage since.
The most intriguing reference to stage fright in the past couple of weeks was, again, on Radio 3, this time on the excellent programme Composer of the Week. Last week’s composer was Enrique Granados who, in addition to being a fine composer, also a renowned pianist in his day. Indeed, it was his performing career that paid the bills, and this was a source of difficulty for him. For Granados, like Clara Haskil, like Laurence Olivier, like Ian Holm, was a sufferer of near crippling stage fright.
The reason why I found Granados’ plight so intriguing, however, was because of a short quote that was included in the radio programme. Apparently Granados said:
If, in an audience of 1000 spectators, I know that 999 like me but one does not, I will play poorly, because for me that one person will be the only one out there, and I know that nothing I do will please him.
Take a minute to read that quote and think about it. Granados has just admitted that if the audience contains just one person who is not guaranteed to love his performance unconditionally, he will play poorly. Hmm. The problem with this is that no audience is 100% guaranteed to love you, unless it is entirely composed of your family and friends, in which case you are unlikely to hear anything constructive afterwards that will help you to improve.
Not only that, but it sounds uncomfortably like Granados makes a decision to play poorly, based on his fear-filled assessment of the audience. He doesn’t say “I am likely to play poorly.” He uses the far stronger statement “I will play poorly.” That one person doesn’t like me, so I won’t bother to play well because I know that nothing I can do will change their mind. Those of you with any knowledge of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will recognise this as a fully-fledged cognitive distortion – a type of twisted thinking. Granados is basing his whole performance on his opinion of an audience whose thoughts and feelings he cannot possibly know in any detail! From the sound of this, Granados’ life as a performer may well have been plagued by the tension created by his desire to play well fighting with his decision to play poorly.
Would you want to live in that particular universe? Does the logic of it sound reasonable to you? I suspect not! Yet, when it comes down to it, my hunch is that most performers, when questioned closely, would ‘fess up to a similar sort of twisted thinking around their performance practice. One of the most common, for example, is an actor looking out at the audience before the show, and expressing a strange combination of fear and hatred towards them as the actor wonders if the audience will be ‘good’ tonight.
Clearly this sort of twisted thinking is of no help to us whatsoever. But how do we get round it?
What we don’t do is to try to block out those twisted thoughts, or to just struggle on past them. This is just adding a whole new layer of tension on top of the stress created by the original twisty thinking.
Instead of this, FM Alexander suggests that we approach the problem indirectly by inhibiting our habitual manner of use in reacting to the old stimulus. We then give ourselves the opportunity of making a new decision.* In other words, when we’re approaching the performance date, or when we’re waiting in the wings ready to come onstage, we feel a strong stimulus to think about the audience. Our instinctive reaction is to be drawn away from ourselves and into a nightmarish fantasy where we leap to conclusions about what the audience will like or want. Alexander is asking us to notice the stimulus, but not to be drawn in. Instead of thinking about the things we can’t control (the audience and their reaction to us), we could think about things that WILL be useful to us. We need to make a decision to think about ourselves, about our role or our music, about the care with which we have prepared ourselves to perform.
And we need to stick to that decision. Alexander said:
We are by nature creatures of impulse … and will remain so, more or less, so long as we are content to struggle on … in the last analysis, success will depend upon the individual’s capacity to carry out a decision.**
So make a decision not to be ruled by the twisted thinking that leads us out of ourselves. Think instead of those things that are useful to you: your preparation, a sense of perspective about performance and audience, sticking with the process of just saying the words or playing the notes, and knowing what you want to achieve with your performance.
And enjoy it!
*Paraphrase of Universal Constant in Living, Iredeat Combined Edition, p.601.
** ibid., p.602.