When stage anxiety creeps up from behind

Our diarist Anthea Kreston is aspirating between quartet tours:

 

The end of our whirlwind Asia tour, with concerts in Hong Kong and Japan. The repertoire we played was substantial – Beethoven Op 18/3, Mozart Dissonance, Mendelssohn Op 44/1, Janacek “Kreutzer”, Schumann 1, Schumann 3, Shostakovich 7 and a Bach Chorale for encore (if we didn’t choose from the repertoire above). 7 works, 11 days, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. The stress on mind and body is extreme.

I have landed back into my life in Berlin. My girls are wrapping up their school year (Kindergarten and 2nd grade), so are my chamber groups at the Universität der Künste Berlin, where we are weeks away from final concerts. In two days, my Quartet heads back to the studio for our next round of recording for our upcoming Shostakovich CD for Erato/Warner with Tonmeister Christoph Franke. By this time next week, our next tour – Poland, Germany and Switzerland – will have begun.

I am catching my breath, walking in the woods and around the lake behind our home and doing the things which ground me – cooking, gardening, and hanging out with family and friends. When I wake up at 4:30 AM with jetlag, I just get up and do stuff (the girls will wake up in a couple of minutes, and I have root vegetables in the broiler, a pot of soup on the stove, breakfast ready, and have weeded, attacked and trained the huge patch of blackberries in our back yard. My arms (knock on wood) seem mainly mended from my double tendinitis. The best advice I got was to find a path which involved playing and healing simultaneously. Yoga (lots of it), cold/heat, ibuprofen, and swimming. I’m not all the way back yet, but I am close.
When I am exhausted (jetlag), overwhelmed (high-pressure concerts, lots of repertoire), in a new situation (new country, foods, schedules and customs), I have to be on the look-out for surprise attacks of stage anxiety. In general, I am a pretty cool character, and can lay down consistent, passionate and fairly perfect performance. I have a lot of natural energy and resilience, which I think may be genetic, or might have to do with my personal optimism problem. I had to figure out how to do this – to balance passion, engagement, consistency, and communication with a blanket of calm and a reserve of emergency energy in case a situation presented itself during a performance (an immediate injury or sickness, a colleague in distress, a strange environmental factor like lights, temperature or an iPad snafu).

When I walk out on stage, I am blinded by the light, by the oppressive feeling of hundreds of eyes and the constricting feeling of audience expectations. I try to make eye contact with members of the audience, but if the hall is too distant or lights too dark, this makes me feel even more on the spot. I am instantly in “fight or flight” mode, even though I do this all of the time, anticipate it, and try to rationalize myself out of it. It is simply something that happens on an animal level, and which I must gain control over. My breath feels cold, I can’t properly focus my eyes, and my brain is going simultaneously very fast and staying still. I plant my feet, get into position, and begin. The first movement of any concert is a time for me to calmly check in on my basic body functions one at a time, and to get each one under control.

There are four main things I try to get under my belt before the second movement. These are; realize I am who I am, something is going to go wrong, I know how to do this, and people are here to enjoy themselves. As these things become integrated, I slowly begin to come out of myself and relax into the experience. If, for some reason, things begin to go wrong, I lock it down, retreat into the Keep of the Castle, and perform with a surgical precision until all systems are up and running. I completely chill out for a half a page, then one-by-one I check my main systems, and when all is safe, I return to the Castle.

Oh – and also – I try to eat something really crunchy like a carrot or pretzel before I go on stage. Something that will stick in my teeth for a while. That way, if I feel like I want to do something other than what I am doing at that moment, I can just work at trying to get some carrots out of my molars. Works every time. Give it a try.

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  • Will Duffay says:

    Crumbs! Who would be a performer. I’m always astonished that you aren’t completely overwhelmed by nerves. But thank you for putting yourself through it for our sake!

  • Bruce says:

    I wish (as a wind player) that I could use the “carrot in the teeth” trick. It’s brilliant.

    One thing I do sometimes is think about what the music needs, not about the fact that I’m the one who has to do it. “This note needs a diminuendo, then a slight pulse over the tie to indicate where the beat is, then the next note should be a little quieter, now the vibrato needs to speed up a little,” etc. Then it’s just a matter of attending to details until the scary part is over. (Kind of like your “castle keep” technique)

    If I think about myself having the responsibility for all this, it quickly turns into “OK, Bruce, you have to make a diminuendo on this high G# without cracking, and your chest is tight and you can’t breathe and your lips are dry and it’s hard to move your fingers with your shoulders so tense — do you think you can do all that without messing anything up?” …and down the rabbit hole we go.

    Take care of yourself! (I understand that this can include taking care of others) Not that you have extra time for anything, but is there an Alexander teacher within reach? The overlap between yoga and Alexander Technique (and physical therapy 🙂 ) is enormous.

  • Sue says:

    All the best, Anthea. “Do do that voodoo that you do so well” (Porter).

  • Terence says:

    It would be good for music students to read this and ask themselves if they really can be a professional musician.

    It’s one thing to play well in the practice room (usually the kitchen in my case) but another to consistently deliver in performance.

    Professionally I know I was better suited to the rhythm of writing for a living rather than performance.

  • Nick2 says:

    I suspect this form of stage anxiety – is it the same as stage fight, I wonder? – is more common than generally acknowledged. I had the pleasure of getting to know the English baritone Michael Rippon when he came to perform with the Boston Opera in the late 1970s. By then around 40 he had been a stalwart on concerts platforms, on the opera stages in Britain and on many recordings alongside major singers, orchestras and conductors.

    A few years later he packed it all in and moved to Asia to head up the vocal studies department of a new conservatoire. He remained in Asia for the rest of his life. Meeting him again soon after this move, I asked him why he had given up what had been a very good performing career. I just could not take the stage fright any more, he told me. I assumed this was something a performer would learn to cope with over time. Not so in Rippon’s case where he had to give up a flourishing career.

    • Bruce says:

      I read that Rudolf Serkin suffered terribly from it through his entire (very long & illustrious) career.

      I remember a show about Horowitz where his manager told the interviewer that he actually had to physically push him out onstage (gently but firmly) for his big comeback recital at Carnegie Hall.

  • Anthea kreston says:

    I usually have one moment in every concert where I scream inside my head: “Run Away! Remind myself later, never ever do this again, what am I doing, and why!”. Then it usually (haha) gets way better after that. My tomatoes at home are doing really well! That is a good thing to remember…..

  • Marg says:

    As a constant concert goer I encourage you to continue to make eye contact with one or two in the audience when you get on stage. One of the most dissatisfying concerts I attended was a distinguished pianist who came to my country to play a massive Bach program, all from memory. The opportunity to hear all these Bach works by a fine player filled the hall. He walked out, sat down, and started playing. Never once acknowledged his audience even in applause. Same thing after the intermission. As far as my friend and I were concerned, he was having a three hour practice session and we just happened to have paid money to be there. The concerts I love, irrespective of content and level of performance, are those where the performer is clearly really enjoying what they are doing, and smiles at the audience in the bows. And when I’m sitting near the front and the performer catches my eye upon entering the stage I’m always drawn in immediately and ready to experience the magic.

    • Anthea kreston says:

      Marg –
      I all totally with you on this! I always request to have the audience a little brighter than normal – and I often catch people’s eyes even during rests (or when I am getting pretzels out of my teeth). We are all in it together, which is an amazing feeling.
      Hope to meet you in person some day!
      Anthea

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