What Vladimir Horowitz, Barbara Streisand, Renée Fleming, Donny Osmond, Carly Simon, Lady Gaga, Laurence Olivier, Nicole Kidman, a zillion other performers, and I, got in common.
I got a job in a professional choir at one of the most prestigious churches in New York 12 years ago. I had been a general nurse before I embarked on a musical career and had just finished my bachelor at Mannes College of Music. Upon arriving on my first Sunday, I was intimidated by the highly qualified musicians. I was older than most of the (emerging) professional singers but didn’t have the same amount of musical experience, and therefore, I felt insecure. The Music Director asked if I could sing the alto aria O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings of Zion from Handel’s Messiah for the following Sunday. I had performed the aria several times in my short career and was hired on the spot when I sang it for my audition. As is common practice with oratorio, I could hold my score and didn’t need to perform by memory. All in all, it should have been a piece of cake.
I had a rough week. Instead of looking forward to this opportunity, I was moody, agitated and worried: what if I make a mistake, what if the congregation doesn’t like me, what if I screw up the runs, what if, what if…, and kept myself awake during the nights until Sunday morning came. I was stressed out and exhausted. My heart was pounding in my throat, and my knees were shaking when I came out, climbed the altar, and faced a packed church staring at me. I felt like somebody had thrown me in the lion’s den, and I would be devoured in the next few minutes. I thought of the famous Canadian pianist Glen Gould. He called his audience, ‘a force of evil.’ He was so terrified to perform that he never appeared ‘live’ again after the age of 32.
The church became blurry, and so did the music director and my music. I remember hearing the intro of the aria being played at the piano and a few measures into the music I was lost completely. I had no idea when to start singing. I went on automatic pilot . I sang, but I was disassociated. I didn’t know if I was singing the right notes and correct words in the right places, my throat was closed up entirely, and my tongue had turned into a rough stone. My body and brain were in a state of absolute terror, and the only thing I could think to do was run away, away from the terrifying fear I was experiencing.
It took American Singer/Actress/Director, Barbara Streisand, more than 25 years to cope with her stage fright after she forgot the words to several songs during her concert in Central Park in 1967. She said 30 years after her moment of performance anxiety: “I couldn’t come out of it… It was shocking to me to forget the words. I didn’t have any sense of humor about it… What if I would forget the words again?'” Well-known singer Donny Osmond went through a phase of anxiety to the degree of panic, and Carly Simon became unconscious on the stage in 1981 due to performance anxiety. The famous soprano Renée Fleming mentions in her biography, The Inner Voice, Notes from a Life on Stage, she had been so paralyzed by stage fright that her voice coach used to have to push her onstage. “We’re not talking about the jitters,” she says, “We’re talking about deep, deep panic, and that every fiber of your being is saying, ‘I cannot be on that stage.” Lady Gaga had to be dragged out of her dressing room before her performance at the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last May. The legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz, despite rapturous receptions at recitals, became increasingly unsure of his abilities as a pianist. Nicole Kidman had “absolute terror” during the lead up to rehearsals for her debut in 2002 in The Blue Room. “I was there the week before, starting to grapple with the accents and thinking, “What am I doing? This is crazy. This is madness. I got so frightened.” The greatest actor of all times, Laurence Olivier, suffered from stage fright later in his career and needed to be pushed onto the stage as well.
I wanted to kill myself, even though the congregation applauded. I stumbled off the altar wishing to vaporize. ‘Horrible,’ a ‘disgrace,’ ‘I should not have been up there, to begin with,’ were the thoughts occupying my head. It felt like everything I had learned so far had disappeared at that moment, together with my worth. As Renée Fleming wrote about her attack of nerves, “the experience left me temporarily miserable, physically, and emotionally debilitated, and made me ponder a new future out of the limelight.” I swore I would never appear on a stage again.”
I didn’t know, 12 years ago, that our nervous system doesn’t make a distinction between real fear and imagined fear, that fear takes place in our heads. ‘Anxiety results from our perception of an imbalance between what is demanded of us and our feelings regarding our own capability to achieve what is being demanded,’ according to Shirlee Emmons (Shirlee Emmons in Power Performance for Singers). Arousal on the stage (just enough anxiety to make you feel excited) is great, but too much takes away from our capability to perform at our best. Thomas Borkovec stated in an article for the American Psychological Association, about GAD (general anxiety disorder), there are different ways to reduce the perception of threat: relaxation training, breathing exercises, and visualization. In combination with the law of substitution, that your conscious mind can only think one thought at the time, you can take control and replace any negative thought with a positive one and empower yourself for your next performance.
For Donny Osmond, one solution to deal with his severe stage fright has been to lower his expectations. “I know when I walk out there, I’m not going to give the best performance,” he said in an interview
with CBS News. “I’ll make a mistake. I’ll trip. I’ll do something stupid. But it’s OK; you pick up and just move on.” Barbara Streisand came back to the stage more powerful and successful than ever before. Vladimir Horowitz, at the age of 82, emerged and moved innumerable listeners after he withdrew from public performances once again, and international opera star Renée Fleming shines on stages all over the world.
Self-assessment is a powerful tool in overcoming our fear. Do we consciously know what our attitude is towards ourselves, to our audience? Do we allow ourselves to make a mistake? And, what does performing mean to us?
The paradox of stage fright is that it can have nothing to do with our actual abilities as a performer: the sense of vulnerability comes from within. It is not just an external drive for perfection, but an inner self-imposed standard. It has more to do with our perception of being a great performer than with any actual reality.
People have two primary emotions: desire and fear. The frightening experience 12 years ago has led me to a new path, a path of search and research, study, and training about how to rediscover my initial desire and joy for singing and performing and how to find ways to resolve my performance anxiety. I discovered I was far from being ‘unusual’ to feel stifled while in the spotlight, as the above examples show. The backstage slogans: Break a leg, knock them dead and merde, all acknowledge the performer’s fear to lose control. According to a British medical study, “actors’ stress levels on opening night are equivalent to that of a car accident victim.” (The New Yorker; Petrified, Lahr J., August 2006). Google’ Performance Anxiety’ on the internet, and you’ll get over 7 million results, which tells you how many people feel debilitated by stress in some shape or form, often caused by perfectionism.
I have compiled a PEP-box with a variety of tools to let go to be genuine, to be relaxed, and to concentrate at the same time. The power is already within us. We stifle it because of fear. My toolbox has become my lifesaver. In it, I carry the combination to open the lock of my unlimited potential. I know my nervous system, visualize it as a seesaw, and balance it with deep breathing. The tools provide straightforward ways of reframing debilitating negative thoughts into positive, encouraging thoughts. In one of the side pockets, I carry my list with collected compliments and reviews from past performances and a list with phrases to nurture my dreams and love for singing.
Let’s all start to relax, breathe deeply, visualize, and create positive thoughts and see the humor in a human mistake. The world will be a better place for the listener and the performer. Just like Laurence Olivier, it probably won’t be stage fright that we’ll be remembered for, but the performances we gave when the real us appeared, free of fear, magnificent.