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Do you have fun when you perform?

May 10, 2012 at 8:24 AM

I don't.

Actually, I sometimes get sick. Not "egad, not again" sickness, more like "my hands are clammy, I'm sweating, I feel nauseous and my hand's shaking, I need an aspirin and I might be getting stomach flu" kind of sickness. It's called stage fright. It is no longer on the level of "this sucks", it's on the level of "oh god this is terrifying". It's not fun at all. I have "fun" playing video games. I do not have "fun" performing on stage.

I thought, when I was little, that it'd get easier as time went by. It didn't. The more I sought to produce something better, the more I had something that I needed to tell, the stage fright got progressively worse. The more I had practised, the more I had banking on 40 minutes of a performance. The worse the fright got. I'd overtense myself, missing that balance point when you're just concentrated and nervous enough to let loose your inner hound and let the sound rage throughout the hall. And then come back depressed. Sometimes in tears.

As I grew up, I began going backstage. I've met quite a lot of major violinists at one point; Perlman, Batiashvili, Mutter, Bell, Fischer, Chung, Chang, Kremer... all those who had faced a symphony centre full of audience, their entire attention focused on them for a good 30 minutes. They always see my dog-eared, beaten-up, scribbled and bleeding graphite music, smile, and sign it (then they all proceed to praise my hands, but I digress). They notice my callused hands, the left hand finger curved, nails shorn to the quick. My right thumb is severely callused from the bow. They know that I am one of them, a fellow violinist, albeit a young one that might never reach their calibre. Their stances relax.

Every single time, I ask: "do you ever get stage fright?"

9 out of 10: "every time."

So why do I go on stage? The thirty seconds before walking out is inner, personal hell that I have to battle and overcome every time I give a performance. The performance time is a blur, each second slowed to an hour. Then the music ends, and I hear thunderous applause. I smile. I bow. And when the thunder stops, I retreat, sigh, and let go, turning into a deflated balloon. I've given everything, and there's nothing left.

I think there are few reasons that I can identify for musicians to go onto the stage, despite all the hell. As Linkin Park's vocalist said, "we have something that we need to tell". And then, there's that triumphant victory when you finish the last note, hear the last note die, and there's a thunderous applause. The feeling that for that brief moment, the entire audience and you were in the same world, the world you created. For thirty seconds of victory, I spend hours each day trying to decipher what the composer wanted to say through me, what I want to say through my violin. To perfect that technique so I don't have to worry about it on stage.

Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry said that going on stage is like doing a drug (and considering just how much drug he's done, I'm sure he knows all about it); that it's an addiction, that you suffer through so much for that short period of euphoria. If so, I'm so addicted I probably need to go to rehab. I see myself in the spotlight, applause filling my ears, and I pick up my instrument again, go back to the thirds that keep getting out of tune.

Is performing "fun" for you?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 10, 2012 at 10:57 AM
My experience is in some ways very similar, and in some ways just the opposite.

Performing solo wasn't fun for me at all, especially when I was younger. I got worked up into a state and felt sick. It affected how I played. My hands would get cold and stiff and my vibrato and intonation would suffer. I'd hear myself, it would sound bad, I'd get even more nervous. There'd be a downward spiral. My senior year of high school, I burst into tears at an All-State audition. In general I never got very far--certainly nowhere near where you've gotten. I just didn't want to be there. After another awful audition in college, which resulted in my not making the orchestra, I stopped playing violin for a long time. All I wanted to do was play in an orchestra, but I wasn't allowed to do that because I sucked so much as a soloist.

When I started playing again, I was 28 and had dealt with performance anxiety in a public speaking context. I didn't learn to love public speaking, but it had become a bit more fun and less of an ordeal over the course of getting my PhD. I found that those skills, developed in a public speaking class, in Toastmasters, and in informal sessions with colleagues, transferred to playing the violin. I stopped freaking out so much when I heard myself play. I read "The Inner Game of Music." I began to be able to recover from little mistakes and just move on. And, I found an orchestra that, while it required auditions, let everybody in. The auditions were just for the conductor to get to know your playing. I seemed to do better with those. I eventually ended up as concertmaster of that orchestra.

I stopped playing again for another long while after my kids were born, and when I came back this time, something changed and I finally think I can actually say yes, sometimes performing solo is fun. I still mostly perform with an orchestra (another non-audition group). But I started finding small, intimate venues, such as church and a Farmers' Market, where I could perform solo for a sympathetic, friendly audience. I still get a little stage fright but somehow it's more manageable.

Then I got a solo in orchestra--a pretty significant one, the Tchaikovsky "Mozartiana" suite. I think that was a turning point of sorts. When a pro friend of mine couldn't do it, I just decided to plunge in. The result wasn't perfect, but I managed to tame my stage fright. I discovered "wristies," fleece open-fingered gloves that I can wear while playing, which keep my hands warm even when I'm terrified, and helped short-circuit that awful cold-hands downward spiral. I've started to be able to work through and move on from inevitable mistakes, and to stop cringing so much when I hear myself.

So I don't know, for me it's been a very long road. It hasn't been a story of addiction, more one of de-sensitization therapy. But I've finally gotten to the point at age 46 where I'd say yes, performing is fun.

From Emily Allen
Posted on May 10, 2012 at 6:03 PM
I guess I am a bit different. I usually get super nervous before a performance (sometimes to the point where I think I forgot how to play violin). But, for some reason, when I get on stage it all goes away. And, for the most part, I feel very little nerves while actually performing. I think it's all about turning off fear ans realizing you are doing what you love to do. And remember to actually breath :)
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 10, 2012 at 6:44 PM
To me each violin performance is a memorable journey, which means anything can happen unexpectedly no matter how well I have prepared, but I'll still do it when the time is right.

Why do we choose to take journeys that are not entirely pleasant and at times downright horrible? I think this has a lot to do with challenges or unique experiences are something we need in order to live a fulfilling life.

Having something to tell in a piece of music is a good (or necessary) reason for performing, just like having a place/person to visit is a logical reason for a trip. But if performing/traveling does not contribute to our wellbeing by ways of its unique challenges and opportunities that afford us, we probably wouldn’t or shouldn’t be doing it.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on May 10, 2012 at 8:50 PM
"Is performing 'fun' for you?"

Yes. I don't make my living in music, and that may be one reason for the fun. For me, nothing quite takes the place of connecting in person with appreciative listeners.

And I know what it's like to experience nerves -- I'm sure nearly all of us know. I felt it in the first recital but was able to compensate for it by dividing some long bows and undoubtedly by breathing. After the first try, I was eager to go at it again. I still got keyed up beforehand, but that feeling would dissipate fast.

One plan that helped, and which I discovered early, was to burn off some adrenaline at the start of a recital by playing something gutsy and aggressive, saving the lyrical stuff for later in the session. Once I got into frequent playing -- and I sought out the opportunities -- I didn't need to lean on this device as much. But it helped a lot in the beginning. I recommend it to anyone.

If I could give a recital once a week, free of charge, I'd gladly do it -- if only I had the time. The next-best thing I can find is to play the evening sessions in the garage. Neighbors and passers-by keep saying that they like it; so all the hard work pays off. It's usually warm enough here for this -- except mid-November to late February.

Whatever the venue, I'm never satisfied -- always something more to reach for.

From Anne Akiko Meyers
Posted on May 11, 2012 at 4:54 AM
Awesome blog! Loved it...I remember Isaac Stern telling me that it was all about muscle memory for him. We all over-practice to have that muscle memory come into place, so we can emancipate ourselves and feel the music. Gambaroh!
From Ellie Phillips
Posted on May 11, 2012 at 5:43 AM
When I was little I never got stage fright and I loved performing. And in the past few years I've started performing more than I used to – I play Bach unaccompanied cello suites on viola at church and I play at my school's events. I'm gotten pretty good at improvising and sightreading, since I sometimes cantor at my church. And my youth orchestra plays in big concert halls, sometimes with audiences of more than a thousand. But lately, I've just gotten worse stage fright. Way worse. At my school talent show, I was really nervous to play a very easy arrangement of Brahms's Hungarian Dance 5 in front of only about twenty people (my school is pretty small, and it was the first talent show they've ever done). I screwed up the whole thing entirely. My stage fright is getting worse, even though I'm more used to performing.

I think it's because I've become more self-conscious about my playing. When I was younger, I didn't care what people thought. Besides, I didn't really know how good I wasn't. When you join one of the best youth orchestras in the country, you wake up to how good you aren't. I started caring a lot about what people thought about my playing. Instead of practicing an hour five days a week, like I used to, I practice three hours almost every day. I am happy that my self-consciousness has made me improve faster, but I wish I could have fun performing.

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