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Mendy Smith

The Fear Never Goes Away

May 17, 2011 at 2:15 AM

Yesterday evening, I played a chamber music recital as part of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra's Adult Amateur program. I thought I was totally ready.  I knew not only my part, but those of my fellow musicians backwards and forwards.  But on recital day, my confidence faltered with the opening of our first piece:  "Reflection" by Michael Kimber for 3 violas.

My group was second to last.  I listened to several excellent brass and woodwind groups that appeared confident in what they were doing.  Then a string trio played where one of the players got a serious case of the bow arm shakes.  My heart went out to him.  I was there myself not long ago - a nearly debilitating fear of performing publicly which I called my "bow arm vibrato".   Like me, he pushed through his fear and played all of the pieces of their set.  When they were done, I made sure that the applause was loud and long.  It takes guts to get up on stage for the first time.

After another group or two it was our turn.  The fears that I thought long gone decided to remind me that I wasn't much further along than that violinist.  For the first several measures of our opening piece, I tensed.  Fear filled my mind and all I wanted to do was to scamper off-stage and quiver in a corner.  It was a near train wreck on my part for the first several measures.  Then something kicked in and the tension started fading.  By the 2nd piece, it was gone completely and I was thoroughly enjoying myself, even to the point of hamming up a fermata or two. 

I'm beginning to realize that stage fright is not something that can be "conquered" completely.  At best it can be channeled into the music.  Or second best, suppressed enough to not manifest itself into bow arm vibrato or a death-grip on the neck of the instrument. 

Of all the "tricks" that I've been taught to conquer stage fright, performing frequently and often is the only "trick" that has made any impact.  Like the violinist before me, the encouragement and appreciation from peers is the best medicine to help me push through the fear of making a mistake (= failure). 

From Marsha Weaver
Posted on May 17, 2011 at 12:06 PM

Mendy -- Thanks so much for your post!  The little orchestra I joined in February is playing our first concert on Thursday night.  It helps to know there's life after stagefright!!  :)

From John Cadd
Posted on May 17, 2011 at 4:34 PM

What are you mainly thinking about when you have stage fright?   Can you convince yourself that stage fright is boring.Don`t give it any status in your mind.Think of walking into a huge palace with ornate decorations all over the walls. Why would plaster and paint make you nervous? Try to think like that. Drag it down and make sure it does not spoil your evening.Are you going into an attention loop with your own personality?  (That`s the question you have to answer inside yourself and not to me, if you see what I mean ).Is the focus on how you feel  or on the playing and the music. How can you imagine what the audience are thinking.  Impossible. They may all have indigestion. Why even think about it?  Don`t allow any room for the fright to grow.  Wear silk clothes next to your skin that fit so well you will feel good thinking about it.   Famous players like to shut out everything before they play. Just to calm everything down.  How does that sound?

From Ray Randall
Posted on May 17, 2011 at 9:13 PM

Google Juilliard Psychologist Dr. Don Greene. He held seminars at the Starling-DeLay Symposiums at Juilliard. I've used his technique for years in violin and flying. I've used his techniques during major emergencies whem my life, and the passengers lives, were on the line. Works like a charm. Get really nervious performing and you might screw up. do the same flying and you die. Like I said, his techniques, as in his book "Performance Success," work when the extreme pressure is on.



From Julian Stokes
Posted on May 18, 2011 at 7:04 AM

Mendy - thanks for sharing this. Every tale of stage fright met and conquered must surely give those of us who need it, courage.

Ray - I can't help but think that the difference between playing the fiddle and flying a plane full of passengers and the consequences of failure at each are several orders of magnitude apart. In that context, stage fright has to be viewed as somewhat self-indulgent. Yet for its sufferers it is very real. Fascinating stuff, psychology.

From Gregory Lawrence
Posted on May 18, 2011 at 8:28 AM

I am a professional violinist now for 35 years in San Diego, CA.  

Listen my dear friend, in college,  Greg Lawrence had the best down bow staccato in the school!!! Hmmmm, the only problem was, I was just playing a whole note :)  

Seriously, I suffered from this like no one else, and we all do in some degree...  

The key is understanding that you have this because you are sensitive...  and to be a musician, you/we NEED that sensitivity!    

Hear's my advice, for what it is worth....  NO DRUGS - NO BETA BLOCKERS - these are for cowards and no one wants to see or hear a zombie perform, and that's what the above do...    

You need to learn to ...


Vocalists, wind and brass players must breathe to play their axes...

However, many string players do not breathe as they play ... This interrupts the flow of oxygen to the brain, causing anxiety.  

Take some voice lessons and/or fInd a good church or community choir to sing in.  

One cannot sing through a phrase w/o filling the lungs with air first.   Singing forces one to learn to control the diaphram.     

I sing in my church choir and doing so has greatly enhanced my violin playing... I breathe in as I start a phrase, and out as I finish... just as I would if I were singing.  

Give it a try, I am betting my strad and guarneri (in my dreams) this will help you!    

If not, call me and I will refund your tuition :)

Your fellow servant of our craft  -  greg    







From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 18, 2011 at 1:58 PM

Hi, I can relate to this...  At one recital, about three years after I had started violin, many participants before me panicked onstage (shakes, wrong notes, memory slips etc)

And you know what?  It's not a coincidence if everyone played bad after them...

We got so nervous listening to them and feeling bad for them that that was the only thing we had in head... 

On the other hand, I once played in a recital with many stronger students than me who looked very calm onstage.  Guess what, everyone played the most "professionnal" they could to the best of their ability.




As animals, we feel for each other and looking one member of the flock having a bad experience will stay in our mind for a few hours. 

That's why it's better to not listen to people before you if you are someone not self-centered sensitive or compationate towards other musicians!   I know it's hard to avoid but one has to find a way...

Best of luck for the next concerts!

From John Cadd
Posted on May 18, 2011 at 5:29 PM

Does "The fear never goes away" mean "The fear will never go away? "

From Mendy Smith
Posted on May 19, 2011 at 2:23 AM

Thank you everyone for the words of advice.  Anne-Marie hit the nail on the head though. 

My ensemble will be performing the "Relection" again this Sunday at our church.  After listening to the most excellent organist beforehand, I'm confident that things will go much better this time around.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on May 22, 2011 at 4:34 AM

We do have a bit of herd instinct, don't we?  Anxiety is most definitely contagious: I've witnessed it when performing with the symphony on several occassions.  We may have each known our part well, but if someone hints at timidity or misses an entrance, it catches on  with everyone else, and the entire performance suffers.  Likewise, when other performers are in the groove and doing well, it can be positively contagious. 

I think a lot about my student recital and what ways my body language and verbal skills can communicate calm confidence to all of my students when they perform.  I know if I act like everything's cool and nothing could bother me, it helps them to feel that way, too. 

I don't know if this might help, but two things that really help me are staying very busy so that I don't even have time to conisder anything, and feeling like people are counting on me to keep it together, to "save the day," so to speak.  I will stay much more calm at my students' recital tomorrow because that's my job and they expect it of me.  It's kind of a "grow-up" feeling.  I don't know how else to describe that.  Professionalism?  Acting?  Role-playing?  

You'll keep getting better if you keep trying.  It takes lots of practice.  Good luck next time! 


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