The Best Cure for Stage Fright

February 16, 2016, 3:11 PM · Can words of wisdom conquer stage fright? The right aphorism, deployed at the right time, can help a great deal.

If you’re not a fan of irony, then an aphorism might sound like the wisdom of a smart aleck, or someone who just wants to confuse you. A book of aphorisms by the editors of Forbes Magazine illustrates this well: you don’t have to read all 4,303 of them to understand that most are based on a paradox, on conventional thinking turned on its head.

I’ll get to musical aphorisms and significant sayings in a moment, but first I need to pick a couple of Forbes tidbits to get the ball rolling.

For instance, Edward Everett Hale said, "I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do." It sounds like Mr. Hale had a hard time mustering up the confidence to accomplish a task. In his roundabout way, he was able to stop procrastinating. In his life, he also advanced a number of social reforms, including religious tolerance, the abolition of slavery and wider education.

Here's another one: "To stay young requires unceasing cultivation of the ability to unlearn old falsehoods," said the writer Robert Heinlein. In other words: Nothing is sacred!

The Musical Mind: Contradictions, Opinions, and Judgments

How do aphorisms enter a musician’s mind at just the right time? The truth is, they don't always. There are answers out there, but they’re not easy to find. Some problems need solutions today. Yesterday would have been nice, and tomorrow is too long to wait.

Who of us hasn’t felt extreme fear of stage fright at some point in life? When the mind’s clarity is required for solid playing, there may be instead confusion and second-guessing. An author can take a couple of days to find the right word, but in the real-time world of playing music, the mind must lay a strong foundation and be ready for the obvious pitfalls, at less than a moment’s notice.

A teacher or favorite author may say something which clarifies. Aphorisms help capture the mind's attention, unsettle it for a moment, and then create an image you may never have thought of before.


My college teacher and brilliant leader of the Yale Quartet and New Music Quartet, Broadus Erle, said:

“No one can think about two things at the same time. But you can think of many things in quick succession.”

That aphorism clicked with me when he said it 40 years ago, and its truth and depth continue to ring in my ears.

If a conductor has a slight slip, and a section wavers almost imperceptibly, will you be thrown for a fall, or ride the wave and enjoy what just happened? The musical mind juggles, assesses and enjoys. It occasionally knows fear. Thoughts become jumbled and can be clouded by the feeling that others are judging you.

But the mind must be all encompassing. It concentrates on one technique, then another. One moment it is filled with one thought, like playing with a beautiful sound that requires independence of the bow arm and left hand. Immediately the mind segues into its new role, hopefully temporary, to withstand the irritation when stage fright has worked its way to the surface. For this reason, musicians develop a flexible mind and an ability to go to Plan B if Plan A is doomed. Along the way their skin gets thicker as well.

Piatigorsky Hits the Nail on the Head

The mind games that emerge during a battle between stage fright and musical (and technical) effectiveness can make you blow a gasket and undergo a mental meltdown, but oddly enough most of us survive the ordeal. No one has ever died (I haven’t verified this) from a bad bout of stage fright. Instead, we search for meaning and explanation, a road map that takes us to a better place the next time we perform.

Words come to our rescue: the aphorism which sums things up and mirrors our experience, and then hits us with an insight that tricks the mind into opening up and hearing good news.

The great Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky understood the nature of limitations and how a musician can come to terms with it. The idea of “perfection” casts a huge shadow in the minds of musicians, and while there is no such thing as perfection, its presence cannot be overlooked. Only by recognizing negatives can a positive outcome be assured.

Piatigorsky, well known as a fine chess player as well as, according to Ivan Galamian, the greatest string player of all time, said:

"You don’t have to be a genius to know your shortcomings, because there are so many of them. But you have to be a mighty intelligent person to know your strong points. That is your obligation: to know what is good. And if possible to enjoy. And everything that you don’t like, to convert into something that is likable. That is the only way I know. Otherwise you will live in the negative all your life. You can’t live in that, you can't prosper in it."

The cellist in what was known as the Million Dollar Trio with Jascha Heifetz and pianist Artur Rubinstein, Piatigorsky understood the nuances inherent in working with such intense personalities. Heifetz and Rubinstein famously did not get along. Is it safe to assume that Piatigorsky knew a little bit about getting along with both of them, and served as a buffer to hold the group together? It’s OK to assume when so much can be learned from figuring out how musicians work together.

Shortcomings Turn Into Swans

To know one’s weaknesses means that you are on your way to turning them into strengths. For example, a fluid, sensuous sound, one that is free as the air we breathe, may not feel as reliable as a more firm, thicker sound. When you’re young, the fluid sound seems more vulnerable. However, with confidence and maturity, that sound will have more beauty, variety and even poetry.

Music training often lends itself to finding what is wrong and what doesn’t fit. But Piatigorsky knew enough to recognize his strengths. "It is your obligation to know what is good." Enjoy your strengths. Convert what you don't like into something likeable. Prosper in the positive.

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