Stage fright

Stage fright

The subject of stage fright has come up in recent postings (17 November 2002 onwards) on the "Memory" thread where contributors have talked about the role of "fear" in performance. Some useful points have been made in these postings.
Performance "fear" affects most people who perform in public, whether it is talking, acting, dancing, singing, or playing an instrument, usually in a solo capacity.
"Fear" on stage runs the whole range from "complete lack of" through a frisson of excitement, "nerves", to full-blown stage fright. Ordinary excitement and "nerves" before performing in public are normal and beneficial, and should generate the spark that fires up a cracking performance.
However, full-blown stage-fright is a real and serious problem because it results in a loss of control which is obvious to the audience, and has resulted in careers being ruined. A performer suffering at this level of stage-fright needs urgent help.
I’m sure we’d be grateful for advice on this problem from people who have experienced it first hand and overcome it, have seen others overcome it or helped them, or have useful anecdotes and advice on the matter.

-trevor macsheoinin

Re: Stage fright

OK, last resort first - there’s always beta-blockers. They prevent the physical symptoms of stress, like sweating and shaking - but they *don’t* dull your brain or have any sedative effect. I know that classical soloists sometimes have recourse to them - you can’t disguise trembling hands if you’re a lone violinist in front of a symphony orchestra, and with the sustained notes that are required, it must be about the most demanding situation you could possibly be in with stage-fright.
This is all hearsay, though. Stuff I heard on the radio or somewhere… although I did take them once, so can vouch for the fact that they don’t make you groggy.

One of my own techniques is to ignore a piece of golden advice for singers, which is ‘make eye contact with your audience’. If it makes you feel exposed or distracts you, then don’t do it - gaze at something in the middle distance, a pillar or something. It’s better to focus on the music than to lose your concentration by spinning too many plates. Plus it lets you get more into ‘the zone’, where your stage-fright will recede into the background…

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I have had intense stage fright just before a few shows in the past. In my case the bow arm was out of control just enough to make the show a battle. Triplets come out horrible. String changing becomes sloppy. What comes to mind at the moment is the disaster scene I made with the ‘Dusty Windowsill’ jig on the third part.

I don’t like losing control of my bow arm at all - Even if it is just a little. What I have done is picked out some spritely tunes that move fast enough to remove the sound of the unsteady bow on long notes. They move slow enough so that there are no difficult bowing patterns to contend with.

Polkas or Jigs seem to be good medicine for me if I have a twinge of the ole nerves. By the time I’m done with the first set - almost all of the nerve shakes are gone. I don’t have to go straight into more complex tunes if I’m not ready either. I can play more of the ultra playable pieces until I’m ready.

I firmly believe that you should be very well practiced before you first show. Practice your set list a hundred times if you have the opportunity. If you do it enough times - It will show at performances. Pure muscle memory can take over if your mind blows a fuse.

I find the need to include this little statement lately. It’s easy to find obvious shards in my logic because I believe you are all are quite intelligent and don’t need to split "common sense" hairs. You are the people I generally write for. You are able to fill in some gaps. Of course I forget myself. Splitting hairs is not just a sport to some, It’s the way they live. If you feel the need to pick on the trifles - why not get in a few minutes of practice on your instrument instead. Perhaps you can select a new tune to learn. It’s a far better use of your time.

Cheers,
Mark

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I think eye contact with audience is important.
Apart from it being a vital ingredient in any performance, it should even help you with any nerves. It’s good to see your audience as a bunch of sympathetic people rather than a scary faceless crowd.

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I remember that as well Michael - I know the audience was part of the reason I survived the first shows.

Mark

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Hi Trevor: I presume that you already know all about deep breaths, relaxation, generally taking it easy etc. One tip I have may be worth considering if you have a big performance and that is a medical one: beta blockers. I would hate to think that legions of players will read this and start swallowing antibiotics, aspirins, steroids and so on but I can report that, in my case, I was prescribed beta blockers for an occasional fluttery heartbeat and lo and behold it also had a beneficial effect on a very fluttery right hand. At least I think so.

I concur with Mark re practising or revising your set of tunes a hundred times if you can; the more you practise the more able you will be to deal with any little problem you might face in your performance. A great fiddler (Cathal Hayden no less) once told me at a small concert where he was playing that while he would not say how many times you should play a tune in practising, he would not feel ready until he could play the tune outside on a stage with the temperature at zero.

I think that having played music as long as you can remember must also be a boost to your self-confidence but then again David would maintain (would he???) that you you can overcome shortcomings in technique, nerves etc by learning to live with them and maybe even to capitalise on them, applying yourself to the task diligently and developing your belief in yourself.

Wish you well

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In the previous post, I believe I mentioned I had no fear of speaking or playing in public, but let me clarify haha. As you can probably tell by now, I have no problem voicing my opinion even if it’s controversial. (just get me in a room with Dubya, but that’s another story for a different website) But as for playing, yes I do occasionally get nerves which are exhibited primarily by a dry mouth & sweaty hands, so I try to have water nearby as well as tissues, scotch tape, paper clips, a pencil, Visine etc etc simply b/c the feeling of preparation can almost always quell an onslaught of nerves for me, including thorough grooming & making sure your skirt isn’t tucked into the back of your nylons before walking onstage haha. & yes, I do know a few accompanists who take beta blockers before a performance which seems to work wonders although I have never tried it myself.

On the flip side, which I was trying to get at I think, I almost never get nervous any more during church gigs or weddings or pub gigs, where I feel quite comfortable & confident, but the thought of auditioning for a class at Willie Clancy Week, ie a panel of ‘judges’ hearing you play a tune or two to decide which teacher would best suit you? OK yes the thought of that sends me a bit into a panic. I think the key, as mentioned before, is the audience, & to what extent you feel you need to prove yourself in their eyes. So I suppose I have 6-7 months to practice, practice, practice & at least I shall feel I have prepared a little in advance, though coming face to face with the Real Thing, I’m not quite sure how to prepare for that.

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I’d say the most important thing is to start with a tune which is bombproof, which you’ve been playing for years. It’s how your mind relaxes to the situation in the first minute which largely governs the rest of the performance.
I’ve found, contrary to above postings, that its best to focuss on something on the back wall just above the audience’s heads to start off with, then as confidence grows, look around the audience, but not till the mind is settled and relaxed.
The worst situations I find are when spotlights are on and you can’t see the back wall, or the audience, and you can sense the spots highlighting the sweat that they’re creating!
If I sense the mind starting to panic, closing the eyes for a bit helps a lot, leting me focus on the music and not looking too bad to the audience either.
After the first ten minutes, if nothing went wrong, it ‘s usually plain sailing and enjoyment. Those first five to ten minutes are critical.
In less formal environments I think it’s all about relaxing and realising that nobody could care less if you make a mistake.

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Of course there’s always that advice you hear given to nervous public speakers: try to picture the audience members naked as you talk to them.
I can’t imagine it helping, myself, but who knows?

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A lot would depend on the particular audience in that case 54, I think that’s a great suggestion for life in general! I’ll still have to think about ways to improve playing though!!
You know one drink (only one) does wonders to relax the brain and improve starting performance,-antidote to too much adrenalin maybe, and also a substitute for not enough at the sessions!

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Hey Kenn, I’m glad it’s not just me! I recognise the scenario you describe - making more eye contact as you relax, closing your eyes when you need extra concentration… critical first ten minutes.. (wow, if they go really badly, then the rest of the set is no fun whatsoever.. unless you just think ‘**** it!’ and enjoy yourself in spite of everything)

It’s alot easier when you’re playing as part of a group - but if I’m singing unaccompanied, I do *not* find it easy to meet the gaze of an entire room or hall full of people, AND remember all the words, AND keep my voice under control on the tricky corners. Plus the whole thing is quite emotionally intense. I don’t usually bear my soul to crowds of strangers in normal life. It’s a pretty weird experience when you think about it.

In a band though, one thing I learned was that people just don’t notice most of your mistakes. If you don’t wince, they most likely can’t tell!
I try to carry this over to singing. Even though there is nowhere to hide, it’s quite likely that what feels like a horrible hairy moment to me, will just seem like a bit of colour to someone else. Or not nearly as bad as I thought, anyway.

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Some more stuff on eye contact…

It does have to be said that you should avoid singing with your eyes shut, as you lose alot of resonance. I had some lessons a few years back, and my (excellent) teacher used to say ‘Eyes! Eyes!’.
But there are those moments when you just want to shut them…

I’ve seen a lot of great musicians lately , and most of them make no eye contact (with the audience) while they are playing, at all. Paddy Keenan, Tommy Peoples, Paddy Glackin, Tony MacMahon, for example, and the same for Martin Hayes.
Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh is a rare exception. She is amazingly communicative while she plays - wonderfully so…

But I’m referring to when you’re playing, not when you’re talking inbetween. Obviously you do need to make contact at that point.

I’m probably confusing everything, by conflating playing, singing, and talking. Oh well.

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I think it’s great to make lots of eye contact (when relaxed) in "cozy" venues, especially when some people decide to dance or whoop, then you can focus your performance to them, thereby encouraging more people to revell in the music.
If you’re trully enjoying yourself, it comes right back at you from the audience.
On the ceilidh circuit, we were always watching and playing (and grinning) to the dancers, they gain more oomph from feeling "played to" by the band, not just dancing to music in the room. Its like it brings the performer and audience/dancers together.

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On the other hand, I’ve always found it harder to relax in a group than I do alone. I’m sure some bands are more easy going and some more uptight, but I like the feeling of being by myself and addressing the audience directly — I have the feeling that I’m in control. Which is a good thing. πŸ˜‰

The band thing always seemed to add an extra dimension of "don’t want to piss off the singer" by doing this, or "Don’t do that because it’s likely to make somebody else nervous and then we’ll all be in trouble" or whatever.

What you said above about not wincing over your mistakes/nerves/etc. is really true; if you don’t call attention to them, nobody will EVER notice. Unless your pants fall down, or something equally drastic, which is an opportunity for you to convice the audience that it’s all part of the fun.

I have tried beta blockers in the past, and they did help me get over those first five or ten minutes and into the fun part of a performance. The down side is that if you’re an asthmatic flute player, they counteract any medication you might be taking and actually block the messages that relax the little muscles in your lungs. Not the best thing, for me anyway.

Greg

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Hey greg! just noticed your’e from Calgary (now we’re off on a tangent!), is that session in Kingston, the Tullamore still going? I remember it from three years ago, we made the trip on my birthday.
I’m moving to Kelowna next month, wonder if there’s much going on there……

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Regarding eyes shut when singing, awhile back on another music forum I got involved in the eyes shut or open discussion and have to add this bit about Irish traditional singing here… eyes open may be what is expected in a stage performance, but don’t worry about closing your eyes if you are performing Irish traditional music. In fact, here is what Joe Heaney had to say on the subject:

"If you’re asked to sing a song in a country house, you’ll make sure or try to make sure that nobody sees you while you’re singing it - don’t you see
anybody - you turn your back. Not through disrespect, but out of shyness - I don’t know how you call it. If you’re wearing a cap, you’ll pull it over
your eyes, so you’re actually just living the song while you sing it, or if you haven’t a cap on, you put your hand over your eyes. Then you’ll see
nobody while you’re singing it. You’re just singing the song to yourself. And that’s the way you’ll find it, even tomorrow if you go back there. You’ll
find the man what they call the c

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Beta-blockers….hmmmmm…I’ve never heard of them. Where do you get them? Are they a prescription drug, or can you just walk into the drug store and buy them? I definitely could have used them on more than one occasion, if they really do work.

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Hmmm, eye closing?
I like that Joe Heany stuff. But remember, it’s a reference to singing in a country house. By definition, a small gathering of like minded who are already in your attention.

A gig is a different kettle of fish. If you go out on to a stage and stare blankly at the back wall, then launch into a tune with your eyes shut, it won’t matter how good you are, you just won’t get a crowd behind you. I know that some in the audience would be with you, the already converted, but chances are that there will be a sizable minority who will fidget, whisper (or worse) and generally ruin it for the rest.
You owe it to them to communicate properly.

I love Tommy Peoples and Martin Hayes etc. But give me a Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh concert any day

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Aoife, I think you have to get beta-blockers on prescription, but you shouldn’t have a problem, as they aren’t addictive or dangerous.

I’d read the Joe Heaney thing before, but as Micheal says, it does only translate to very intimate settings - and I wouldn’t recommend sitting with your back to the room, even then!
I saw Niamh Parsons singing in a session in Ennis, and she perfectly combined both approaches - eyes closed on occasion, but not so much as to close herself in to a private space - and she was altering words (i.e. place names) in the song to acknowledge people in the room, which made it very convivial.

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So there you are Mac. The answers to your question. Some of them are quite contradictory and they depend on the performer. This time I have to agree with Michael again. You must get around to establishing eye contact. Smile at someone. Wink at someone else. Show them that you are their friend. They will come over to your side. They will pay attention in a friendly manner if you do so.

It’s funny, I have been on stage over a thousand time throughout the years. I have only had a severe case of the nerves 6 times. How much experience can any of us truly offer about those beginning shows? Here is some good information - The nerves pass. Each time they affect you a little less. If you use tricks like closing your eyes and staring at the back wall or if you have a drink or a beta blocker before you perform - you might be creating a crutch. Some people just need to find out what it’s like and can go on there own after a few times out. Is everyone like that?

I toyed with toast masters for a little while. I came up with a very funny speach that centered on being nervous before and during a speach. Guess what - I was so nervous before that speach that I wanted to die. I actually prcaticed hand expresions and smiling and making eye contact before hand. After the first sentence came out of my mouth, I was already feeling the swing. After the audience chuckled the first time I was encouraged. Soon came the side splitting laughter.

The point is, I was so practiced and familiar with the material that once I started, I went to that comfortable place and the nerves were tossed.

Mark

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That’s it Mark, getting to the comfortable place as quickly as possible, prefferably in the first minute or two, by whichever means you can. The minds rarely focussed on the music in this short spell.
After that you can do whatever you see fit.
I don’t think closing the eyes occasionally can possibly harm a performance, it’s more likely to enforces the depth of the music, provided that you still make the effort to connect also.

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Kenn
If you don’t mind the eyes closed thing, you are already one of the converted I mentioned earlier. But watch out for the fidgeters. Just ‘cause you don’t mind doesn’t make it acceptable to that irritating minority

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Hey Kenn,

Sadly, the Tullamore session is no more. A couple of months ago they decided to turn the pub into a PIZZA PARLOUR! Where’s the future in that, I ask you.

We enjoyed your visit - that was a good night, and we didn’t even know it was your birthday! If you’re ever in Calgary, drop me a note.

Greg

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Hah! small world Greg, now I understand the global village thing!
Guess the draw to go to Cowtown for pizza just ain’t gonna be the same as for Killkenny’s & tunebashin’.

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The key is to realize that performing is rather like feeding the Christians to the lions….except that you are the lion!

One thing to note, an audience is more responsive in a confined space. It definitely is more difficult to entertain, while performing outside, at a festival, for example. I suspect that this is because the relationship between performer and audience naturally contains an element of danger. Not life threatening danger, but rather the danger that anything can happen, that something unusual might happen, etc. In an indoor venue, with a room properly sized to the size of the audience, the audience is at the mercy of the performer, and that primal fight/flight response kicks in, just a little bit, with the knowledge that the ability to flee is somewhat inhibited by the fact that the everyone is in a ‘confined’ space.

So, you have the audience at your mercy, like a bunch of Christians in the colleseum (sp?), all you have to do is chew them up and spit them out when you are done, and have fun while doing it.


I think the fight/flight response is the reason why hecklers heckle. It is the fight response kicking in. The Christians/lions thing is why ‘heckling’ the performer doesn’t work to the advantage of the heckler. The performer always wins a heckling match, provided they respond with a little ‘bite’. Further, you ‘have the floor’, given to you by the authority of the audience at large. That is a powerful position, not to be abused, but understand that, and use it to your advantage.

So, go in there, and grin at your audience. After all, you know what is about to happen, and they don’t! You already have the upper hand. It is like shooting fish in a barrel….they are sitting ducks, all sitting there in neat little rows, with their hands crossed on their laps, innocently awaiting their fate. When you grin at them, keep all this in mind, it makes it easier to smile, and they will think that you are simply happy to see them, and, indeed, it is true, you are happy to see them, because you are a HUNGRY LION…

works for me, YMMV

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Scotty
That’s a good description, I like it. And its probably why I gave up performing

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I have been a cellist virtually all my musical life, and the number of public performances I’ve taken part in, mostly orchestral and occasionally as a soloist, probably approaches four figures. I’m fortunate I suppose in that I haven’t had the extreme form of stage fright I referred to in my opening posting, but I do know that people do get it (I have known some of them personally) and the subject doesn’t seem to have been discussed on The Session, hence this thread.

I usually get "nerves" before a concert and that feeling of being keyed up, even now. However, as soon as I start playing that all goes and all that then exists is the playing of the music, it’s concentration I suppose. When I’ve played solo (cello) the absolute essentials as far as I’m concerned are 100% technique, knowing the music inside out … and being warmed up before the playing starts. Given those things, I know that nothing should go wrong (apart from something unforeseen like a string breaking) and all I need then to think about is the music. Having been playing the fiddle for slightly less than two years I realise that I have a very long way to go before I can reach the stage I am at as a cellist, but I’m gradually getting there and it’s easily the most enjoyable journey I’ve ever undertaken …fuelled by the occasional free beer/food in the pub πŸ™‚

As for interacting with the audience, in most venues I’ve played in when the house lights go down you’re looking into virtual blackness from the stage. You can usually see the front row of the stalls clearly but it’s probably not a good idea to fix a glare on those punters exclusively. What I do is to let my eyes roam at random over the auditorium and pretend to get eye contact with various "Aunt Emily’s" in the middle side stalls, the back, and other locations.

And smiling at the audience: a bit of showbiz advice once given by one of Britain’s master comedians (Norman Wisdom) is to mouth the word "sexy" - it works every time.

trevor

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*waving to macsheoinin from second balcony*

signed, Auntie Em

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Emily,
I’ll watch out for you.
Bristol Chamber Orchestra tonight at St Matthew’s Church, Cotham, Bristol UK. We’re playing Handle’s Water Music, Haydn’s D major Cello Concerto (soloist Christine Khoo) and Mozart’s Symphony 29 in A.

trevor

oops! I should’ve typed Handel!

trevor

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It’s true having eyes closed all the time can work in a small session but would turn off an audience, but if you need to focus just for a bit, it’s ok, and then return to looking out at the listeners. The stage experience of looking into darkness is actually, for me, very calming. I just pretend to see who is there and of course most people in an audience are going to think you are smiling at THEM if they happen to find you looking directly their way.

Alice

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Alice
that’s very important, you’ve got it right there. If you can’t see the audience, pretend you can. They don’t know.

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hmmm since I’m 4 hours drive from the closest airport plus the flight across the Pond, it’s a long shot macsheoinin (heck you may even be playing as I’m typing this), but I’ll be there in spirit, on behalf of all the Aunt Emilys. πŸ™‚ Have a great show, it sounds like a great program!

Yes that’s why I’m partial to pub gigs, the crowds really make all the difference, esp with the regs, except I refuse to play that awful ‘Unicorn’ song anymore. I just won’t.

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Emily
Sorry you couldn’t make it acroos the Pond to the concert! But it was rather short notice πŸ™‚
Everything went very well indeed. The cello concerto (one of the best from the classical era, imo) in particular sparkled, the slow movement is a lyrical gem, and the last movement has a jig tune which fits the words "Here we go gathering nuts in May". And who cares about the occasional duff note in the high register? I for one don’t - the Haydn D major is one of those concertos where you’ll be very lucky indeed to hear a technically perfect performance outside the recording studio, and technically perfect studio performances tend to be uninspiring to my ears.
When I am Master of the World I shall make a law Forbidding The Recording Of Music Other Than Live Before An Audience - and no post-production editing either.

- trevor

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Emily,

Here is the "A" part of the jig tune in the last movement of the Haydn D major cello concerto. You can’t really say there’s a genuine "B" part ‘cos it immediately goes into virtuoso variations in the high register.
M:6/8
L:1/8
K:D
FEF GFG|A2F D3|EDE FEF|G2E C2C|
DEF D2D|DEF D2^D|EFG FED|(A3 A2)G||

I wonder sometimes whether the tune is genuine Haydn or whether he "borrowed" it from the world of folk music.

trevor

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I’d like to add my recommendation of a favourite book on this subject. It’s by a classical (Suzuki method) piano teacher, but it’s addressed to students, performers, teachers, all levels of players of any instrument, and I think there’s a lot in it that would be helpful to many of us. Confident Music Performance, by Barabara Schneiderman. She goes into all sorts of inner motivational areas, as well as the usual how to prepare stuff.
Cheers,
Fiddlefingers

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Cojo - Thanks for that bit of sound advice. I wish I had your wisdom.

It’s very rare that I am in a position to get stage fright, but about 7 years ago, at Keele University, I was accompanying a music student in a recital of Irish songs. My own credibility was the least of my worries - somebody else’s degree result depended on it. She was singing a coule of up-tempo songs, accompanied by guitar, mandolin and bodhran, one unaccompanied traditional song, and one contemporary song accompanied just by myself on guitar, for which I was to move to a different seat, separate from the rest of the group. So we finished The Old Maid in the Garret, I waited for the applause to die down, got up with my guitar, repositioned myself and, palms sweating, took a deep breath and launched into the pretty little intro I had worked out for ‘Kilkelly’. My playing was perfect, down to the last note (also a very rare occurence fo me). It was only when I returned to my seat by the other musicians that I realised, she was supposed to have sung Kilkelly AFTER her unaccompanied rendition of She Moved Through the Fair. Although I could not possibly have been as nervous as the singer herself, I put it down to my being unused to being nervous. The singer being a somewhat highly-strung individual, praise be to God that she managed to maintain her composure and carry on as if nothing was wrong.

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I was playing one of the Beethoven cello sonatas in a concert many years ago when my pianist inadvertently turned over two pages at once, panicked and turned back three pages. The sonata promptly ground to an abrupt halt. We looked at each other and restarted the work, this time without incident. A little embarassing perhaps, but these things do happen.

-trevor

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Interesting discussion and somewhat comforting to see that I’m not alone. As a solo flautist during my training years, I would practice my heart out for a recital only to catch to world’s worst cold the day before the performance. As a flautist… well you can only imagine you can’t get a breath, you can’t hold your phrases and you certainly can’t hit the high c’s. But at least you have an excuse…. you’re sick after all. It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t unlucky. I was terrified and my body reacted very well on my behalf. It protected me, gave me a great excuse for flubbing the high notes. Amazing what the brain will do for you. Like it was planned. Once I realized that it was actually the terror that made me ill, I could actually deal with it. My trick lately is actually to simply acknowlege that I’m terrified. I’ve even walked out on stage once and told the audience that they scared the hell out of me. They laughed and basically gave back. Their laughter, humor just plain old good naturedness brought it all together. I see from the above discussion that everyone has a trick. The only advice that I could give anyone is begin well and end well. If you can do that, the middle will take care of itself. At a concert last spring, I finished playing a tune and couldn’t remember starting it. I looked around to see if maybe I did ok and my Mom was crying and everyone was kind of in shock. It was a spell and that is the place I want to be. I couldn’t honestly tell you if my eyes were open or closed, if I looked at the audience or if I stared at the back wall. All I know is that my flute was at my lips and the music took me somewhere and when I was there, there was no audience or anything else. When I came back there was everybody. We all kind of smiled and thought well, that was fun, where else do we want to go. Overcoming the terror… well I find that the connections you can make onstage translate first then expand to embrace everyone else there. What do you actually see when the lights are shining in your eyes?

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