By Patrick Sullivan
This article first appeared in Strings’ January 2017 issue.
It should have been the proudest moment of Matthew Tifford’s budding musical career. After winning a high school concerto contest, the cellist was invited onstage for his first public solo performance. But as Tifford looked out at an auditorium full of fellow students, his hands started sweating and his bow began to shake.
“It was terrifying,” he says, recalling that long-ago concert with a laugh. “I got through it, but it was miserable. I definitely did not play anywhere near as well as I was capable of.”
Decades later, the Maryland musician is a successful studio teacher who has soloed for the pope in Vatican City and played onstage with rock star Dave Matthews. Yet stage fright haunted Tifford for years. And he has plenty of company.
Performance anxiety nearly derailed British violinist Tom Eisner’s career. Now first violin with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Eisner survived his first years at the orchestra thanks to beta blockers, a medication that reduces physical symptoms of anxiety. “Too many musicians don’t address the problem,” Eisner explains in an email. “I spent years taking beta blockers, [with a] racing heart on the afternoon of a concert, not being able to sleep the night before.”
Such stories raise urgent questions for young musicians. What causes stage fright? How can players overcome the problem? And what about beta blockers—are they a good solution?
Some anxiety is perfectly normal, says Mimi Zweig. A professor at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, she has seen hundreds of students struggle with stage fright over 45 years of teaching. “I wish we could just snap our fingers and say, ‘Don’t be nervous,’” Zweig says. “But being nervous and excited is part of the process. We just need to use that excitement to be able to project musically what we want to say.”
One common cause of anxiety among young players is simply that they’re still developing their skills. “The kids who get really nervous often don’t know how to shift or use the bow well,” Zweig says.
Ensuring a good physical setup can combat anxiety. And so can the right classroom atmosphere. “I teach in a nonjudgmental environment, which means that mistakes are welcome and students are not judging themselves as they’re playing,” Zweig says. She believes teachers must be careful not to give students pieces far above their ability level in stressful situations. “A bad experience can be difficult to overcome,” Zweig adds. “Students have to be open to understanding why it was a bad experience and what they need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
But young players can turn this problem around. Zweig points to a student who came to Jacobs a few years ago from a country where it was difficult to get violin lessons. “We could see that this girl was very gifted, but she came in with almost no training,” Zweig says. In the first year, the young woman struggled badly. She could barely hold her bow steady because of stage fright. “Four years later she was concertmaster of one of the school orchestras,” Zweig says. “And now she has a position in the Houston Symphony.”
“Kageyama suggests borrowing a tactic used
by many baseball players: an opening routine.”
Tifford says the solution can be as simple as performing more often in public. When he was preparing for his graduate recital, he signed up for weekly performances arranged by his school at an elder hostel. “The first performance went pretty badly,” he says, “the next one a little better. By the sixth one I had a great experience. And the actual recital went great.”
Frequency is critical. “If too much time passes, you forget the lessons you learned,” Tifford says. “You have to prove to yourself over and over that the world is not going to end. And sometimes your subconscious takes a lot of convincing.”
Yet skill-building and experience often aren’t enough, says Noa Kageyama, a performance psychologist on the Juilliard School faculty who runs a training website called the Bulletproof Musician. Many world-class performers struggle with anxiety despite plenty of practice and stage time.
“Performing well under pressure isn’t a matter of chance, and it’s not just a product of practicing more,” Kageyama says. “There are some very concrete skills that maximize our chances of playing as well as we can.”
Kageyama began to master his own stage fright when he was himself a Juilliard student. The young violinist took a sports-psychology class with the famous performance coach Don Greene. He quickly learned that musicians have a lot to learn from professional athletes. For example, Kageyama suggests borrowing a tactic used by many baseball players: an opening routine.
Before you play the first note, go through a short series of mental steps that call up the sound and feel of a successful performance. “Take a deep breath, hear those first notes in your head, and remember how it feels when the bow lands on the strings and sinks in,” Kageyama says. “Take five seconds to do that instead of just going for it and hoping for the best.”
Use the pre-performance sequence every time, even in practice.
“These things need to be practiced in advance,” Kageyama says. “It’s not enough to just know that they help. You have to develop a habit.”
Therapy helps some players. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website offers advice and referrals. The biggest mistake musicians make is denying they feel anxiety, says Patricia Thornton, a New York psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders. “If you tell yourself not to be anxious and feel anxious anyway, you’ll feel even worse,” she explains. “Denial makes the thought more resistant.”
The solution: Embrace the anxiety.
“Instead of trying to relax, energize yourself,” Thornton says. “Get your heart-rate up. If you’re performing with other people, cheer each other on. Then you can attribute that elevated heart rate to excitement rather than anxiety.”
And accept that not every performance will be great. “I have found that self-acceptance is a crucial aspect of coping with stage fright,” says Harrison Greenough, a bassist studying at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. “Often times, once a performer realizes that absolute perfection is not necessary for musical success, it becomes easier to accept that emotions and imperfections are both beautiful human traits.”
Beta blockers may seem like a convenient shortcut, but many players point to drawbacks. “My biggest concern is overdependence—not being able to do anything without a pill,” Eisner says. Kageyama says beta blockers do benefit some musicians. But they aren’t a silver bullet.
“Beta blockers address the physical symptoms, the shaking hands and so on, but they don’t necessarily address the mental anxiety,” he says. “Research suggests that mental anxiety is often more predictive of how we’re going to play. That’s why many folks try beta blockers and find their performance doesn’t improve.”
Zweig recommends against beta blockers: Yoga, meditation, and exercise are better bets—along with patience and hard work. “For every student there are different challenges,” she says. “Every student has a different journey, and as teachers, we have to figure out where they are on the journey and how to help them.”