In addition to being actively involved in the fiddling community, I spent sixteen years teaching communication at the University of Colorado at Denver and Metropolitan State College of Denver. Although I have somewhat adapted this article for this specific setting, the following consists of the course lecture I developed and presented to speech students concerning the fear that we all fear, but hate to admit to ourselves or others, and which even briefly pondering strikes the panic center in most of us.
To make use of an old Red Cross Lifesaving Handbook: “panic is a sudden, unreasoning and overwhelming fear, that attacks a person in the face of real or fancified danger”.
Fancified, what a quaint old word, yet when paired with danger and used to describe the feeling of being about to drown, it becomes strangely appropriate to our situation and what solo musicians would call stage fright, or even performance anxiety.
Some studies and evidence suggest that for many people, giving a speech or doing an on stage performance of any kind, ranks second to death in terms of what they most fear. For some folks it is actually at the top of their list, followed by death.
Some performers, contestants, and speakers would rather appear in the nude, as long as they didn’t have to say anything, or draw a bow across the strings, or touch their fingers to the piano keys, or risk hitting the high note. With absolute certainty, they already know just how inept, how unprepared, how unskilled, and how untalented they really are; they also know the performance merely provides an opportunity to demonstrate it for others.
This perspective reveals a fear of failure. The performer is afraid he or she might look bad, and fears being unable to meet the audiences or their own expectations.
Conversely, some people suffer from a fear of success. They fear meeting the audiences expectations. Remember (how could you forget), getting on the stage, actually taking the risk, and doing the performance, is the last thing in the world the sufferer wants to do; when horror of all horrors, the light bulb goes off and they realize: if successful, if they do well, they just might be asked to do it all again, and again, and again, and again.
Performers who suffer from stage fright place themselves in a no-win situation. They lose if they fail and they lose if they succeed.
You Are in Good Company!
We all suffer from stage fright to a certain extent, some to a much greater extent than others. The symptoms are manifested differently from person to person. Some folks have a mild case of “butterflies” in the stomach, others have a large case. Some get extreme tunnel vision or their hands and legs will go numb. Some actually become physically ill or faint.
When you experience stage fright, you are actually keeping some very famous company. Some of the better known performers who suffer greatly from the condition are: Barbra Streisand who did no live performances for almost thirty years: The pianist, Artur Rubinstein who stopped performing in public for almost twenty-five years: Laurence Olivier who stopped his stage performances for two years: and the stage actress, Sarah Bernhardt, who actually hired someone to physically push her through the curtain and onto the stage because she could not bring herself to take that last step alone.
In fact, when Chris first began competing in fiddle contests, she was one of those whose symptoms from performance anxiety included having her fingers and part of her arms go numb, an experience she shares with many other musicians and those who should be called, small muscle athletes.
Another speech instructor who I know, tells a story about the time a student got up in front of the class to give his speech, then very, very slowly, shrank down, crawled inside the podium, and would not come out. The teacher had to dismiss the class before being able to coax the poor fellow back out into the real world where he could comfortably rejoin the crowd.
Causes of Performance Anxiety!
We find that an individuals impression of participating in any kind of public performance is often crisis oriented. Performers, especially contestant performers and students, know or believe they are going to be judged, or graded, or pelted with rotten tomatoes, which triggers the fear. No matter how well the performer knows their material, the problem of presenting it to those who will judge remains.
Even though they know they should not be afraid, speakers or performers experiencing even the initial stages of the fear also discern their inability to consciously control the symptoms. These folks consciously realize they are not in control of their own body and they worry about the quality of their performance, and the worrying makes the condition grow worse.
Like the proverbial runaway train, the more the performer thinks about the symptoms, the more they try to control them, and the worse they become; followed by the performer again thinking about the symptoms, then trying even harder but with less success to control them, and finally the worse they become. An escalating chain reaction results.
Thus practice, in and of itself, does not usually serve to ameliorate the problem. Many times practice merely serves to teach stage fright as well as performance; practice is not protective. Studies from the medical community confirm that the two elements — stage and fright, performance and anxiety, communication and apprehension — get paired in the persons mind so often, that when one appears the second is sure to follow. The fear becomes a conditioned reflex to the thought of performing or communicating in a specific situation. Stage fright happens to professionals and students alike.
This is a good stopping spot for now. In the next few days, I’ll add information from one of the premier medical researchers on performance anxiety, discuss how to go abut limiting its effects, and what to try when all else fails.