What gets in the way of fantastic musical performances? We know what we must have as musicians: a good technique along with an ability to dig deep into the music and express what the composer was intending as well as we can. We are aiming for the highest standards of excellence that we can muster, especially as professionals. This is where the focus is placed in a good musical education and rightly so in many respects. We need to know our technique won’t let us down when it matters most and we need to have a real sense of what the music is about.
But is this all we need? I would say this is only part of the picture. What also matters is how we manage performance stress, the various different components that can trip us up around the time of a performance; our nervous energy that goes one step too far and paralyses rather than supports us; having to find energy to perform when we’re exhausted from all the things life throws at us; a wavering focus in the performance itself when the person rattling a programme throws us off balance; our body seizing up with tension when we least expect it; the niggling inner voice that chastises us when we slip up and starts expecting the next downfall and the same niggling inner voice that tells us we’re no good, a fraud and that we’ll be caught out soon enough. The performance stress that musicians experience and how they manage it, is as varied and different as the musicians themselves, and yet managing it well is an essential part of being a well-balanced, happy and fulfilled musician.
Performance stress is rarely discussed even amongst musicians. When I have had professional experiences as a pianist-accompanist in which I was expected to perform by most people’s standards, superhuman feats of either sight reading or stamina, to play perfectly in imperfect situations, I never felt I could say anything about it even to my colleagues. There appeared to me to be plenty of people who could perform the same superhuman feats, so I just suffered in silence, assuming that it was my problem only. Those experiences massively impacted on my joy of performing and joy of music. Being able to express those feelings openly in a musical culture where that kind of experience is considered normal and acceptable would have made a world of difference.
One of my contributions to the airing of this topic is to set up a series of video interviews, called Beyond Stage Fright in which top musicians share their insights into their professional lives & how they manage performance stress, particularly performance anxiety. Conducted on Skype, with the technical imperfections and informality that goes with that medium, the interviews are fascinating & revealing. Many are disarmingly open, sharing some of their innermost thoughts and experiences, all feeling the importance of taking the lid of such a sensitive subject for the benefit of the wider musical community.
Evelyn Glennie, Tasmin Little, Steven Osborne, James Ehnes, Iestyn Davies and Steven Isserlis are some of the many musicians who talk in this second series of Beyond Stage Fright, along with folk musicians Peggy Seeger & Kathryn Tickell, jazz musicians Gwilym Simcock & Iain Ballamy, and Indian classical violinist Jyotsna Srikanth.
Beyond Stage Fright involves top international musicians, writers and teachers sharing their insights into managing performance stress. This second series of video interviews will be presented free online from Friday 29th January 2016. To access the free online interview series, sign up now. You will then receive links to the interviews from Friday 29th January onwards. There are no hidden catches – this is simply a free contribution to the musical community.