Stephen Hough, concert pianist and culture blogger for The Telegraph, suggests that Franz Liszt was responsible for inventing stage fright. According to Hough, this arose from an insistence in following an unwritten rule attributed to Liszt that a score should not be used during a piano recital.
Hence the ability to accomplish this superhuman mental feat became part of the modern day professional musician’s skill set (memorise 30,000 notes of Rachmaninoff or three hours of a Springsteen set anyone?).
Yet if you look further back in history, I’d suggest that the credit for inventing stage fright should go to René Descartes, albeit indirectly. His philosophical dictum “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) inadvertently created a long lasting and artificial separation of the mind from the body.
And, therein lays the rub for us as musicians.
This separation has, until relatively recently, guided performance science and medical research down a reductionist path of inquiry that has treated mind and body separately.
However, understanding the connection between mind and body gives musicians a practical and workable way of coping effectively with Music Performance Anxiety (MPA).
Enter the Vagus nerve, a neurobiological superhighway that may hold the key to unlocking our own personal strategies for coping more effectively with MPA.
Let me explain.
Learning an instrument and playing on stage through our development as a musician, often leads to several situations that can be either embarrassing and /or uncomfortable to varying degrees.
We make mistakes, we fail auditions, we lose competitions, we clash with our teachers/musical directors/conductors/artistic directors/peers, we receive bad reviews, we talk ourselves down, and we doubt ourselves and so on and so forth.
Each of these situations causes micro-trauma. This is a kind of psychological bruising which, at its simplest, boils down to the feelings of shame associated with not being or doing enough particularly in pressure situations.
As Brené Brown notes in her TED Talk, shame produces micro-trauma that can hijack the limbic brain and trigger our vagus nerve. This in turn sets off a chain of events we experience as performance anxiety through the familiar symptoms of racing heart rate, dry mouth, sweats, shakes etc.
However, the vagus nerve is a mind-body feedback loop that can be harnessed to soothe and calm you as well as to activate the fight/flight/freeze response and that’s really good news for musicians.
In the same way time invested in the practice room builds technical proficiency, we can make time to improve the quality of the tone in our vagus nerve with the same discipline we would apply to preparing a new piece in our repertoire.
The simple way to do this is to select a range of exercises, such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, aikido, meditation or working with the breath, that unite the mind and body as a whole rather than exercising either the mind or the body separately.
Increasing the healthy tone of our vagus nerve over time can increase our ability to perform with grace, even in the most pressurised situations – and especially, perhaps, when playing Liszt.
Read more about how you can improve the quality of your vagal tone here.
Paul Crick helps musicians of all levels of ability overcome emotional blocks to personal and professional self-expression using the tools of contemporary psychotherapy. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHCrick