Nightmares from the music world: a performer’s journey to overcoming stagefright

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The life of a performing classical musician comes across as both glamorous and mysterious to most people outside of the performance world. When an opera singer or concert pianist sweeps on stage in a black tux or a red carpet gown, nobody in the audience imagines that they might suffer from abysmal stage fright. Sure, “everybody gets anxious” – just not the professionals who are trained for careers in the spotlight.

 

As anyone involved in the performance world would know, it is not so black and white. Most performers struggle with anxiety to varying degrees.

Dianna Kenny, for her book The Psychology of Performance Anxiety, conducted a survey of 357 musicians from 8 premier orchestras in Australia and found that 106 use Beta-Blockers to relieve performance anxiety for every concert. Beta-Blockers are legal drugs that treat blood pressure and block adrenaline, routinely prescribed for stage fright.

World famous soloists have also come out about their experiences with the performance jitters.

Opera singer Renee Fleming opened up in her autobiography – The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer – about the horrific anxiety she endured in the late 1990’s after an incident of being booed off stage in Milan; in Ethan Hawke’s documentary Seymour: An Introduction, the acclaimed pianist Seymour Bernstein talks about giving up his concert career at age 50 due to his crippling anxiety.

 

Despite the increasing amount of interest and awareness on the issue, there is a stigma that remains in the performing world around admitting to one’s anxiety (it is probably contagious). Performers are commended for their bravery on stage, but not for their courage to talk about the realities that come with making oneself vulnerable in front of an audience.

 

“You practice, practice, practice. But in the end, it has nothing to do with your skill. Once you get on stage the fear takes your voice away,” says Jen Mealiea, a former vocal performance major from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She graduated in 2002, and then walked away from all things music for 6 years, going on to earn a Master’s degree in psychology. 15 years after her graduation from vocal performance, Mealiea opened up to me about the anxiety she experienced while pursuing her music degree, and her journey to rediscovering the joy of performing.

 

“Trying to be that perfect performer took away my joy for what I was doing on stage, and that’s why I stepped away from performing – I didn’t want to completely lose my love of music.”

Mealiea’s anxiety reached its breaking point during her role as Mother Marie in Dialogues des Carmelites, a grizzly French opera by Francis Poulenc (the opera’s beastly end features 16 nuns getting guillotined). She was 21 at the time, and felt that the opera was too mature for her voice. The first performance landed a great review, but Mealiea could not deal with the added pressure.

“My voice did nothing but crack on the second night. I would go offstage and start crying, and 5 seconds later I would have to go back onstage and sing. It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

Although Mealiea has been diagnosed with a general anxiety disorder, she admits to never having struggled so intensely with performing angst until that specific performance.

“I began to have nightmares in the weeks leading up to my next performances. I was just beside myself – I felt that there was no way I could get on stage and sing. It came down to my need to be perfect – otherwise I was convinced I would disappoint  everyone around me.”

Perfectionism is a common thing among classical musicians, who rely on quick reflexes and detailed technique. Hours are spent in the practice room perfecting the smallest mishaps.

 

Mealiea’s need for perfection and her lack of control on stage were not the only issues that characterized her experience with performance anxiety.  Another problem was her inability to discuss and actively work through her anxiety with her vocal instructors.

“The closest my prof ever came to the subject of performance anxiety was joking about having a glass of sherry before a performance.”

 

Rose van der Hooft, a vocal instructor at Canadian Mennonite University and the Desautels Faculty of Music, weighed in on the methods she uses to tackle the issue of stage fright among her students. Van der Hooft works with her students on a variety of vocal techniques in order to help them harness their adrenaline before a performance.

“In a warm-up, you want to practice those things that ensure for you the best performance scenario. For example, breathing into different muscle areas and relaxing them about half an hour before a performance. There are also mental tricks – using exercises that work to slow down one’s movements”

Van der Hooft also identified a specific mindset involved in learning how to perform well.

“Those with fixed mindsets tend to be perfectionists, associating the inability to achieve their goals with automatic failure. On the other hand, those with growth mindsets will understand every performance opportunity as a growth process.”

 

After going sans music for 6 years, Mealiea had the break she needed to start developing her own “growth mindset” and reclaim her love of performing. She worked with both a psychologist and a psychiatrist in order to give voice to her anxieties, and 5 months ago, she started taking voice lessons again.

“Until there is a serious recognition of the mental aspects that come with performing, we will continue to have musicians who are not able to perform because of the anxiety that comes with it,” says Mealiea. “I also find that the more I talk about it, the more people say, “Yeah, I have anxiety too!””

 

Mealiea now regularly performs leading roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Nova Scotia. She told me that in her last couple of performances she was anxiety-free. It may have taken her 15 years, but Mealiea’s willingness to talk about and work at her anxiety appears to have had fruitful results.

“It’s all for fun now – I do it because I love it. I’m finally able to do it for me and reclaim that joy.”

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