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Anatomy of stage fright

Scientists now understand why performing in public turns many of us into wrecks
June 17, 2015

For most of my adult life, virtually no one knew I played the piano. And that was how I wanted it. Playing the piano had once defined me, but so, too, had my stage fright. I played well when there was nothing at stake but put me in front of an audience and my hands would ice over while sweat soaked my palms and fingers. When I quit aged 19, my parents protested that I was giving up the best part of myself. You’ll go back to it one day, they predicted. When I finally did, more than 30 years had passed.

One winter evening in 2011, I found myself at a party, being exhorted to play something on the baby grand. I demurred. The host jovially insisted. I declined. The other guests cajoled. I said no. After opening the piano bench, the host pulled out a book of Bach inventions. How about this, he said. Yes, yes, play that, the others chanted. In that moment, I realised nothing had changed. I was 56 years old and my stage fright was as fearsome and powerful as when I was 14—maybe more so. It demanded some kind of reckoning, I found myself thinking, as I picked my way through a Bach prelude one evening.

If I could give myself a year to explore various therapies and persuade performance coaches and psychologists to work with me, maybe I could beat my stage fright. I would find a teacher who would not only train me as a pianist, but also help me as a performer. I would practise several hours a day, quash my fears and, at the end of the year, give a recital for a hall full of people.

Along the way, I also decided to examine the origins of stage fright and the techniques used by performers to overcome what for many is a crippling condition. In a 2011 survey, 84 per cent of American actors confessed to suffering from performance anxiety. The same year it was reported that 90 per cent of people either felt nervous or extremely nervous about public speaking, with symptoms including nausea, panic attacks and anxiety.

Scientists today understand the workings of fear better than any other emotion. They know where it is sparked in the brain and how to elicit it in athletes, students, test takers, and anyone willing to enter the lab and receive an unpleasant but harmless electric shock. They have traced it to the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ buried deep in the temporal lobe of the brain that leaps into overdrive whenever we feel threatened. When a car engine backfires on the street, the amygdala receives the information and makes us jump, ready to fight or flee, before the prefrontal cortex (the conscious brain) weighs in. The whole process takes 12 milliseconds.

"If fear that has been learned is so powerful, how realistic is it to hope to overcome a lifetime of stage fright?"
It is one of the most powerful and long lasting of lessons. With a single bad experience, we can become conditioned to fear things that are totally harmless. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is external or internal, real or imagined: the brain responds the same.

But if fear that has been learned is so powerful, how realistic is it to hope to overcome a lifetime of stage fright? Can the musician or nerve-ridden actor retrain his or her amygdala and so reclaim some degree of poise? Or are they destined to fail because of the very nature of the acquisition of fear?

Exposure therapy remains the best treatment for anxiety disorders such as stage fright, according to Michael Fanselow, a neuroscientist at the University of California in Los Angeles. “When we’re afraid, part of the fear response is an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. What often happens—and this is especially the case in public-performing fears—[is] you get these changes, which in turn make the fear worse, which makes your blood pressure and heart rate go up even more. So you get into this positive feedback loop.”

Psychologists have for years applied the principle of exposure therapy to treat claustrophobics, locking them in car trunks and coffins—an escape hatch at the ready. Current techniques rely on a gradual desensitisation, beginning with mild triggers before building up little by little. So, for example, a person who is terrified of spiders will at first be exposed to pictures of spiders, before being brought face-to-face with a spider in a cage. Eventually, the spider will be let out, allowed to crawl about and, if all goes well, be touched and petted by the arachnophobe.

Three famous stage fright sufferers:


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If that doesn’t work then there’s always medication. Laurence Olivier confided his stage terror to the actress Sybil Thorndike and her husband. “Take drugs, darling,” she said. “We do.” Performers and public speakers today are likely to take a beta-blocker. Though not approved for stage fright, the drug—usually propranolol—is a standby for performance anxiety. Beta-blockers—so called because they block the heart’s adrenaline-responsive beta-receptors—work by slowing nerve impulses through the heart. They make the heart pump less forcefully, lowering blood pressure and reducing oxygen demand. They also act as a balance to the body’s autonomic system, which regulates breath, heart rate, digestion, perspiration, urination and sexual arousal.

In my own case, beta-blockers don’t make me any braver. They don’t erase my anxiety. What they do is leave me with an absence of its physical manifestations. Their effect is about what doesn’t happen. My hands don’t drip with sweat. My fingers don’t tremble. My knees don’t shake. My heart doesn’t palpitate. They deliver a negative space, something like what the Japanese call ma. And yet, in my mind, I never lose the familiar dread—the lump in the throat, the voice demanding to be heard, asking just what exactly I am doing and why I am so determined to do it.

Detractors insist that beta-blockers turn performance into a sterile and mind-numbing exercise. Angela Chan, a pianist in Montreal, told me that they made her feel like a zombie on the one occasion she tried it. “It was the most devastating experience I ever had. I became a machine to puncture all the notes. It was a total waste of time for me and for the audience. There was no music to speak of. It should be banned for musicians!”

I told myself that I was using them strategically, to store up a new set of experiences and build up my confidence. This was my brand of exposure therapy. The new positive memories would wash away a lifetime of bad ones, and I would augment the chemical fix with a steady diet of yoga, meditation, biofeedback and cognitive behavioural therapy. In forcing my body to declare a ceasefire, they would give me the opportunity to wrest my thoughts from fear to music.

Keen not to rely solely on drugs, I started practising mindfulness techniques. I tried to home in on the touch of my fingers on the keys, my sitting bones on the bench, my feet on the floor. I posted notes all over the music: “BREATHE!” Why does it require a reminder? Every emotion alters the breath, one way or another. But when we’re scared, we seek to deny or ignore our fear, and holding our breath becomes a physical tool of denial. Breathing is easy to forget. Sometimes, as I played, I realised that my chest wasn’t moving, my diaphragm was still, my throat stuck between an inhale and an exhale.

At the piano, my thoughts, posture, gestures and music making all require a yoga mind. But my attention, so assiduously cultivated and hard-won in the yoga studio, doesn’t automatically transfer to the piano, where that union of mind, body and instrument still proves elusive.

Frederic Chiu addresses this problem in his workshops for advanced pianists. He often leads them at his manor house on a Connecticut estate dotted with shady old-growth trees and modern art installations. His workshops draw on ancient philosophy, meditation and “aspects of music making usually left uncovered in traditional study.” But the issue of stage fright is always at the forefront. Chiu considers it a universal response to performing, whether the musician acknowledges it or not. For him, it comes down to shame and humiliation.

“The more interested and excited about something you are, the more intense your shame and humiliation will be when the passion gets stopped,” he explained. “And it will always be stopped by something, at least some of the time.” By a mistake. Or by a momentary loss of focus. To inculcate attentiveness, Chiu has created what he calls “stop exercises.” During a piece, an exercise, or even a scale, the musician must regularly stop playing and ask himself: “What am I experiencing emotionally right now?” Of course, the answer will always be different, depending on the moment and the music. “The more observant one is, the more one is watching, fully aware of what’s happening and of what might happen. The more you peel away these added layers of effect to get at the core, the more you see.”

For sportsmen and musicians, overthinking is almost always the problem. “When people are concerned about themselves and their performance, they tend to try to control their movements in order to ensure an optimal outcome,” writes psychologist Sian Beilock in Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. “What results is that fluid performances—performances that run best largely outside of conscious awareness—are messed up.” To illustrate, she studied highly skilled college soccer players at her Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago. When the players were instructed to pay close attention to their footwork, their dribbling grew clumsy and error-prone, as compared with the times they dribbled without instruction. Skilled golfers who were instructed to putt as quickly as possible showed consistent improvement.

I spoke to Steve Sax, a baseball player who famously lost his confidence for three months in the 1980s. After a brilliant year as National League All-Star second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sax lost the ability to throw a ball after making an error in a game against the Montreal Expos in April 1983. It was not an especially serious error except that the next day he made another. Then came another. He was 23 years old and had just been named Rookie of the Year. Now, for the first time in his life, he questioned himself. “And when fear and doubt set into your psyche, it will absolutely rob and suck out every chance of success that you have. That’s what it did to me,” he told me. “It took over my confidence in doing the most rudimentary things. Like throwing the ball 50 feet to first base. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

In the summer of 1983, Sax would make 30 errors, 24 of them in a three-month summer span as his collapse played out before a fascinated public. Some of his teammates avoided throwing Sax the ball, but Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda refused to drop him. Many times, Lasorda would take him out on to the field before a game, blindfold him, and make him practise his toss. “And I’d throw it every single time right there, blindfolded, to the person at first [base]. I hit him in the chest every single time. And then the game would start and I’d throw that sucker up to Section J somewhere. Here we’d go again, the whole wave of problems, starting over again. I wanted to give up.”

Sax tackled his fear using sheer willpower. When he fielded ground balls during batting practice, he pretended to be in the middle of a game. If he made an accurate throw, he showered himself with praise and affirmation: “That was easy. Of course I can do that.” Pre-game practice became his performance, “so that I was able to relax and feed off the momentum I had at practice. I was more at ease when the real game began, because, in my mind, I had just been through a game.” He felt his confidence returning. “Everything you do in sports, whether it’s fielding or hitting, it’s a feeling you get. The rhythm and relaxation come together, and when you start feeling that, your confidence starts to grow.” By the end of the 1983 season, Sax had logged 38 consecutive error-free games.

After learning how others had overcome their fears, I anticipated that my piano performance, for which I’d been preparing for the past year, would be terrifying but also exhilarating. I was pretty confident that I would survive—and I did. But after it was over I felt bereft. For days, I brooded about whether I had fallen short of my goal. I was reluctant to play the recording of the concert, afraid of what I would hear. But when I finally did listen, I was surprised. I heard some lapses, yes. But I also heard expressiveness. I heard assertiveness. I heard a voice. What I heard was me. I was not a professional, and I was hardly perfect. But I was striving for excellence, and sometimes I attained it.