Struggling with Stage Fright
There’s no reason to be nervous. I’m halfway through the song, and I’m doing fine. The singer I accompany holds the attention of the audience, and no one is paying the least bit of attention to me.
Then it hits me, the thought I don’t want to have: “Hey! I’m playing just fine!” Immediately, I realize what I’ve done. “Oh, why did I have to think that?” I worry, afraid that I’ve just jinxed my performance.
And I have. Suddenly I’m focusing on my thoughts, rather than the music: “Will I hit that A-flat diminished bass okay? What if I miss? How awful will it sound? I wonder if I should just cheat and leave that bass out.”
My hands sweat, and I’m sure they are going to slide right off the keys. My face is hot. I pray to make it safely to the end of the piece, without disaster. “Here comes that tricky part,” I tell myself. “I hope I don’t make a mistake.”
Of course I make a mistake. If I’m lucky, it’s a small one, unnoticed by the audience, which is still focusing on the singer. If I’m not so lucky, it’s something bigger.
Stage fright still plagues me, though I’ve played the accordion since I was four and a half years old. My first performance was at a banquet when I was just five years old, and I cried. Now I don’t cry. However, I still feel fear, dread, and a terrible anxiety about making mistakes. Those feelings make me hate to perform in public.
Years ago, I heard someone say that it is not the body but the mind that keeps Olympic athletes from reaching ever higher goals. At the time, I thought that was a dumb comment. Now I don’t. I’m at last beginning to see that the mind has incredible power. I know that it is my mind that holds me back and makes me miserable.
The problem is that I just don’t know what to do about it.
I love playing—when I’m alone, or whenever others are half listening as they go about doing other things. Then I’m making music. Then I’m doing what I think of as playing from the heart. In public, however, I can’t keep my mind from interfering with my fingers. The music gets broken down into pieces and parts in my brain and becomes separate notes, difficult chords, obstacles to overcome instead of music to flow.
Oh, I usually get through the performance just fine, more or less. The audience may think it’s fine, but I know better. It’s not what I know I can do.
I’m sure other accordionists must share my stage fright. Though nothing I’ve tried has freed me of my discomfort with performing, what has helped most are these three things:
Visualization. I practice in my mind. I imagine myself performing well and being pleased with myself. I “see” every part of the performance, from sitting down and opening my music to smiling and hearing applause at the end.
Playing with others. I enjoy playing far more if I’m not the focus of attention. Accompanying a singer or playing as part of a group is far more enjoyable for me than being a soloist. It doesn’t cure my stage fright, but it helps.
Kava kava root. A visit to a health food store introduced me to the herb kava kava root, which is supposed to have a calming effect. I now take two capsules an hour or so before I play, and it does seem to help. The help may be “in my head”—but then so is my problem with playing in public!
After this piece was first published in the CAPA Times (now replaced by this website), CAPA members sent me ideas for dealing with my problem. Read on for their ideas.
Photo by Robbie Grubbs from Houston - What????, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10964558