My article from yesterday’s Daily Telegraph
Unlike a high-wire walker, I don’t think any musician strikes the wires of a piano or draws a bow across a violin’s strings primarily for the kick of an adrenalin fix. There is danger on stage, but dropped notes are not broken bones; a memory lapse is not a tumble to the ground.
Nevertheless, anxiety is there, and for some it is a paralysis, either of the very ability to play, or at least of the ability to “play” – a carefree verb suggesting freedom, joy, exuberance, even ecstasy. For some, according to a Channel 4 documentary, Addict’s Symphony, the effect is so intense that the only way to control it is with alcohol and pharmaceuticals. But there are other ways to manage the overwhelming panic that can set in.
Unless we are incompetent at what we are meant to be doing onstage (and know it), the presence of anxiety is strictly speaking illogical: a topic for psychologists really, not musicians. The nervousness reaches deep into our past childhoods – our desire to be approved, our fear of being rejected. Our nakedness on stage is an exposure to judgment, and one that we have initiated.
In superficial terms, to have an orchestral career is to be better than others, or at least to be chosen over others on that particular occasion; it is a form of survival. For, say, a horn player, the possibility of a split note – basically, when the wrong sound comes out – is a daily audition, an “interview” on which continued employment hinges. It is no wonder that the name Richard Strauss – with his epic exposed solos – strikes fear into the hardiest horn player’s soul.
For those of us with less pinpoint moments of risk, perhaps the first step in overcoming anxiety is to recognise its source: our ego. If we were to look beyond ourselves, to the music and to those for whom we perform – the composer, the audience – we may begin to unravel the fear haunting us, which can result from an insatiable need for approval and admiration.
And beyond this truism, might we actually be able to embrace our nervousness? Most performers need this form of excitement, this whiff of danger, to be at their best, and the risks that come with a live concert are also part of its allure. Knowing that performance anxiety is purely a phantom of our imagination may actually provide an injection of bravura, a heroic challenge to the demons within, resulting in greater energy and concentration.
For continued avoidance of the cold sweats, we might want to move into more philosophical thoughts, the bigger picture. Five hundred years ago none of this existed, none of the music, the instruments, the concert halls … the critics. And in 500 years what is here now will probably have disappeared too. That speck of dust, me, on a planet which is itself a speck of dust. How loud is that wrong note in the cosmos?
Or we can try physical tricks, deep-breathing, stretching, not too much coffee, plenty of rest, the right kind of nutrition (some people choose bananas as their dressing-room companions). Or there can be a “pastoral” element involved – performance as communication, as sharing, as healing even. Most people are at a concert because they want to be inspired, entertained, moved; we musicians have the mission to be bringers of joy, of ecstasy.
If “ecstasy” means to stand outside ourselves, then what better ambition can there be as we wait in the wings of the Royal Albert Hall: to leave self-obsession behind and take the audience on a journey across the high wire of Beethoven or on the flying trapeze of Liszt.