Glenn D. Wilson
One of the aspects of this article that I found particularly appealing was it’s emphasis on not only the social and emotional aspects of ‘stage fright’ or performance anxiety but the psychological, physical and really tangible aspects and the examination of the comparison between fear for one’s physical well being and one’s emotional and psychological well being. The description of bodily reaction compare the symptoms of stage fright to those of ‘any other phobia or fear reaction.’ (Wilson, 229) Those symptoms are outlined as the heart pumping, the release of energy from the liver, the lungs working hards, the stomach shutting down, body fluids redirected to the bloodstream, causing dry mouth and difficulty swallowing, sharpening of vision, sweating skin, and the discharge of calcium from the tense muscles, causing a ‘pins and needles’ sensation. (Wilson, 230) These descriptions offer the scientific support to the emotional feelings that we, as musicians, have all felt at one time or another, and for the majority of performing artists, feelings that we feel regularly. The symptoms are outlined in a way that demonstrates the direct links between the physical reactions a person has when confronted with physical danger and an emotional or social fear. It is interesting to consider the notion that our psyches consider the fear of failure in an artistic performance similar to the fear of physical harm, and therefor our defense mechanisms for both are quite similar. However, in the case of physical danger, the bodily reaction is the appropriate response as the body is preparing itself for a fight or flight reaction, however for most performers, these feelings do more harm than good in terms of the actual product which is the source of the fear and reaction.
These reactions are of course, different from person to person and for each person those same reactions have the great potential to change from day to day, performance to performance.
Personally, I have found that my personal reactions with stage fright have never been incapacitating, or ever so hindering that I was unable to perform. But, it’s interesting for me to consider when this ‘performance anxiety’ manifests itself for me. When I’m performing for friends and colleagues, I am much more nervous than when I am performing in a concert hall with a huge audience. There are two distinct situations which I find particularly interesting. When I was in high school, I performed the Bach a minor concerto with the chamber orchestra at my high school, as well as with the London Youth Symphony. When I performed the concerto with my high school’s chamber orchestra, my anxiety level was extremely high. Many of my friends and one of my sisters were in the orchestra, and many more friends were in the front row of the audience. However, when I performed with the London Youth Symphony, even though many of my friends were in this orchestra as well, I felt more disassociated from the audience and my anxiety level was much lower. The knowledge that I was performing for and with my social circle created a much higher level of anxiety than was created when I was performing for a much larger, primarily anonymous audience. Also, last year I performed Bach’s concerto for violin and oboe with a friend of mine. We got a small orchestra and continuo together, and performed the piece at both of our graduating recitals. However, at my recital (which came much later, and we were both therefore more prepared) I was significantly more nervous looking out into the audience of my family and friends. I suppose that the stakes are determined by the performer, and the level of anxiety then follows.
I feel that in terms of treatment, the healthiest methods would be those of methods like the Alexander Technique. As mentioned, this is not a method which is meant specifically to deal with performance anxiety, but is a method which teaches its’ participants to find different ways of playing, and performing healthily. Having different physical practices to focus on before and during performance can help to alleviate stress through diversion. Performing with beta blockers, though effective have the potential to (at least psycho-somatically) create a dependence amongst it’s users. However, various different mental and physical exercises are always accessible whereas perhaps at some point in a performing career, drugs such as beta blockers might not be.