The audience sits ready to hear the musician in concert, looking forward to an enjoyable performance. The musician stands backstage, ready to begin. He or she may feel quite confident, or may be scared to death. Chances are that if the performer has practiced adequately, he or she has some confidence that the concert will go well. On the other hand, excess adrenalin can make the hands shake or sweat, the head spin, and the mind go haywire. A well-practiced set can become a disaster.
It’s considered common wisdom that stage fright is normal for the neophyte but is less of an issue as one gains skill and experience. Yet this is often not true. There’s a story about Pablo Cassals (the renown cellist) who upon injuring his hand actually felt relieved to think he might never have to perform again. This is not an uncommon feeling among professional musicians. (His hand healed, by the way, and he continued his career.)
Although there are those who exude confidence, for many amateurs and professionals stage fright is the bane of our existence. You can’t always tell which performers are scared, because part of being a good performer is knowing how to look confident. Yet putting one foot in front of the other to walk onto a stage can feel like walking to a gallows, when what we really want is to enjoy our own performances! Why perform otherwise?
The strangest thing about stage fright is that it’s the fright itself that can cause a performance to be less than perfect. You know you have the musical skill, so “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Where does stage fright originate, and why does it persist? The answer is simple: stage fright persists in our musical culture because we have come to expect performances to be note-perfect. Among musicians of all ages and skill levels, that attitude alone is responsible for more grief than can be measured.
It probably arose with the advent or recording. We can engineer a recording to be perfect, and/or play a piece over and over until we’ve recorded a “perfect” version”, so we can present to the listener something that tells a lie about performance. It’s necessary, of course, because a recording gets played again and again, and no one wants to hear the same mistakes over and over. But since most listeners are not necessarily musicians, or perhaps even though they may be musicians, the perfection of a recording creates the impression that all performances can and should be perfect.
Sustained perfection is not humanly possible. Expecting anyone to do what no one can do is not just unrealistic, it’s insane. We may as well expect ourselves to sprout wings and fly.
I once attended a recital of J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (a set of twelve pieces) by an accomplished pianist, who made a mistake about two-thirds of the way through the concert. She stopped, went back to the first piece and started the entire set over, whereupon she made it through without audible error. The audience had to sit through what we’d already heard, it became a very long concert, and though she got through the second time without error, why did she do this to her audience? Not because she had lost her place or could not play through her mistake. It was because she wanted to prove that she could play it perfectly. Yet all she did was prove that she could sometimes play it perfectly. This lady was more concerned about her idea of “perfection” and about her pride than about musicianship.
It’s fair to say that audiences can be hard on performers, too. Some years ago, a friend of mine (one of the most accomplished harpers alive today) performed at a local venue, and I was unable to attend; later I asked someone how the concert was. The report I was given consisted of one sentence: “He hit a bass string that buzzed really loudly, right in the middle of one piece.” That was the entirety of the report; it was the main thing the listener remembered. Yet I know for a fact that there were hundreds of beautiful and well-played notes before and after the one “bad” note; this harpist cannot be anything other than brilliant.
Perfection and musicianship are not synonymous!
In fact, striving for perfection can get in the way of musicianship. We tend to give undue negative attention to mistakes, not because there is some inherent importance to them, but simply because we are taught to. Those awful piano recitals when we were kids, for instance, were like sending lambs to slaughter, accomplishing nothing more than hammering into young, impressionable minds the idea that our worth as human beings should be judged by whether or not we can play a piece of music perfectly. When our identity is at stake, no wonder we develop chronic stage fright.
The fact is, in most performances good players simply cover and play through imperfections so you don’t notice them. When a mistake occurs that cannot be hidden, many good performers will make a joke and keep going; the audience most often will enjoy the humor and appreciate that the performer is human. If we were not so hard on ourselves, and if we nurtured audiences to look for the beauty and wonder in a performance instead of eagle-eyeing for mistakes, it would make our music more joyful to play and to hear.
Playing Accurately vs. Playing Perfectly
Of course we want to play accurately; that is, we want our music to have recognizable melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and so on. We should strive for the music to be audibly “all there”. But accuracy is not synonymous with perfection. Accuracy is simply precision, and it’s part of good musicianship. We can play in a precise way and still make occasional errors.
Many amateur musicians slur over notes or let thunks and clunks happen where notes should be; that’s not accuracy. Or one may allow their music to have inconsistent timing or imprecise rhythms; that’s not accuracy. If you’re not playing accurately you need more practice. What doesn’t work in the privacy of your living room won’t work in performance.
Once you’ve attained accuracy, your errors will decrease as well, but I know of no one who has ever achieved the ability to play music without an occasional error. Therefore, being afraid of making mistakes is, as I said before, insane. Don’t buy into that. If you’ve practiced well, there is no reason for fear, and anyone who would fault you for an occasional error isn’t listening for the actual music anyway.