Performance nerves. Performance anxiety. Stage fright. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s something most musicians have to deal with, and it can be awful. It can precede a performance by hours or even days, or it can be a moment of heart-pounding, gut-wrenching fear just before the performer steps onto the stage. It’s an adrenalin jolt that some performers manage to use to their advantage; a rush of energy that some can learn to channel in such a way their performance is enhanced.
I’ve never known a performer who didn’t experience it to some degree, because we all want what we do to be flawless, perfect and awe-inspiring. That’s asking a lot of ourselves, but it’s what we strive for. It’s rare for a performer to finish a performance and be totally satisfied with it. The nerves are usually vanquished when the first notes are played or sung and the performer realizes he is going to live through this. He thinks of the music, and it begins to be an experience that’s enjoyable if not exhilarating. After all, we do this because we love to do it, to share our music.
The musicians in my books experience stage fright. Jamie Logan, the tenor who strives to conquer the world of opera in You Are My Song, describes it as a combination of fear and excitement he experiences just before the curtains open. But that’s when he’s a mature artist: as a younger singer, he had serious trouble with stage fright. I think Jamie has learned how to use that adrenalin rush to his advantage.
Eli Levin, the main character in Eli’s Heart, sometimes has terrible attacks of nerves. In this excerpt from the book, he has one of the worst cases of nerves in his young life when he has limited time to prepare a difficult and demanding piece which he plays with a string quartet. He practices like crazy (well, that’s not new – Eli always practices like crazy). He cuts a class or two to practice, has trouble sleeping and isn’t his usual loving self with his wife.
The piece is the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, and if you’re intrigued there are quite a few performances on YouTube. One I especially love is with the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein and the Guarneri Quartet.
Eli asked Krissy to sit in the auditorium for the first half of the concert, two Bartok quartets. She wanted to stay with him, but he told her he’d really rather she didn’t. She tried not to look hurt, but he saw in her face she felt he was shutting her out. She was right. He needed it to be him and Brahms right now. He studied the score, his hands trembling.
At intermission Walter told him not to worry, it was going to be great. Krissy found him and walked into his arms, and he held her tight. She didn’t say anything, just held him as close as she could. He relaxed enough to feel he could walk out to the piano. “Hold these for a minute, will you?” He handed her his glasses as he wiped his face and hands with his handkerchief. It distressed her to see his hands shaking. Have I ever been this nervous before a performance? he thought. Krissy replaced his glasses and kissed him, and he relaxed a little more. She smiled and touched his face, love and concern in her eyes, and went back to her seat.
As Eli waited to go onstage with the Quartet, he tried to turn his thoughts inward, to find that place in himself where he had gone so many times to find the muse. He knew she was there; she was always there. He caught a glimpse of her and held onto it as he walked onstage. He sat at the piano, opening the score. He looked at the score as he heard the strings tuning, focusing on what Brahms was asking from them to bring the printed notes to life.
Think about the music, Eli said to himself. Think about the muse. He heard the music in his head. His hands were no longer shaking; they were steady as he lifted them. He looked at Walter and nodded slightly; he was ready. On Walter's signal Eli brought his hands down on the keyboard, a brief thought crossing his mind: Here we go. He felt and heard the opening unison passage, all of them moving as one. Eli attacked the keyboard for the rapid arpeggios that followed, playing them cleanly; he heard the strings accenting what he was doing. He caught Walter’s signal as they began the main theme, and the music swept through him. He became caught up in the beauty of what they were doing together and the connection he felt with them.
The first movement went almost perfectly, and he began to feel more confident. Eli loved playing with these men. He was part of a team; it was the musical equivalent of playing in the infield with the New York Yankees. The nerves were gone. By the time they began the third movement ... the Scherzo ...everything felt right. His fingers flew over the keyboard with surety, elegantly arcing phrases, weaving the piano part perfectly with the strings. This was why he played; this incredible feeling of making the music soar. There was another rush of adrenalin as they approached the end of the final movement; after the last strong chords there were glances and smiles exchanged on stage. Eli breathed a huge sigh of relief, feeling slightly giddy, elated by the joy of having lived music here in this hall with Brahms, with his colleagues, with this audience. The audience stood and responded with enthusiastic and prolonged applause.
Links to my books can be found on my website at www.susanmoorejordan.com