“Breathe, I told myself. It was such an easy thing to forget.”
Imagine reading this review out loud, word for word, into a microphone. Then imagine you’re in front of an audience with hundreds of strangers hanging on your every word.
No big deal? Or is paralysis creeping upon you at the mere thought?
Studies show that 74 percent of you are afraid to speak or perform in public. This “performance anxiety” is a confounding phenomena that seems as ubiquitous as the common cold; “an act of mutiny by the mind against the body,” as described by author Sara Solovitch.
Solovitch would know a thing or two about stage fright. She’s played the piano since her earliest days (that’s her on Playing Scared’s cover), and by age 10 she was already comfortable with Bach and Mozart in her music lessons. Comfortable performing? That was another question. She attended the Eastman School of Music, hopeful for a career in music. Then came her hometown’s annual music festival, something she’d been putting off from for a few years until she was 14, with her piano teacher finally insisting she was ready for a more serious competition. “There was a blur of faces, all aimed in my direction…I became aware that my knees were knocking and my feet were shaking…”
Though Solovitch was evidently a talent at the piano in a private, more intimate setting, she found herself rushing, shaking, sweating or freezing when encountering an audience. Until she began writing this book, she hadn’t performed live since 1971. She has since become a reporter for the Philadelphia Enquirer and a health columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.
Playing Scared is Solovitch’s first book, but since it covers a subject with which she has a direct and intense personal experience, it is an assuredly enticing read, written with a passionate curiosity and the shrewd dissecting of a scientist, to find some solution to stage fright by piecing together testimonials and backgrounds of various other musicians, teachers and performers from across the musical spectrum who have also dealt with stage fright or have significantly helped others overcome it.
So, having gone decades without performing for an audience other than her family or friends, Solovitch challenges herself to prepare for an upcoming event, a self-imposed one-year deadline to conquer her stage fright. While Playing Scared documents both her personal history with performance anxiety as well as the year of technical and mental training leading up to her big performance, it also is an exploration for her, utilizing her journalistic talents, to meet and document different people’s perspectives and then, from those interactions, sift out an answer, of sorts, for herself that could best alleviate her tenseness with audiences.
She confers with a Julliard trained violinist who is also a psychologist, training musicians to be “bulletproof,” and later attends an intensive Piano Camp where she experiments with performing inside laundry rooms, basements, linen closets, bedrooms and, interestingly, later on, an airport.
Is it all in our heads? Should we embrace our imperfections? Can we train ourselves to stop worrying? “The worst thing that anyone can do in a concert is play accurately…” Solovitch is quoting renowned pianist Gwendolyn Mok, in the midst of her one year journey. “It’s boring as hell,” Mok said. It turns out one can become hindered by a preoccupation with playing the right notes all the time. There are other nuances to consider in performance, as Solovitch documents, like dynamics, phrasing, gesture, meaning! But her interviews often meditate upon the possibility for imperfection, inviting it, even.
Should musicians train their craft to be as perfect as something industrially manufactured? Even an engineer tells Solovitch that there is no such thing as perfection…so be ready for errors and remember, above all, to breathe.
“Breathe. Don’t stop.” Solovitch develops a mantra. And, it closes with: “Play from the heart.”