By Madeline Bruser
In 2004, The New York Times reported that among classical musicians, the use of beta-blockers—drugs that reduce the physical symptoms of stage fright—had become “nearly ubiquitous.” The article mentioned that some music teachers even advise their students to take beta-blockers before important auditions or performances.
Although actors sometimes rely on beta-blockers when they have a particularly intense case of nerves, classical musicians depend on these drugs more than any other group of performers. Dancers can’t use beta-blockers because the drugs reduce the stamina they need for the enormous physical energy they expend.
But classical musicians face a unique set of problems. The music we play demands the utmost precision. If our finger moves an eighth of an inch in the wrong direction, people can tell that we’ve made a mistake. With audiences everywhere habituated to today’s doctored recordings, many musicians feel enormous pressure to measure up to the standards of these recordings by producing note-perfect live performances.
A Lot May Be at Stake
Musicians’ careers sometimes depend on meeting high objective standards. Orchestral players are often terrified of losing their jobs if they make small mistakes in a concert. And one judge at a prestigious international piano competition admitted to a performer who hadn’t made it to the finals that every contestant had played at such a high level that jurors started wishing that at least one pianist would disqualify himself by having a memory lapse. It would make it easier for the jury to decide on a winner.
In this climate of intense fear and competitiveness, it’s no wonder that so many performers have come to rely on beta-blockers to feel confident onstage. But is this really how it has to be?
The Nature of Performance
A musician friend of mine explained performers’ nerves like this: “If you’re a performer, your vulnerability is your product.” In other words, our job is to let ourselves be moved by the huge range of powerful energies in music so we can transmit them to our audience. But being that open means being willing to give up the idea of being in control. We may know a piece inside out, but at the moment of performance we have to let go and allow ourselves to be real and imperfect. Audiences don’t want to hear a well-oiled machine. They want to be touched and moved by the communicative power of a vulnerable, daring human being.
What Has Happened to Us?
The great pianist Artur Schnabel was revered for his ability to deeply affect his audiences. And yet he sometimes completely lost his place in a performance. Once he stopped playing in the middle of a concerto and walked over to the conductor’s podium to check the score, so he could pick up where he’d left off and finish the performance. On another occasion, he stopped in the middle of a Beethoven sonata, got up, and announced to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot play this sonata tonight. I will play another Beethoven sonata which is just as beautiful.”
I’ve always loved listening to recordings by Schnabel and others of his generation, especially when I’m in the company of other musicians. It feels cleansing and nourishing for us to forget about current standards for a while and to share the simple humanness in these recordings; it somehow never seems to go out of style. When I did a book signing at the Juilliard Bookstore, I was happy to hear the store manager say that he thought the subtitle of my book, A Guide to Making Music from the Heart, would appeal to students at the school, because they preferred buying “historic” CDs, which were typically more emotionally affecting than the more “perfect” recordings of more contemporary classical performers.
Our technological era has trained our ears to expect extremely accurate performances that are free of the erratic or eccentric tendencies that some artists have been known for in the past. In this way, recordings have functioned like a mirror, in which we can notice our flaws. But although raising the bar in this regard may be fine to an extent, it goes too far if we are so afraid to be human that we freeze in panic about going onstage. I find it very sad that only a small minority of performers actually relish the opportunity to ride the waves of their wild, unpredictable humanness and to share this life-giving energy with others in performance.
What IS Music Anyway?
Music is made out of the amazingly varied and beautiful experiences of human beings—the forces of nature that travel through us as we navigate our lives. In music we can find the energy of all the elements—volcanoes, rushing rivers, floods, torrential rain, thunder, gentle breezes, sunlight sparkling in a fountain—in constant play. Every split-second this energy changes as it moves through our bodies and minds. And great music arranges all of these energies into magnificent forms that transform us when we hear them.
It’s Not a Moral Issue
Handling all that energy onstage, when everyone’s eyes and ears are on us, is a huge challenge. And the choice to take or not to take a beta-blocker is personal and individual. Many performers who take them do so because they have experienced psychological trauma, from harmful parents or teachers, which has severely damaged their confidence. It takes so much training, bravery, and support to develop confidence onstage that I would never be judgmental of a performer who feels they can’t perform without a beta-blocker.
But I would strongly recommend that they not give up on their ability to become confident without the drugs, and to seek training, guidance, and support from people who can really help—with instrumental technique, with artistic conviction, and with personal empowerment to give their gifts to others onstage. While I don’t know if every musician can learn to perform drug-free, I have seen so many recover from debilitating stage fright that I would encourage every musician to pursue this possibility wholeheartedly. Confidence in performance is our birthright. We are put on this planet partly to be a transmitter of musical magic. It is fundamental to who we are.
Becoming at Home with Who We Are
Learning to live in our own skin as musicians means getting used to having musical sound living in our bodies both when we’re practicing and when we’re performing. To do that, we first need to pay a lot of attention to our physical and emotional experience of sound when we practice—to become as familiar as possible with the infinite scope and beauty of musical sounds and how each one of them changes us inside, viscerally. We can’t accomplish this by joylessly practicing the same passages over and over. Instead, we need to let ourselves be touched over and over, by every sound and sensation we make. In this way we come to embody musical sound, so that we feel deeply at home with it.
We also have to become at home with the physical sensations of making music. With each movement of our hands or lips, each sensation of touching our instrument as we move our bodies to express the sounds inside of us, we must feel deeply comfortable and engaged. Otherwise, how can we expect to walk out onstage and feel comfortable there, when we have to relate to an audience in addition to relating to our instrument and the music?
Being a Host Instead of a Guest
Once our body, mind, and senses have thoroughly absorbed a piece of music, we have something genuine to offer our audience.
A wonderful violist told me that whenever he gives a concert, he arrives at the hall two hours before performance time. When I asked why he gets there so early, he explained that he wants to feel like a host instead of a guest. He wants to make sure he feels comfortable where he is so that he can extend himself in a spirit of generosity toward his audience.
It is our job as performers—to be so at home onstage that we feel ready to invite our audience into our world and to share our gifts with them.
On Timing and Safety
You may not feel ready to be a host yet. You can’t feel ready if you still need time to make yourself at home in your own practice room and your own mind. But don’t give up on who you are. You are meant to share your gifts, and you can find guidance to help you do that.
If you don’t feel ready to seek help now, it’s important to accept yourself just as you are—to feel your fear and vulnerability. This is the experience of your tender heart, which is the most precious part of you. If you take time to feel this tender, scared place in yourself, you are already giving yourself some of the gentle attention you need to eventually overcome whatever obstacles are in your way. Just remember that you are not alone. Many performers share your fears. And help is available.
If you do feel ready to seek guidance toward freedom and confidence onstage, look for signs that the experience will be safe. Ask all the questions you need to ask of anyone you’re considering getting help from. Talk to more than one person if you’re curious about different perspectives and points of view.
The friendly-looking people you see in the right column of every issue of Fearless Performing are a few of the many people who have a lot to offer. Other music teachers, movement educators, arts medicine professionals, psychotherapists, and mindfulness teachers are also out there, ready to help. Look for a combination of wisdom, experience, kindness, and personal chemistry. Then trust your intuition and open yourself to the new world you hope to find.
It takes work to break through the obstacles to freedom. But with the right guidance, that work will feel natural, welcome, and exciting.
I wish you much joy and success in making music.
P.S. If you’re ready to take a big step toward being more at home onstage, my summer program is a great way to do it. You’ll have lots of guidance and support from me and from the assistant teachers, and a whole group of other willing participants to share the experience with. A safe and magical journey awaits you there.
Q&A of the Month
These are wonderful questions. With your high degree of awareness, you can make many useful discoveries about how to best practice and perform, which can keep your work fresh and exciting.
I agree that closing your eyes can make it easier to focus on sounds and sensations. This is why many blind musicians are known for being especially sensitive and expressive. At the same time, when we perform, our awareness needs to expand to include the audience and the environment, so that we can connect with them fully and really communicate. When we’re performing really well, our energy mixes with everyone else’s, creating a vibrant atmosphere in the hall. Whether you do that with your eyes open or closed, your whole system feels it when it happens.
It takes a lot to prepare a piece to the point of feeling comfortable performing it. When we practice, we have the luxury of taking our time, of focusing on one thing at a time so that we can absorb every detail and make it a part of us. We have room to try all kinds of approaches, and that helps us develop our unique creative intelligence. As we get closer to mastering a piece, the space we’re working in feels more intense—we have made so many choices already about how to play the piece that our perceptions become very sharp as we try to refine our performance. Although we never feel 100% prepared when we go onstage, the moment comes when we have to just let go. And if we’ve practiced with an open mind and heart, we can trust that we’ve taken the music in and that it will flow out of us in performance. It may not necessarily feel comfortable in the usual sense of the word. It feels very daring—we’re really on the spot. But you could describe it as becoming comfortable with that feeling of risk and uncertainty. We get used to riding the waves of the music and of the energy in ourselves and all around us.