Yet there is the lure of the stage, the live performance. Stage fright can create an untapped excitement that translates into performance energy, the possibility of creating something new. Horowitz insists that “the music is behind the notes, and the performance is your search for it.”
Here is where I’m going. I certainly have experienced stage freight in my short career as a performing musician. I play the piano at Everyday Center for Spiritual Living Sunday mornings. We do not play hymns, or even much of the New Thought music that’s out there, rather we lean towards rock and roll with a sideways message of positive living. We’ve covered reggae, (Three Little Birds), John Lennon (Imagine), the Beatles, Allman Brothers (Revival), sung We Were Blessed by Lucinda Williams, and lots of songs written by Paul Dillon, our music director. I’ve done duets and solos, originals, Jazz, classical, and poetry readings with my friend, Linda Durham. We have a very friendly accepting congregation who often give us a standing ovation just because they’re happy and we helped them feel that. They learn the words to the monthly openers, sing along, clap, and dance, and do a Love Train when that’s called for.
Does this make it easier?
Yes and No.
Mainly yes, in that you know a little slip up like a missed lyric, or chord error, a slow start will be quickly forgiven, even laughed at in a friendly manner. You know, unlike Glenn Gould’s belief that, “… the spectators wanted him to fail; he was sure that, in any case, he would get germs from them,” this audience loves the moments when we shine. And we do. There’s growth in all of us and we’ve learn to grasp the microphone and belt out a solo, or lay in a sweet harmony, or dance across the keys in a blues riff.
I am still learning to accept the applause. What? Who me? You like me?
One of my early performances with singer/songwriter Lisa Carmen, was at another church, and there up on an elevated stage was a baby grand piano I’d long eyed. Lisa Carmen was also a teacher, and in a maneuver to get to play with the current church band that she led, I started taking voice lessons. Of course, my 40 years of piano playing, even if done in the safety of my own living room, became quickly apparent. Lisa soon asked me to join her band, which I did for a little while, and she encouraged me to write songs, which I also did. I wrote a minor blues song called The Little Things, and she liked it and got me a spot on a Sunday morning.
The night before the performance, Lisa called me. I was already in bed, trying to “prepare” and she had guessed that I was nervous. Preparing in bed did little to supplement the preparing I’d done at my actual instrument in the dining room. The Little Things, again and again and again. Lisa assured me I’d be all right.
Sunday morning came, I mounted the stage, and Lisa, in her gorgeous rock and roll soprano sang my song with heartfelt passion. I had my solo sections and a very nice instrument on which to run the blues. The congregation erupted in applause. Lisa, center stage, turned and introduced me as the composer. You know that moment you’ve always dreamed of when the band leader acknowledges you with a wave of their hand and says, “Miss Laura Hays on keys!” your name sounding as good as any rock star.
But I was gone by then. I’d jumped off the stage and had gone to hide behind my husband who was there to support me. I held tight to his hand and gave a tiny nod to the audience.
Since then, when reviewing filmed performances, I’ve watched myself slide out of the range of the camera after a good or even very good job, at just the moment the acknowledgement comes.
It’s the applause I can’t take. The applause I have to teach myself to enjoy and love and accept.
This goes back to the heart of stage fright. The introvert, like a snail forced out of its shell, must go back inside to the comfort of its safe home.
Carly Simon, when asked by Charlie Rose about stage fright, said she just didn’t want to be center stage. “I would prefer to be a background singer or a tambourine player, or part of the crew.”
I once heard a talk given by David Morrell, a well-established thriller writer, first famous for inventing Rambo, in which he confessed that for every performance, like the speech he was then giving, he needed a couple of days of very quiet recovery, hiding at home, not talking to people, just being the introverted writer he was.
I have days when I don’t even want to go out to the mailbox for fear I’ll see a neighbor and have to have a conversation. This day usually coincides with Monday. The day after Sunday. They day after I’ve performed.
The audience gives us a gift by listening, watching, reacting, applauding, enjoying. I’ve come to believe, that for an artist, the audience is a key element. The connection enlarges the performance. The performer can step aside and let the performance come through them. This happens at the best of times, so you hardly know what hit you, what you just did. If you can stay conscious, a kind of double consciousness of being there and being aware both, you will enjoy a moment of heaven, of flight, of transcendence of anything as small as fear.