Do any of you suffer from stage fright? Get panicked about playing in front of other people (including your teacher)? That used to happen to me all the time. I would hear my voice shake when I sang. In my twenties, I’d get so self-conscious at a fiddle contest that I’d blow my set more often than not.
But playing for a contradance was a snap: no one was watching! I ran the weekly dance and was fiddling on stage. But any sense of my own celebrity was extinguished early on when, at half time, one of the women asked if I was having a good time. She hadn’t seen me on the floor before and offered to find me “a good partner, the best way to learn.” I was delighted by her welcome. I comped her admission and took the life lesson gracefully. So much for ‘fame’.
Yet, that invisibility was a gift. I needed that time to fool around with the music, to get my own roots growing in it long enough and deep enough to allow me to bloom. Still, ten years down the road, I worried far too much about what listeners thought of my music. The good news is that it made me practice. The bad news is that I was still scared.
Joining a band where I sang and played lead and backup brought all those insecurities to the fore. It got so bad I’d throw up before going onstage. The following September, I took a ‘day’ job walking door-to-door, canvassing neighborhoods for the environment. We were canvassing for four hours every night, so talking my way into people’s houses became a quickly-honed survival skill.
In June, the band went on the road and I gave up the job for the summer. I was amazed at my new ease, my lack of collywobbles, my downright comfort on a stage. Then it hit me – this audience had self-selected, paid money, chosen to come see us. We already had their money and we didn’t need their signature on a petition. Hot diggetty damn! It felt like they were in OUR living room instead of like I was trying to talk my way into theirs!
That has pretty much been it for me for stage fright. I had a short recurrence 20 years later at a string conference. Looking at the famous people in the front row, I began to feel anxious (knees-knocking scared is more like it) and it must have showed. Also on the bill that night was a lovely man from India, a scholar of Indian violin. We were standing next to each other in the wings. He reached up and put a cool hand on both sides of my face and said, “You will have a very good time on stage tonight.” I could feel my shoulders drop in relief with his words.
It was a blessing, a mantra, and, more importantly, a job description. It’s that simple. When I have a great time on stage, so does the audience. And when I focus on having fun, the inevitable imperfections in performance go by with no emotion attached to them to weigh down the rest of the music. No one but me knows what I meant to play, anyway!
Am I careless in my playing? Anything but. But I am care-FREE, in the moment, speaking to and through the music to the listeners. As in an original Persian rug, there are mistakes, but they’re a gift of my humanity to you. Nothing is perfect, but it can still be full of beauty and honesty and joy.
And that’s what matters. So for all of you struggling with this issue, I wish you:
“A very good time on stage tonight!”
7/21/14 Donna Hébert