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May 2004

Handling Stage Fright

by Jennifer Bogart, Violinist

I have been performing and teaching for 25 years (frightening thought in itself) and I still get very nervous before I play a solo or take auditions. I have heard many performers say the same thing so it is my belief that everyone from Joshua Bell to the busker on the street gets stage fright of a sort. What matters most is how you use that energy.

Really good preparation of the pieces one is playing, and slow warm-ups on the day of the performance is very important. Equally as important, however, is acknowledgement and acceptance of one's nerves. My experience has been that nerves are a combination of fear of the unknown and a lot of tension in the shoulders and breathing apparatus. If stage fright is added to the tension, the result is the shaky bow, wobbly knees, sweaty hands phenomenon that plagues so many of us.

The first step of course toward a good performance is good preparation, including the preparations on the day of the performance. By preparation I mean knowing every segment of a piece and what you mean to do with it from the taper at the end of a note, to the kind of character one is trying to portray, to the way one is going to set up for a difficult 16th note passage. This prevents a blind leap into the unknown. When I speak of preparation on the day of the performance, I suggest a lot of slow scales, etudes, arpeggios, and not much practice of the actual piece(s) itself. If you do have to run through the piece, try to play as calmly and slowly as possible.

If we can take away some of the frightening variables from a performance we are that much stronger when the unexpected happens. One stage fright variable that can be done away with is faulty memory. First we need to dispense with the notion that memory can be perfect. It can't be. Memory slips will happen. We need to be prepared for what to do when a memory slip does happen. In order to deflect a memory error, there are several techniques that I use myself and with my students.

I talk with my students about the different kinds of memory there are and that we need to have a good grasp of all of them. Briefly (as memory work is another article in itself), one needs to be able to remember a piece aurally (by playing it through in your head with and without the music, listening to a CD, and singing it through in your head with and without the music), physically (also known as muscle memory), visually (try writing the piece out from memory with all bowings, accidentals, and dynamics), and structurally (especially solo Bach). If one of your memory types fails, then you can fall back on another to get you through the tough spot. One also needs to know what key one is in at any given moment (or if you have key phobia at least have knowledge of what scale is being used in any passage).

Another variable in playing is knowing the venue. Plan to go to the stage and stand on it and play a little bit or if that is not possible at least take a peek at it and plan where one is going to stand. I have found that even if my students cannot go stand on the stage or even see it, if I tell them what to expect and what to do when they get to the "arena", it helps them a great deal. This alleviates a lot of the nerves in my students.

You might think of any number of other variables as you think about performing (some of them peculiarly your own). Examine those areas which have surprised you before and then create some way of deflecting the surprise or of using it to your advantage before you get on stage. For example, to get ready for a performance of the E Major Partita by Bach, I actually practiced improvising in it. One of my weaknesses is spacing out and suddenly coming "awake" enough to realize that I don't know where I am. I took every movement and intentionally deviated from the music (while playing from memory) and had to find my way back without stopping. Sure enough, in the performance I had one of my usual space out moments, but I didn't stop playing and I kept the style and tonality right. Eventually I came to the end of the movement with no other problems.

Remember, nerves are energy. That energy can make you rush, can make your bow bounce, can make your knees shake, can make your hands sweaty. You can take advantage of these effects and let them enhance your rubato, your vibrato, your staccato, or your phrasing. If rushing is the thing you have to worry about, for example, practice slowly in a controlled manner with a metronome. Then with the metronome still on, rush a passage intentionally to see how you can get back "on tempo." At first you will not be able to control this very well, but after a while you will learn that rushing becomes rubato (controlled speeding up and slowing down) when you meet the metronome at certain predetermined places (such as the bar line, or the piano chords, or the middle of the phrase, or the cadence). Then you need to do this with the piano/accompaniment (or even a CD) to see what you would do if this happened while playing with another person or people.

If a sweaty hand is your problem, apply a liberal amount of lotion before you practice and see what you can do while you are playing to control that sliding around. Or use it to make shifts easier and to make your hand relax. If a bouncing bow is your problem, remember that all legato is a series of staccato (better teachers than I have observed this, notably Galamian and Rolland), and use lots of bow. One tends to contract when one is nervous, and consciously expanding (especially in the bow arm) can help the bounce become diffused into a shimmery legato.

Performance anxiety is usually a case of fearing the unexpected and/or being tense while playing. If you do all you can to imagine the unexpected and to think about ways to counteract it, you will be well on your way to a good performance. When you practice in general, do all you can to banish tension from your neck, mouth, shoulders and arms, and that will also help.

One last thought before I end. I have thought so many of my performances were horrible. Then I listen to them and find that while there is always something I wish to improve, there is also always something that went very well. Now that is the kind of unexpected event I like!

Jennifer Bogart received a Masters, Bachelors and Performers Certificate from Eastman School of Music. She was appointed Assistant Professor of Violin and Viola at Stetson University in DeLand Florida in 1983 where she stayed until she was appointed to the first violin section of the Florida Symphony Orchestra in Orlando in 1989. In 1993 she moved to Virginia to teach at the Renaissance Music Academy and then with her husband moved to Utah in 1994. Since being in Utah she has been a full time violinist in the Utah Symphony Orchestra, a member of the Utah Ballet Orchestra, a featured regular on the Nova, Park City and Contemporary Music chamber ensembles, and a member of a Celtic/Rock band known as Callanish. Jennifer is currently accepting students in Salt Lake City, UT and can be reached through