The Power of Stage Fright

Tuesday, January 04, 2011 - 01:22 PM

Happy New Year! In the first month of 2011, we are shining the WQXR spotlight on the rising young pianists in the classical music world. And yet, this week I find my thoughts wandering back in time to one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century – Vladimir Horowitz – a man who overcame great emotional challenges to bring classical music lovers some of the most thrilling performances of his day.

In the mid 1980’s, I had just moved to the Big Apple and was hired to work for the public television series Great Performances. One of the first programs I remember working on was a documentary by Albert and David Maysles called Vladimir Horowitz:The Last Romantic. The documentary was shot in Horowitz’s New York home with his wife, Wanda, looking on from the couch nearby. From time to time the music would stop and the two of them would reminisce about their life together and the musicians Horowitz had known and admired during the over 60 years of his remarkable career. It was incredibly memorable for me. But what I didn’t realize at the time was just how petrified Horowitz might have been to be playing that day.

As I understand it, this living room performance was actually Horowitz’s first public appearance following a two year hiatus. The hiatus was one of several in his life – the longest being twelve years from 1953 to 1965 – during which he stopped performing and was treated for – among other things - extreme stage fright. 

The Last Romantic was followed closely by Horowitz in Moscow which featured the maestro’s return to his homeland after sixty-one years. I will never forget the tears streaming down the faces of the stalwart Russians who came to hear their fellow countryman play that night. Amazing. Now I wonder exactly what it took to get Horowitz on to the stage and through the performance.

Until I saw these two television programs, I never had the opportunity to see Vladimir Horowitz play. As a result, the programs served as my introduction to his genius and unique talents. They also brought me closer to Horowitz as a human being - a man who for all his fame and good fortune was extremely fragile and vulnerable.

My heart aches at the thought of Horowitz suffering so throughout his career. That he could be so gifted and yet so full of self doubt is difficult to understand. And yet, stage fright is a very real phenomenon, isn’t it? And the lengths to which people in the public eye go to deal with it can be extraordinary. Apparently in his heart of hearts Horowitz wanted to be a composer rather than a pianist. I don’t know... maybe he should have followed his heart there? It might have been a lot less painful.   

On the flip side, maybe being vulnerable is one of the keys to artistic immortality? Could it be the ingredient that separates the good from the great? If so, how do the most fragile avoid being crushed by its power?

As always, I’d be interested to know what you have to say about this.  So, if you have a minute, please post a comment.

And, thanks!


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Comments [32]


Play for yourself. Not for the audience. OR, play for the audience, not for yourself, remembering that they cannot do what you are doing and they want to be you for the brief moment that you share the deepest inmost thoughts and feelings of yourself and your composer. Also, be aware of the sounds you are making, enjoy making them, and consider: Is this something that I want to listen to, or that someone else would want to listen to. Every piece of music has something to say, some emotion to express. Try and get to the core of the music and you will hopefully lose yourself in there somewhere and give a meaningful and enjoyable performance. I think if you are enjoying your playing, so will the audience no matter how many so called mistakes you may make.

Nov. 11 2014 09:18 AM
Lee Eisenstein from Pahoha, Hawaii

If safe to do so, take a low dose, beta blocker, thirty minutes before showtime. I've been doing this for much of the last year and no more stage fright. You'd be delghted by how much fun concerts are to perform, when fear is no longer part of the experience.

Dec. 31 2011 03:03 PM
Michael from Central New York

I remember seeing part of this special and wishing I had seen all of it.
When it comes to dealing with stage fright I had the same problem. But I found an answer that more people should know about. A modern Indian philosopher named J. Krishnamurti talks about how to approach fear, and the difference between 'normal' fear (such as a danger threat) vs. psychological fear.
He is seen as a mystic by many but that's not really the case. He said you must face your fear, just like the prevailing wisdom has it. The difference is that he said you must experiment with it by putting yourself
in the situation that causes it, and letting it take you, without trying to change it. But here is the crux, if you can stand to try this, and you simply watch your own reactions, the mind may start to function in a new way. It has a hidden capability to heal itself. What you find out will be indescribable to anyone else but yourself (until later).
Because there is no 'answer' to what causes this thing we call fear. We all know the standard explanations. Somewhere in your past, it began. By facing it with an open and alert, watching mind, it may reveal itself non-verbally, and when it does a catharsis takes place. I found this to be just what happened with me, but in my case there were a cluster of fears mixed together, and i had to keep at it until all were faced. This was K's great discovery,
how the mind can mend it's own blockages if simple, non-verbal self-awareness (meditation) is followed without bias.

Mar. 05 2011 06:48 AM
Jimmy Hendrix from Frisco

First you need to learn how to play your guitar. After that when you go onstage you need to have the proper mental state. If you check out my appearance at the Monterrey Pop Festival 44 years ago you will see how it all fits together.

Jan. 30 2011 03:57 AM
G-nosis from new york new york

Tarbosh the egyptian magician had stage fright also. He found if he turned his pet tiger loose on the crowd and they were maimed and mulled, he always felt better and made mucho smoke and mirror tricks to the thunderous applause of the injured crowd.

Jan. 29 2011 11:54 PM
Caroline from Oz

I have battled with 'Stage Fright' over the years as a singer. The physical effects on me made singing solo quite a nightmare, even if I did sing well. I have recently (in the last few years) discovered a way to lesson/eliminate the effects of stage fright - a self-help method which gives excellent results. Check out 'Emotional Freedom Technique' on Youtube/Google. The root of everyone's stage fright can be quite different - for me, it was centered on needing to impress people (need to be accepted), not fear of making a mistake. When you find the root issue driving your stage fright and address it, then you can be free to express yourself musically without the baggage making it an ordeal!

Jan. 29 2011 07:46 PM
Lee Eisenstein from Big Island of Hawaii

I just played my first public concert in over six years and I was concerned about stage fright. I went to the local health food store and they sold me an herbal product called, argenum nitricum.

I took ten tablets, three times on the day. It worked like a charm! By the second dose, all my anxiety about the evenings performance disappeared. I was clear headed and relaxed.

I played the concert that night, was very relaxed, played well, had a great time and got a standing ovation at the end of the show.

In other words, it worked like a charm!

Highly recommended.

Jan. 29 2011 06:42 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I just noticed this documentary last night. It's about some of the greats of the last century, including Horowitz, of course. There's an interview with someone who apparently literally had to push Horowitz out onto the stage at Carnegie Hall for his first public performance after 12 years.

The Art Of Piano - Great Pianists Of The 20Th Century

Jan. 27 2011 03:39 AM
Frank Feldman

Beta blockers! Dirty little secret of the classical music world.

Jan. 24 2011 10:03 PM
Michael Meltzer

As one who has performed solo (long ago) and as one who was a husband participating in Lamaze natural childbirth training (also long ago), I can say that the Lamaze method offers many useful tips for the performer.
Much of the pain of childbirth is due to reflexive antagonistic muscle responses by the mother, and insufficient oxygen due to holding the breath from fear.
The method concentrates on full, conscious control of breathing and giving the mother so many little control exercises and tests to perform on herself that she is far too busy to be nervous and afraid.
The method works, even those women who give in and ask for anaesthesia at the last minute, need far less of it than women who haven't had the training.
For performers, starting with breathing control can be half the battle. Try it!

Jan. 19 2011 06:16 PM

As a current conservatory student who struggles with stage- fright I was inspired to learn that someone as great as Horowitz was faced with the same affliction. Does any one know more about the steps that he took to eventually overcome his fears and perform again? Perhaps that would be even more inspiring to learn!

Jan. 19 2011 04:06 PM
Bill from Visiting in Vt.

Jonathan Lehrer writes a wonderful chapter on stage fright in his book "How We Decide." In the chapter, he discusses the stage fright of Rene Fleming and the golfer Jean Van de Velde's British Open meltdown. Lehrer relates it to literally "thinking too much" freezing that part of the brain into inaction. Lehrer also writes a blog called the "Frontal Cortex." Go with the flow and don't think about it.

Jan. 19 2011 01:12 PM
Paul DiDario from South Plainfield, New Jersey

As a concert pianist myself, I can attest to the paralyzing fear of stage fright, and after suffering anxiety attacks for the first time this year, I fully understand what Horowitz suffered. In his early years, there was no medication that would work like today's modern anti anxiety meds do. I know, because I take one of them.

Earlier in 2010 I performed Gershwin'a Rhapsody in Blue with a youth orchestra. I should not have have been nervous to the extent I was. I really can't fully explain why I felt as I did. I got through the performance in spite of the panic I was under at the time. I had not felt that way for several years. Other perfromances I did were fine. I enjoyed them and played well. Why this particular concert unnerved me so much I cannot say.

It is true that if one perfroms a lot during any given season, it does get easier. On a tour of Korea several years back I had the opportunity to play about 12 concerts in a two and half week period. At the last concert, I just got up and played without warming up at all and played my best.

Stage fright comes and goes, but I will not let it stop me from doing what I love. The glory of the music itself is worth it. I am always humbled before great art and will always live to serve it to the best of my ability.

Jan. 10 2011 09:06 PM
Guy Suabedissen

I have been both a director and a performer, so two reactions: As a director of high school theater, I have often confronted stage fright. My advice was always, "Your nervousness is because you care about doing a good job. If you didn't care, I wouldn't have cast you." In 40 years, I never had a student freeze on stage.
When I myself was in high school, I was a concert clarinetist. At a recital I was playing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. My piano accompanist was my teacher's high school aged daughter, of whom I was enamored. We were so emotionally envolved in the performance that we started the third movement in 6/8 much too fast, especially for the clarinet's tounging. Between our emotional level, our stage fright, the adrenolin,[and the look of panic on my teacher's face] we were spectacular.
In my experience, stage fright is a force for excellence

Jan. 10 2011 05:59 PM
Martin Andersen from Hoboken, NJ

As a professional violist in a symphony orchestra for the past 30 years, I've witnessed a lot of stagefright, and experienced some myself. In addressing stagefright a major factor is habituation: we tend to become more comfortable with what we do regularly. For instance, my string colleagues and I typically do not get nervous playing in the string section of an orchestra after years of doing so. But a solo appearance, or an important audition, can cause anxiety if one does not routinely perform that role. In those situations some musicians even resort to prescription medication to help them cope. But finally one has to convince oneself that caring too much about a performance is not worth the associated suffering of self doubt, anxiety, and imagined criticism. Instead you learn to believe that you will play just about as well as your training and preparation allows. Therefore, paradoxically, actually caring less--in a certain sense--can cause the music have greater meaning. And during a performance, absolute concentration on delivering the musical message--that the only thing that is important is the message--is the narrow path to mental equilibrium onstage.

Jan. 10 2011 01:35 PM
Michael Meltzer

One source of stage nerves that Paderewski, Hoffman and Rachmaninoff (and the young Horowitz) didn't have was a well-distributed archive of recordings for their audiences to compare their live performance to. When possible, recordings are gone over with editing and re-takes to make them perfect. A live performance rarely can match that standard of blemish-free execution.
But, as Dr. Pomponio points out below, every performer response is individual.
I attended Artur Rubinstein's 80th birthday recital at Carnegie, and at eighty years old, not everything works as predictably as at forty, and the Maestro did hit several clinkers.
However, Rubinstein didn't seem to care, and neither did the audience. The magic was still there. They loved him, he seemed to love them back, he was brought back for encore after encore.
Horowitz really generated the same devotion, it's just unfortunate that in his mind it translated into a fear of not meeting expectation. He certainly didn't mind the adulation at the end!

Jan. 08 2011 11:37 PM
Martin Gross from Manhattan

Nearly everybody gets stage fright at one time or another. In late middle age, for the last 10 years of his acting career, Laurence Olivier suffered so much from it that he sometimes threw up just before stepping on stage.("Confessions of An Actor"). He begged fellow cast members not to make eye contact during his performance, believing that doing so would cause him to freeze on stage.

Helen Hayes said: "I still get butterflies before every performance. But over the years I've managed to teach them to fly in formation."

What's the cause of stage fright?

Psychologists say that when you face something threatening or challenging, your body reacts in a "fight-or-flight response."

Paradoxically, this physical reflex gives your body increased energy to deal with threatening situations. So this nervousness can be a positive motivator. Nervousness may serve to drive the performer and spark energy.

Unfortunately it also creates sweaty hands, dry mouth, increased heartbeat, and butterflies in the stomach.

As several of your correspondents point out, thorough preparation and practice can overcome much of stage fright's jitters.. It may also help to realize that the performer's physical symptoms are shots of energy--shocks that can be a source of performance strength. .In fact, studies confirm that professional performers do better if they have a moderate degree of pre-performance nerves.

Vulnerability may be one of the well-springs of a great performer's talent. It would be a blessing if this fragility were to be, in some similar way, hardened to shield the artist from self-doubt. But, alas, butterflies can't return to the cocoon.

Jan. 08 2011 07:35 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I understand stage fright, but somehow after watching the video, it's hard to believe he had any anxiety while playing. He looked so relaxed you'd think he was making breakfast. His hands flowed over the keys like syrup over pancakes!

I know it's me talking, but I believe that such a supreme level of talent would completely overwhelm any fear of performing.

Jan. 07 2011 08:34 AM
richard rosenbluth from englewood, nj

Courage is defined as acting despite and in spite of one's fears, not the absence of fear itself. I have heard that VH had serious emotional problems, far worse than stage fright, which prevented his performing until 1965.
By the way, I was at the second of his 1965 return performances. I had not previously or since been so overwhelmed by any artistic experience. His interpretations, especially of the Valle d'Obermann of Liszt and Debussy's L'Isle Joyeuse, took one's breath away

Jan. 06 2011 03:26 PM

Well Midge, not to be too naughty, but I've always enjoyed seeing a performer just FREEZE out there in that spotlight. Maybe its the devil in me, but that mortified expression on that poor soul overcome with ''stage nerves'' is priceless! (Maybe I'd be the one with the trusty stage hook, ready to drag them off before a complete nervous breakdown...LOL)

Jan. 06 2011 02:51 PM
David A. Johnson from Union Township, NJ

I am a writer, and sometimes appear on television documentaries.

This past autumn, I was interviewed for a programme about Nazi saboteurs in the US on board a World War Two era US submarine. I was down in the sub's forward torpedo room, and something about the surroundings made me very jittery and nervous. I am sure it was probably the worst interview I ever gave in my life, and I am certain that it was because of the close confines of the torpedo room. This probably comes more under the heading of claustrophobia than actual stage fright. But I was really nervous and ill at ease.

Jan. 06 2011 02:09 PM
Art Pomponio from Manhattan, NY

I think we make a mistake in considering stage fright as a single "diagnosable" experience. That is, that we can say that my stage fright is the same as yours.

As a licensed psychotherapist who has helped many performers with this very issue, I have learned that performance anxiety is contextually-based. Each performer's life (history, goals, present circumstances, etc.) needs to be safely explored so that anxiety can be understood and its effects mitigated. As some other respondents suggest, more performance experience may well help a person to manage performance anxiety, but not for everyone. Sometimes only the challenging work of personal exploration can lead to relief.

Jan. 06 2011 01:18 PM
Bracha-Nechama Bomze from New York City

As a certified hypnotist (National Guild of Hypnotists) who enjoys supporting musicians and other performing artists here in New York City with this issue, I'm happy to assure people that stage fright is not insurmountable! I'm delighted to field any respectfully asked questions about how hypnosis can help with stage fright at (646)645-3672, and am pleased to provide references.
B.N. Bomze, MA, certified hypnotist

Jan. 06 2011 12:25 PM
Ron Voz

Vulnerability is key. A performer must allow himself to be vulnerable. After working for 45 years, I was forced to retire because of my age. I was not a happy camper. By accident, I started acting. During classes I was curious about why I was being criticized more than other students. Then, while reading, I came across the vulnerability. Velnerabilty is connected to inhibition. Performs cannot be inhibited. Again, after working for 45 years, my defense mechanisms were high, and I was inhibited. Now that I have dropped my defense mechanisms to the floor, my performances have largely improved. Probably, the younger a performer starts performing the better. That person will be less inhibited. When 6 year old boys play Cowboys and Indians, are they inhibited? Absolutely not!

Jan. 06 2011 10:57 AM
Nick Macri from Connecticut

I have been a professional musician for almost 35 years (Bass). As a novice, stage fright always seemed the confidence killer. A mentor imparted to me what I have viewed as the stage fright killer. If you can imagine the worst possible thing happening on stage and come to grips with it, a broken string, getting lost in the music or the rotten review you will never fear stage again. Practice, preparation and proper attitude !

Jan. 06 2011 10:29 AM
Michael Meltzer

Mr. St. John:
It's legendary. The most famous story that's been going around for years, is of one concert at Carnegie Hall, Horowitz standing offstage waiting to begin , wringing his hands and saying to his manager,"Tell them I can't play today." His manager said to Horowitz, "YOU tell them!" and walked off.
Horowitz went out and played.

Jan. 06 2011 07:35 AM
Anthony St. John from Calenzano, Italy

Why couldn't Midge Woolsey have given us some concrete examples of VH's stage fright history?

Jan. 06 2011 02:16 AM

Stage fright definitely ended Ivan Galamian's career, but then he became a great pedagogue. On the other hand, we have Ruggiero Ricci who has claimed that playing on stage never, ever made him nervous. As Heifetz said, you need the nerves of a bullfighter, among other things.

Jan. 05 2011 11:03 AM
Michael Meltzer

Since our enemy in this issue is clearly our own psyche, the quotation I like best comes from Henry Ford:
"Whether you think that you can, or you think that you can't, you're right!!"

Jan. 05 2011 02:49 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

Mike Meltzer is correct: The more you do it the less anxiety there is. I know from experience. My first solos singing in front of a live audience were terrifying but the tension eased after a while.

A partial cure is to be dead on with your practice and accompanist. Don't practice the music only as written, but play games with it. Throw in rubato, varying tempos, harmonies, whisper the words. Soon, you get so familiar with the work, and all the variations you made up, it becomes as easy as your name.

And one in the audience is as good as you!

Jan. 04 2011 08:21 PM
Michael Meltzer

Without commenting on the Maestro's basic stage anxiety, almost anyone who's been on stage will tell you that, whatever the problem, playing more often helps and playing less often makes it worse. It would seem that Horowitz had viscious cycles working to his detriment. Compare with Artur Rubinstein who virtually lived on airplanes and sometimes gave over 200 recitals in a single year!

Jan. 04 2011 06:47 PM
Drew Greis from Bergenfield, NJ

Franco Corelli who was undoubtably one of the mid-twentieth century's great tenors suffered from extreme stage freight. This has long been thought to have ended his career early at age 55. From all that I have ever heard from his recorded works and read about him, this was a horrible tragedy and our loss. I do believe that some artists live and have lived between what we consider "normal" and "un-balanced" lives. Perhaps this balancing act helps such artists in some strange way to achieve very high artistic standards. If so, we are the benificiaries of this kind of live, even if they have suffered as a consequence.

Jan. 04 2011 05:14 PM

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