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The Best Remedy I Have Ever Found for Nervousness in Public Performance

THE ETUDE invited a group of well-known teachers to give us their opinions upon this subject. Of course, every teacher encounters nervousness in some form. Senor Alberto Jonas recounts, in "Great Pianists Upon Piano Playing," a method he uses with many of his virtuoso pupils in Europe. The best modern physicians know that the real nerve remedies are not tonics, or medicines, but fresh air, abundant rest, regular habits and the right food.
Materia medica contains no remedy for either seasickness or stage fright.
A fortune awaits the discoverer of nostrums that will alleviate or prevent these ills. Now, having to do with the latter ailment—for nervousness in public performance, concerning which I have been asked by the Editor of The Etude to discourse briefly, is stage-fright, pure and simple—the question is, what causes it? The symptoms are sufficiently obvious. The performer, proficient enough in whatever he essays to do so long as he has no listeners, loses his head directly he is confronted by a sea of faces below his uneasy point of vantage. He falters, he stumbles. If he is a pianist (we will speak more particularly of pianists) his fingers all become thumbs; his wrist and forearm have about as much suppleness as Mr. Babe Ruth's home-run-getting baseball bat.
The mind refuses to concentrate. By sheer luck the final chord may be reached without actual stoppage, but it has been a bad quarter of an hour for player and hearers.
What's the matter? Nerves, self-consciousness. It is easy enough to diagnose the case. What's to be done about it?
Well, I'll submit a couple of suggestions for whatever they may be worth.
In the first place, it must be borne in mind that repose is an absolute essential. Just in proportion that there is fear of failure repose will be absent.
All great artists have repose in action. Many of them will tell you that they are always nervous just before a public performance.
I think "nervousness" is not the word that suits the case. They are stimulated, maybe excited, but they know very well what they can do. They are, as we say, "keyed up;" that's all.
The nervousness of amateurs is another matter, and that is what we are talking about. As first aid, I recommend playing only music that is well within the powers of the performer. Of course, you say; no sensible person would think of doing otherwise. Wait a minute. It is all a question of margin. How far within your power does this music lie? (I am addressing now the party of the first part, to wit, the nervous young pianist). Let me suppose a case: The last time you played in public you tackled, let us say, the Chopin A flat polonaise, entailing thereby serious discomfort to yourself and to your audience, and with artistic results less than negligible—if such a thing were possible. Now,you say to yourself, (we will imagine): "I know that piece; every note of
it; I can play it; this I know, for I have played it time and again without a slip. The only trouble is that I can't do it as well when people are around. All I need is to get rid of this nervousness.'"
Quite so. Put it this way: you are handicapped when you play the A flat polonaise by having a lot of people listening to you. Very good. Now turn that around. You are handicapped when you are playing for a lot of people by having to play the A flat polonaise. Revolve that proposition in your mind a while. What's the answer Play something easier; a whole lot easier. Until you do this you will not get anywhere.
But you want people to think that you are a whirlwind of a player, and that can't be done with little pieces of Grieg or MacDowell. This brings me to my secondly, which shall be my lastly.
It is quite true that people like to be dazzled now and then by virtuosity. But in the main, if so be they are music lovers, music is what they want to hear. Don't exploit yourself so much, Mr. or Miss Terrified Amateur (as W. S. Gilbert has it); exploit the music. Play clearly, expressively, round off your phrases, and mind your step—by which I mean your touch. Listen to what you are doing. How does it sound? That's what music is—sound. That it should also be agreeable sound is something pianists are prone to forget.
And—here is where the mental exercise comes in—put your mind on the music, and forget about yourself. That will take a bit of practice, but it can be done. But it can't be done, and here is the crux of the whole matter, unless you allow a margin liberal to the point of munificence to cover the difference between what you can do, usually, when you are alone, and what you can do, always, in public.
Do I know anything about nervousness?
Well, I should say that I did. I wonder if I am not about the worst case on record. Just think of a young fellow eighteen years of age going into a music store to buy Chopin's Fantasy Impromptu in C Minor (sic), Opus 66, and breaking out into a cold sweat all over while standing at the counter. This is one of the times, you see, which made a lasting impression upon me, so much so that I not only remember the occasion but the very piece I ordered on that day.
Self-consciousness, you say. Yes, I knew that, and heard it lots of times, but what good did it do. Big words don't help you when you're in trouble. So I went on, year after year, haunted by this miserable thing, and all that saved me was my determination to conquer, if possible.
I always had an idea that some way, somehow, I would be able to win out—that I would be victorious in the end—that I would gain the strength to conquer the enemy. I remember what a condition I was in on my way to the Pruefung, or commencement exercises, in Stuttgart, a few years after the Chopin episode. Such distress! I thought every minute would be the last—and the next minute I wished it had been! I pulled through alive because I practiced my concerto so much that my fingers knew what to do, even if I had no real control either over them or over myself. They knew the road so well, had traveled it so often that they went along like any good horse that will find its way home even if the driver, for some reason or other, is not master of the situation.
On my way to this Pruefung, or commencement, I stopped at a grocery store, thinking that some raw eggs would brace me up for the occasion, but it was all the same—no use; they did no good. I did not realize at the time, though, what good company I was in, for just think of such musical giants as Chopin, Henselt, Kullak and Moszkowski, not to mention a host of lesser lights, being the victims of nerves, the slaves of the same old bugbear—fear.
Kullak told me once that he played in public until he was about thirty, but then he had to give it up. The strain was too great. How well I remember Moszkowski playing the last movement of Chopin's F Minor Concerto to Kullak. You know what a speedy movement it is. Moszkowski began moderately enough, but soon got to going faster and faster, so that about the middle of the movement Kullak called out, "Hey, there, Moszkowski! Hold your horses, or you'll go to smash!" He was nervous, you see.
Henselt was the shyest of any of these four, for the others did not infrequently appear in private before their friends, but Henselt was almost never heard. From all accounts one would think that most of those who heard Henselt play did so on the sly by hanging about his house until the spirit moved him to the piano, when he had no idea anyone was listening. Chopin said an audience appeared to him like a monster before which the ordeal was too great for him to attempt to appear.
Doesn't it seem too bad that so much that was inspiring and uplifting should have been lost to the world in this way? But such is the case.
Now—I hear you say—what is the antidote? Well, I'll tell you right straight out. I owe my deliverance, as far as I can figure it out, to just three sources, viz., New Thought, Christian Science and the Bible.
Of course, the Bible is the whole store, anyway. All I can say is that through "New Thought" and Christian Science there came to me the kind of light which was necessary for me to gain a deeper understanding of the Bible—the knowledge how to make its precepts more and more practical in the everyday affairs of life. When I say "practical" I mean PRACTICAL, helpful and useful in every day and every hour of the day, and I feel like adding, especially at the piano.
I sometimes say to my pupils: "You must soak in the atmosphere of New Thought optimism—not just take a bath, then jump out and forget all about it."
A truly normal and healthy person never thinks of his nerves. If your nervousness is due to poor health, then it is very important for you to consult a doctor. You can preserve good health bytaking plenty of outdoor exercise, sufficient amount of sleep, proper food, entertaining good and noble thoughts; all of which will produce a happy state of mind.
Many a case of "nervousness" is merely acquired by listening to the erratic talk of someone who thinks it is good form to have "a case of nerves." Shun such a person as you would a contagious disease.
A certain amount of anxiety or excitement permeating a player when performing in public seems to be inseparable from an artistic personality, for without it the performance would be cold and lifeless. But it does not mean that on this account you should lose control of yourself.
Players who have been trained when young to play often at pupils' recitals or informal gatherings always perform with greater ease than those who have not had such early training. As a rule, young pupils play with more unconcern than advanced students. Do not imagine that beginners play with more ease because their pieces seem simple to you; for them their pieces require as much effort as difficult ones for you. Young players feel no responsibility and delight to "show off." More advanced players become too self-conscious and self-critical. We all know that accidents are liable to happen, but why should we torture ourselves with the thought of the possibility of them? Do not entertain thoughts of fear.
For older students it is sheer determination, will power, concentration and mastery of self that will overcome nervousness. In order to conquer this nervousness play for friends in the home circle as often as possible. No matter how you may dislike doing so here is the best training school for public performances. We assume that you have gained a solid technical skill, have prepared your music properly and memorized it thoroughly before attempting to play it without the notes before you. You must be able to play the music without a flaw when by yourself. Often when we play for ourselves we are apt to be less critical than when playing for others. Only by having learned your pieces thoroughly can you have confidence in yourself. Never practice up to the last minute before a public performance, give yourself a rest for at least half a day, and do not fret about the coming performance. And when the time arrives for playing do not think of yourself, but of the music. Be so absorbed in what you are doing that no other, thoughts can creep in.
Never permit your mind to drift. More often it is not the nerves that need control but the mind. And before you start to play take a long, deep breath, and continue to breathe properly. Have you ever noticed that nervous people are always out of breath?
Now I will give an account of an actual occurrence, to show how sheer imagination created the spirit of confidence. I had a pupil, a young lady, who feared that she would become nervous while playing at a concert. Fortunately, her brother was a druggist. She intimated to him that she confidently believed he could find some medicine in his store which would make her storm-proof against all nervousness.
Being very obliging, he agreed to prepare a mixture for her. He gave her a little fancy bottle. He told her to inhale the contents frequently and long; further, it being a very sweet but strong medicine, she must merely allow her tongue to touch it occasionally—she might swallow just a drop at a time. As a secret concoction, she should not allow anyone else to touch or taste it. She kept the bottle for herself, and was so sure of its infallibility that she never
imagined for a moment that she would be possessed of stage-fright. It certainly worked wonders. Because it happened so long ago I can now safely reveal the secret of the ingredients of this wonderful little bottle. It contained merely sugar water, spiced with a few drops of an invigorating perfume.
The magic, however, was worked by the young lady breathing deeply and saturating her mind with implicit confidence of success. This, after all, is the best remedy for nervousness I know of.
"Nervousness" may usually be classified in two ways, either as "stage-fright," a temporary interference with the normal functions of the brain and nervous system, due to unfamiliar surroundings and conditions, or as a logical condition—often similar in its manifestations to stage-fright—due to a lack of proper preparation or to a realization or fancy that the task undertaken is too difficult for adequate performance. If we add to these two subjective causes of nervousness the entirely futile and unnecessary panic produced by dwelling overmuch upon the occasion and magnifying its importance, we have about exhausted the list of normal reasons for stage-fright.
The diagnosis of the case generally suggests the remedy. In the first case, and as a general principle, more frequently appearing before other people is the sine qua non. This is managed in several ways. First, the class-lesson, whenever possible, is an asset of highest value for many reasons, but particularly because it serves to replace self-consciousness by self-forgetfulness. A person overcomes self-consciousness before people by mingling with them in small or large groups and learning to feel at home with them. The class-lesson is a step in the right direction; the next step is frequent studio recitals, confined largely or entirely to students, in which students of all grades take part. In this way the nervous pupil has an opportunity to compare and acquire a measure of self-assurance. Only after such preparation should a pupil be asked to appear before a public audience; but this means will almost inevitably eliminate nervousness arising from unfamiliar surroundings and conditions—which is a perfectly normal but preventable phenomenon.
As for the second type of nervousness, due to a lack of preparation or a realization or fear that the task undertaken is too difficult, the cure is almost entirely in the hands of the teacher. Under no circumstances is a teacher justified in programming an unprepared selection. There is no surer way of breaking down the "nerve" of a performer than to expect performance before the selection is properly learned (but, in the case of students, the teacher must be the judge). Moreover, there is no greater insult to an audience than to ask them to listen to a selection which is not ready for performance.
There may be reasons why a student might be asked to study a selection beyond his ability to perform—though they are few—but to ask a student to perform such a selection in public is absolutely without justification upon any score. There can be no intention for programming any number for public use, except that of adequate performance. If a teacher cannot guarantee that the program will cause pleasure instead of distress, a sense of satisfaction instead of uneasiness, then he cannot afford to let his pupils appear unless he is prepared to, as some frankly do, announce that the recital is in the nature of a laboratory for the benefit of the students and that listeners come at their own risk.
A teacher cannot afford to discourage his pupils. Honest and constructive criticism is his business, though even here it is easy to overdo. The proverbial "drawing" qualities of sugar and vinegar apply here surely. A student recital should be a routine matter, otherwise it has little justification. Rarely can a teacher claim that his students have anything to say of sufficient artistic merit to justify a public recital on that ground. There must be other reasons. The chief one is educational. The recital is a demonstration of educational results, a goal for the students, and a means of propaganda for good music. On this basis the selections should represent the finished product of the regular work. Of course, there is no harm, other things being equal, to include those prepared numbers that make the best showing, but to program a number simply because it looks well on the program, or because it is a novelty, is utterly indefensible and sooner or later works harm to both teacher and pupil.
After all, there is only one standard for music-teaching, and that is the educational standard—the fullest possible development of the talents and capabilities of the pupil. On that basis the student performance is amply justifiable—when material mastered in the natural course of educational processes is presented. In such a case there is no room either for undue anxiety for fear the performance may not make the desired "hit," or for an undue estimate of the importance of the occasion. Nervousness is often a form of egotism, an overestimation of the magnitude of the function and of the part of the performer in it. In such cases the attitude of matter-of-factness must be impressed upon the student. "It is all in the day's work," and the world will keep right on rolling placidly around the sun, whether he fails or succeeds.
Nervousness in pupils is due to many causes, and the remedy is the removal of these causes, which is an absolutely individual matter.
Nervousness may be the normal temporary instability of thought and action, or an abnormal, chronic, pathological condition resulting from a diseased nervous system.
Where this demonstrates itself in motor restlessness, the well-ordered motions required of musical execution are one of the best remedies.
In normal and temporary nervousness (the most common among pupils) fear is the general cause.
A teacher himself may cause this through lack of sympathy with the pupil and misunderstanding of his shortcomings, by his aloofness or unnecessary severity.
Remedy; Change the teacher's attitude, and—still more effective—change the teacher.
In timid pupils the apprehension of playing before the teacher, even a sympathetic one, often creates a feeling akin to stage-fright. But this usually lasts only a few moments if not artificially increased or lengthened.
Remedy: Make no correction whatsoever until the whole lesson is played through, to give the pupil time to gain confidence in his ability to do the lesson well, and his nervousness will cease.
With pupils who practice carelessly, too fast, or not enough, nervousness is often the by-product of a guilty conscience. Their mind is on the failure, on the mistakes, and this auto-suggestion will lead to more mistakes and the upsetting of the mental equilibrium.
Remedy: Change in the attitude of the pupil towards his work; education to concentrated, careful practice. In extreme cases I have used exclusive practice on a silent keyboard with good success. Having no tones, the eye must control the fingers; and this means attention, whereby the careless prompting of the ear (which is the real cause of the shortcoming) is eliminated.
Another cause of nervousness is the giving of material beyond the technical ability of the pupil. In this case the mind may "see" the music, but the motor apparatus cannot execute it properly.
Remedy: Replacing the too difficult with more suitable material.
The law of diminished returns may also cause temporary irritability, namely, when a pupil has occupied himself too long with a composition. In that case nerves and muscles grow less and less responsive.
In spite of increased effort in practicing the composition goes worse and worse. Anxiety and discouragement, especially when a recital is in sight, will cause grave irritation and nervousness.
Remedy: Laying aside the work for a week or two to give mind and muscle a rest and change. Particular work will go better for it when taken up again.
By far the most frequent, but least recognized, cause of nervousness appears through unnatural and faulty use of the player's tools (his body and members).
Over-contraction and over-relaxation are the two poles of failure.
A vicious circle is established which runs from muscles to nerves and return.
Over-contraction (the most common) makes free and easy motions impossible, in spite of all good will and practice. This will cause worry and anxiety, and disturbs the normal, delicate coöperation of nerves and muscle. This makes impossible the selection of the proper groups of muscle necessary for all skillful execution. The inhibitory cooperation of superfluous muscular groups will cause still more contraction, which again reacts as a disturbance of nervous stability.
Remedy: The proper diagnosis of the pupil's muscular faults, a change of his way of playing by his present teacher, and, if he cannot do it, a change of teacher altogether.

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