Vladimir Horowitz and Maria Callas, Ella Fitzgerald and Laurence Olivier, Sarah Bernhardt and Luciano Pavarotti—these transcendent performers communicated a point of view, an inexpressible feel for life. And they did so despite their spells of stage fright.
Calling stage fright “an act of mutiny by the mind against the body,” Sara Solovitch explores the condition, both as she has known it as a performer and as she has come to understand it as a writer. Playing Scared begins by relating her often dread-filled experiences as a young pianist in recitals and competitions. Onstage she would feel her hands turn clammy, her body tense up. One missed note would lead to another, leading inevitably to more. Mistakes of this sort would induce a memory slip, and entire swaths of music that had been under her fingers would simply disappear. Desperately, she would jump from one passage to another, making a hash of the compositional logic of the piece she was playing.
She abandoned the piano upon entering college, but she returned to it 30 years later only to find herself in the same position. Practicing went just so far, and lessons were of little help: Her nerves were as frayed as ever. She decided she must finally get the better of them. To that end, she sought new teachers, pursued different therapies, and devoted a year to studying what she terms this “great leveler.” Her goal was to perform again in public—at last without embarrassment.
As she learned about stage fright and the related topic of performance anxiety, she discovered how variously people have tried to cope with its symptoms. The masterful Horowitz, for example, followed a routine without deviation before each recital. Some performers turn to drugs, very often beta-blockers, which were originally developed in the early 1960s to treat heart disease. (I was surprised by the claim that 30 percent of orchestral musicians rely on them.) Others turn to meditation, yoga, or psychotherapy.
One of the strengths of this book is the clarity and confidence of Solovitch’s prose. Here is the opening of her chapter about the amygdala, a part of the brain central to the processing of emotions:
Fear: It begins with urgent motor impulses from the brain to the adrenal glands, which respond by dumping adrenaline into the bloodstream and putting the body on alert. The heart beats harder and faster. Breathing grows rapid to increase oxygen levels. Eyes dilate to bring more light to the retina, heightening visual acuity. Blood flow is redirected from hands and feet to the large muscles in the upper torso, arms, and legs.
Solovitch’s goal of performing again in public gives the book its plot. She commits to a date for a recital a year in the distance. Chapters later, two months remain. Then there are 10 days; then there are fewer. Time markers of this sort intensify the plot, endowing it with a dramatic accelerando.
Throughout are accounts of people who have known, directly or indirectly, the fear of performance. One is a psychotherapist and competitive equestrian who, in her 20s, worked as a network television writer and producer. Another is a onetime trumpeter with the National Symphony—a “serial careerist,” as Solovitch describes him—who, upon quitting music, took up engineering before giving that up to become a psychologist.
There is a short profile of Tom Durkin, a racetrack announcer for NBC who, at length, found himself unequal to the pressure of performing for an audience of 20 million. There is a longer profile of Denny Zeitlin, a clinical professor of psychiatry whose musical credits include composing for Sesame Street and playing at the Newport Jazz Festival, and a still longer one of baseball player Steve Sax, bedeviled early in his career by a case of the “yips,” the confounding inability to make a routine throw from second base to first. (Too bad Solovitch didn’t mention Rick Ankiel, the once-promising pitcher who heroically refashioned himself as an outfielder after losing his ability to find the plate.) These biographical sketches, in which she often quotes the subjects at length, easily make for the most absorbing reading here.