It’s 93 degrees Farenheit (33.9C) at 7:00pm, and Dallas Vietty is smiling.
I’m sitting outside on a picnic table at Longwood Gardens, the lovely arboretum outside Philadelphia, and I’m listening to Dallas play gypsy jazz with his new trio.
Dallas seems equally oblivious to the oppressive heat and the large audience. He’s here, but he’s not here at all. Dallas is off somewhere else, nodding serenely to his accordion as effortless poetry sings from the instrument. The 150-or-so people in the beer garden don’t affect him at all. Oh, he’s genial when introducing each number, but while he’s playing, we might as well not be here.
As I sip on my increasingly warming beer, I try to imagine myself in his place – Steve and his ‘cordeen entertaining the public; and as I envision it, the 150 nice people in shorts and flip-flops morph with sinister intent into the We Hate Steve Society. They have not come to Longwood Gardens to see its wonderland of plants or dancing fountains. No – they are here expressly to scowl at me. To disapprove of every note I play – to wince at each hesitation – to mutter disapprovingly about my effrontery in even considering playing in public.
I need another beer.
I can’t explain my irrational fear of public performance. I’ve been accordionating for three full years now, and when I’m sitting by myself, I can actually play with a few scraps of skill and a shred or two of confidence. What is even more bizarre is that I’m totally unafraid of public speaking. You want me to address an audience of 10,000 five minutes from now? Sure! What topic?
But strap me into a squeezebox and I melt quicker than that bowl of green ice cream the kid at the next table is toying with.
It’s not that I’ve never played in public at all. I organized a little klezmer group and played once or twice for services – but the whole band played along, and the choir sang. I even played a duet at a shiva – the in-home memorial service after a funeral. It was probably the only shiva ever accompanied by a ‘cordeen and bluegrass banjo….
I was able to accomplish these feats of musical bravado for one reason only: I could hide. There were people singing and playing along. Had it been only me playing at the shiva, the deceased, already interred, would have got up and left.
By now you’ve likely identified my malady: it’s called “Performance Anxiety”, and no wisecracks, please – I’m talking about music here.
Of course, Performance Anxiety isn’t reserved for accordion players. For example, Dame Anne Evans, a well-known operatic soprano, reported the anxiety she felt when she first sang the lead in Verdi’s La Traviata. “For the big first-act aria, which is a nightmare for any soprano”, she reported, “I was so nervous. My heart was beating so fast. The next thing, I was out of myself and watching my performance from the wings. It was extraordinary. Then at the end of the aria I was back inside myself and it had gone quite well. I think maybe I might have had a heart attack if I had stayed in my body.”[i]
Having no ability to trigger an out-of-body experience myself, I’m not quite sure what to do. What’s more, transmigration’s gotta be hard with an accordion strapped on.
Now before you accuse me of being defeatist, let me assure you that I have attempted to slay my performance demons. For example, I bought a copy of Stephen Bryant’s “Mastering Stage Fright: How to Overcome Your Stage Fright and Conquer Performance Anxiety.”
Mr. Bryant identifies the problem well:
You tend to anticipate and expect negative responses to your performance; furthermore, you have unrealistic negative expectations from the performance. Moreover, you have the inexplicable desire to avoid the performance; some of us have had the urge to run away from the location just minutes before the performance.[ii]
Yes. That’s why I wear track shoes.
The first few chapters of the book don’t help much – he spends too much time identifying why the fear occurs – something anyone who suffers from it knows – and then goes into a list of its various physical manifestations – Dizziness, Palpitations, Sweating, Trembling, Dry mouth, Nausea…. It sounds like the recitation of the Ten Plagues at Passover.
It’s Chapter 6 before he gets around to solutions – but when he does, it’s all stuff I’ve heard before. Meditate. Take vitamins. Visualize. And then there’s that old standby, imagine the audience naked.
What’s more, if I visualized them naked, they’d all be carrying spears.
The book has been no help at all. I’m going to need stronger stuff. I look elsewhere.
The WebMD website added nothing of any use – it’s almost exactly the same pabulum as the book.
On the website for Britain’s The Guardian, Prof. Jane Ginsborg at the Royal Northern College of Music says “Everybody has their own symptoms, which are instrument-specific, ”[iii] but for some odd reason doesn’t go into odd accordionist behavior, which may be an oxymoron. The same article adds the intriguing opinion that “The degree to which we experience these reactions depends on a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors. Anxiety can be partly inherited through the mother’s hormone levels, but also stimulated by perceived traumas at an early age.” [iv] It is some small comfort to know I can blame my stage fright, like all my other issues, on my parents – Dad forced me to play the violin, you know – but that doesn’t help me overcome anything.
The Royal College has something pretty nifty for attacking stage fright: a virtual reality concert venue – complete with stage lighting and projected audience (the audience thinks you’re playing wonderfully), but the chances of me installing the same in my family room are pretty slim.
Pop singer Carly Simon found a novel way to deal with performance anxiety: according to a different Guardian article, she invited audience members on stage: “Fifty people came up and massaged her arms and legs.”[v] And discovering that physical pain helped calm her nerves, she asked the horn section of the orchestra to spank her.
Really. And why the horn section, I wonder? This is probably not a good practice for me to emulate, unless I was soloing with the all-girl orchestra at the Kit-Kat Klub.
Now, according to Noa Kageyama, PhD, this massage-and-spanking inducing behavior has three components:
Somatic anxiety is your physical response to a situation. Heart pounding in your chest, blood pressure goes up, you start breathing more rapidly and shallowly, muscles get tight, cold, clammy hands, and so on.
Cognitive anxiety is your mental response to a situation. An increase in self-doubt, worries, thoughts and images of failing, loss of focus, blanking, etc.
Affective anxiety is your emotional response to a situation. You may feel a sense of fear, panic, and apprehension about the situation, for instance.[vi]
And these pounding, doubting, and panicking reactions gang up on you and reduce you to a melted lump of reed wax just as you’re about to go onstage and play that lovely little musette. It’s all due to that horrid little beast lurking in the murky depths of your ego, “your Inner Critic.”
To help you snuff your IC once and for all, Dr. Noa runs a website called “The Bulletproof Musician”, and he offers an on-line “Mental Skills Audit”, a 5-minute survey that purportedly reveals “the specific mental blocks that may be holding you back.”
There are 15 questions, most of them asking about my confidence level. At each question, I silently remark that if I had confidence I wouldn’t be taking the Audit to begin with.
As it finishes, it asks for an email address, then brings up a revolving arrow implying its supercomputer is spending countless cycles calculating my score.
Three minutes later, it’s still calculating. Talk about a confidence killer: I broke it.
But Dr. Kageyama has an interesting point of view on the topic: stage fright – or at least the nervous energy it engenders — is my friend. The problem, as he sees it, is we’re using the wrong half of our brains. In general (and he does admit this is an oversimplification), the left-hand side of the thing works best for practicing. As he explains it, “Left brain thinking is associated with words, numbers, logic, analysis, criticism, rules, details, planning, and judgment.”[vii] The right side handles “sounds, images, patterns, kinesthetic or sensory input, emotions, the ‘big picture,’ free association, and creativity,”[viii] and works better for performance. In other words, I should give a right-minded performance. Unfortunately, lefty butts in when I’m playing, and I have half a mind to run for the exit.
The solution? Something he calls “Centering”. It’s a seven-step process.
Now, if you Google the term “seven step process”, you’ll find there are seven steps to everything: successful selling, acquiring a service contract, self-improvement, exit planning, problem solving, and making ethical decisions, among other things. But Dr. Kageyama’s seven steps all direct me to shove my left-brained willies between the lobes and make them work for me.
First, I need to look into the distance and pick a “focal point.” Apparently, this is a safe place I need to look while I’m playing – probably not the horn section.
Then I need to form a “clear intention” – a positive statement of what I am going to accomplish by playing. Something like “I am going to play this ‘cordeen brilliantly, with a fluid, legato line, perfect bellowing, and overwhelming emotion. And I’m going to push the right damn buttons,” or some similar self-deception.
Step 3 revolves around breathing – and I have to do it “diaphragmatically”. I never really thought about breathing as an accordion concern – that was more an issue for vocalists like Dame Anne Evans and her floating body – but Dr. Kagayama insists that when we breathe through our diaphragms, it activates “the parasympathetic nervous system response which is our body’s antidote for the fight-or-flight state.”[ix]
The next task in this increasingly complex process is to “scan and release excess tension.” Dr. Kagayama asks us to consider each muscle group in our bodies in turn and release our tension from the region as we exhale. I remember the Lamaze people telling my wife this same thing 36 years ago when my first son was born. It was supposed to make childbirth easier. Feel free to ask her if it worked.
If the time allotted for your performance hasn’t already passed by now, you can proceed to step 5, which seems to be the key to the whole process: find your Center, your “chi”, your “life force.” Apparently, there is “a specific location in our body where the energy tends to congregate, which is essentially our center of gravity,”[x] but the website doesn’t give us a clue how to find it or what to do with it once we do.
I tried to find my center (the good Dr. assures me that just looking for it helps keep that annoying left brain quiet). Given I have two ends, and centers are usually in the middle of something, I figured I’d look there first. Since I’m exactly six feet tall, my center would perforce be up 36 inches from my feet. I got a yardstick.
Yep, there’s my center, all right — my chi, my life force: squarely amidst the Family Jewels. Women readers can make any wry comments they wish, especially in regard to Performance Anxiety, but I would agree that this is likely a gender-related trait.
And now, the climax: after finding a trigger word that will bring up a reminder of “what it sounds, feels, or looks like to produce the exact sounds you want”(step 6), I am to feel all that negative energy growing, building, concentrating at my center –
Now, direct that energy upwards, through your torso and neck, into your head, and blast it out through your eyes or forehead like a laser beam at the focal point you identified in Step 1. Think of this beam as a conduit for your music and the energy that will convey your clear intention to the audience.
Gentleman that I am, I will refrain from further comment.
I tried this. I really did. I strapped on my ‘cordeen and imagined an audience on the other wall and focused on Dame Anne and her floating opera. I stated my intention out loud: “I am going to play with a nuance and sensitivity that’s never before been brought to ‘The Pennsylvania Polka’”. I breathed diaphragmatically (I think). I started down at my toes and tried to release energy from each region of my body, though I had some problem trying to determine what body parts constituted a region.
And then I centered. I concentrated my energy smack in mid-Chi, uttered the trigger word “’Cordeen!”, and felt my Chi blast out through my eyes like Superman’s x-ray vision!!
I was Centered! I was focused! I couldn’t find the “C” button.
Maybe it wasn’t my Chi. Maybe it was that nasty Inner Critic tearing out of my chest like the parasitic larvae in Alien.
“Jerk, “it snarled, shaking its ugly little head.
Perhaps I should sign up for Frau Doktor med. Mahkorn’s musical stage fright clinic at the University Hospital in Bonn, ja? She schedules appointments with care, making sure sufferers from this furtive social disease don’t run into each other. After all, “Stage fright is still a taboo among musicians and no one wants to step forward and publicly admit receiving treatment.”
[xii] I imagine her patients sneaking around with false noses and large, floppy hats, just to avoid the disgrace of it all. Oh, Dr. Mahkorn, ich schäme mich so sehr!
Or maybe I need to try the “Alexander Technique.” The author of the MajoringInMusic.com website says it helped her manage her anxieties and be a better singer (presumably without floating out of her body). I’ve heard of this before, but I really didn’t know what is was – but WikiPedia tells me
The Alexander Technique (A.T.), named after its creator Frederick Matthias Alexander, is an educational process that was created to retrain habitual patterns of movement and posture. Alexander believed that poor habits in posture and movement damaged spatial self-awareness as well as health, and that movement efficiency could support overall physical well-being. He saw the technique as a mental training technique as well.[xiii]According to a document on the Alexander Technique website, stage fright comes about because of “a disturbance of our body use.”[xiv] It seems that the source of stage fright from an Alexander Technique point of view is not your Center at all; it’s much further north. It’s located instead “right where your skull meets your spine-the very, very top of your neck. This place is actually higher and deeper in than you might think”[xv], and the trick to not have your head in the wrong place.
As explained (sort of) by one Jennifer Roig-Francolí, M.AmSAT
The dynamic head-neck-torso relationship is primary to all movement. “The head leads; the body follows.” It is imperative to our well-being and to successfully accomplishing our goals with mind-body integrity that the atlanto-occipital (AO) joint (where the skull meets the spine) not be fixed, but free and available for spontaneous movement. This freedom, combined with greater freedom in all the joints of the body, results in the efficient working of the postural and reflex mechanisms throughout the organism, bringing about graceful poise and well-coordinated flow. Optimal use and functioning depends on the freedom of the primary control (dynamic head-neck-torso relationship).[xvi]
And apparently, when the postural and reflex mechanisms throughout the organism bring about that graceful poise and well-coordinated flow, we’re not going to be so bloody nervous.
It seems that Alexander Technique is pretty popular at music schools – even at a top school like Julliard, where’s there is often a waiting list for it – but, unfortunately, it’s not something I can learn on my own. In fact, the Internet has a few dire “Kids, don’t try this at home” warnings about trying to master it without an expensive instructor.
“Dear, I’m going to sign up for some expensive lessons for efficient working of the postural and reflex mechanisms throughout my organism.”
Anyway, I live dangerously. I bought a book about it. It’s filled with quasi-mystical jargon: I need to learn about The Primary Control, the Startle Pattern, and develop Psychophysical Unity! Indeed, as the book’s authors state, when the sainted Dr. Alexander “found a way to avoid the displacement and tightening of his head on the top of his spine, he had discovered a key to resolving his problems.”[xvii]
Well, I guess I’m going to have to work on my Primary Control – to paraphrase the tenets of Alexanderism, I need to allow my neck to be free; to let my head go forward and up; to soften the back of my head; to lie “semi-supine” and notice pockets of tension in my body; to think the top of my spine back and up – and above all (large font and boldface in the book!) to not pull my head towards my instrument![xviii]
I need to avoid “fixing my head on the spine” and allow my head to rebalance…
This will be hard for me, as I’ve never had my head on straight.
But I did come to a conclusion. By the time I learn Alexander technique, I’m likely to be fully and permanently supine. So instead, I am going to go Cold Turkey. I am going to face my fears unbalanced-head on and put myself on a vast global stage and play before the readers of this blog. I’m going to strap the ‘cordeen to my body, not pull my head towards my instrument, point that camera unblinkingly in front of me, record a single take, and post it on that 21st century confessional called YouTube. Just me and my ‘cordeen. Conquer my fear by facing it.
That’s right. Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.
You’ll find it, with all its considerable warts, athttps://youtu.be/KNftlIc8j8E
Only I can play it a lot better than that. Honest.
[ii] Bryant, Chap. 1
[xi] Ibid all over again
[xvii] Judith Keinman and Peter Buckoke, The Alexander Technique for Musicians. Chapter 5.
[xviii] Ibid, Various places
Copyright © 2018 Stephen A. Hirsch