Posted by: eaubeauhorn | December 8, 2010

The end of stage fright?

The end of stage fright?

History: ever since my early 20s I have suffered from horrible stage fright. I’m not sure where it came from, but by then it was in full swing. I came to think of it as a conditioned response, which would start as long as three days before a performance. So how do you get Pavlov’s dog to stop salivating? It is much, MUCH harder than getting it to salivate in the first place. And salivating at the ring of a bell is not career-threatening, which stage fright can be, if it is the kind I have suffered with all my adult life.

Those of you who think stage fright is butterflies or nervousness, have no CLUE what I am talking about. What I’m talking about is physical shaking such that it is difficult to even hold an instrument, much less actually play it; I remember a performance of Brandenburg #1 in which I was shaking so badly that it was literally difficult to get the mouthpiece on my face, because the motion of my arms was greater than the size of my mouth. I remember a performance in a professional orchestra when I was a violinist, in which I suddenly started seeing stars and almost fell off my chair; I had to put my head between my knees to stay conscious. I would get “extreme diarrhea” DURING a performance; it wasn’t like those people who throw up before a performance, go out on stage, and then they are fine once they get going. I did not become “fine” in any sense once I got going. My limbs would not only be shaking but also stiff. Have you ever tried to maneuver a bow arm with muscles that are not only shaking but also stiff as boards to boot?

And as anyone knows who has been through this, it is not voluntary. It is anything but voluntary; from the sufferers point of view it is purely physical. Yes, there is self-talk that goes with it, but not what you’d expect: the self talk is not “Oh, I am not prepared; I can’t really play this music.” No, the self-talk is “DAMMITALLTOHELL MY GODDAMN BODY IS PULLING THIS UNBELIEVABLE CRAP AGAIN. HOW AM I GOING TO GET THROUGH THIS?”

The only times I could play and not enter into shaking/fainting mode were when I played in a brass section and could effectively hide physically from the audience. Even then there were times (like Bbg #1) when that was not sufficient.

I tried everything: bananas, which I had heard were natural beta-blockers. Nope. Actual beta blockers; nope. A dose that was sufficient to quell the over-the-top adrenalin reaction was also sufficient to make it impossible for me to keep my place or even halfway know what I was doing (I have since found out that I have a genetic variation that makes me react to medications such as beta blockers in extreme ways due to not being able to clear them from my system.) I did a lot of self-talk, which had no effect. I tried loving the audience (more effective than anything else I tried, but it did not keep me from having to put my head between my knees several times when on stage, and it did not stop the shaking or fainting. All it did was calm me somewhat emotionally, but this is not an emotional thing that is going on; the emotions one has are in reaction to the physical thing that is going on, rather than the converse.) I tried hating the audience (well, might as well do the opposite, right?) I tried ignoring the audience (impossible; it was the presence of an audience that caused the problem.)

For me, the physical reaction that I have labeled stage fright occurred regularly enough that I simply stopped performing in any situation that brought it on. Any situation that brought it on was a) a “real” audience as opposed to a gig at a retirement place; b) any of a) where the audience could easily see me. This stopped dead in its tracks my participation in a concert band that I had hitherto enjoyed, because my new position as oboist put me smack in front on the outside, and after many years of hiding in the brass section, I once again found myself almost passing out four separate times during that one performance. I quit that band immediately. No one understood why, and I wasn’t in the mood to be laughed at so I didn’t tell them why.

So I went back to playing euphonium in the local British-style brass band. I do not sit on the outside, and all but one of the gigs are non-threatening in terms of having a “real” audience. For that gig, I work the lights and sound and we are all happy with that.

But one rehearsal, the euphonium player whom I hide behind, and whose sound I also hide behind, was going to be absent. For some reason I decided to go anyway, but I also tried an experiment. I have embouchure dystonia (discussed elsewhere on this blog) and I was curious if the amino acid L-tyrosine would help with that; the dystonia is worse when I cannot hide, also. Stress is a known aggravator, so I’m not unusual in my response. Since I regularly take 1000mg of L-tyrosine when I get up in the morning (excellent mood elevator) I knew already that at worst I can’t tell I’ve taken it. It’s more like I notice a little bit if I don’t take it. (However, before you go honking off to try this, please note that I have read that some people become extremely agitated on as little as 200mg; clearly they have a different biochemistry than I do. One of my friends had that reaction, but then later she told me she doesn’t get stage fright, so why did she try it? Beats me.)

But I digress. I took 1000 mg about 12 hours after my morning dose. I got to the rehearsal; it had no discernable positive or negative effect on the dystonia….but!! but!! I would have had pretty bad nerves just being the sole euphonium player there, even though it was only a rehearsal. What I had….was a heightened ability to concentrate, which is kind of opposite to stage fright of the kind I experience; when I am in the throes of that reaction, concentration is exceedingly difficult due to the astonishing things that are going on with my body; I mean, how can you concentrate on the music well enough to do a good job when you are having to put your head between your knees to keep from fainting? When you can’t manage to paste your mouthpiece to your chops because your arms are shaking to a blur? So….no stage fright; instead, heightened concentration. I was fascinated, and took note.

I didn’t have a chance to test this again until last weekend. I had a concert with a “real” audience, in a large hall, on multiple instruments. I am a glutton for punishment in rehearsals; the more different things I can do, the happier I am. In this concert, I was playing 2nd oboe on Haydn 104; I was reading the 1st horn part on Swan lake, on the oboe (I don’t transpose; I read by concert pitch. Go look it up.) And I was playing the euphonium on the bassoon part in Showboat. Showboat was first thing on the program, and in order to survive playing euphonium without the dystonia’s taking over completely, I must do a very complete warm-up. There was nowhere to do that except on stage; most of the rest of the orchestra was composed of community college students just out of high school, and it was pretty much beyond them to go out on stage before they had to. So I was out there all alone, not hidden even slightly, in a large hall with a real audience already sitting down. I had taken 500mg of the L-tyrosine an hour ahead of time, in the hopes that it would help with the stage fright. I didn’t take the whole 1000mg because it was a 3pm concert and not all that long since the 1000mg a.m. dosing.

So…guess what? I warmed up, thoroughly, for a good ten minutes on stage by myself. I was not nervous; I even showed off a little bit. Astonishing. Amazing. Unbelievable. During the actual concert, I had a few instances of some minor butterflies and maybe even a shudder or two….but nothing, NOTHING like I have gone through before. The only variable I have changed is the L-tyrosine.

If this continues to work, my plans to simply stop trying to perform altogether may warrant reconsideration. It just has not been worth what I go through in terms of performing; I play in musical groups because I like playing the music, but I have always HATED performing, as you would have too had you had to go through what I’ve had to go through.

I’ll report the next excursion if there is one.

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