Stage Fright & the Nervous System (Part 2)


Stage Fright & the Nervous System (Part 2)

Amelia Chan


[Part One]


I cannot even tell you how often students come to me asking for a lesson right before an audition or a performance. Or this: I’ll contact you for a lesson when I’ve practiced and “learned” my piece/program. It is such a classical music world thing where all our lives, we’ve been told to go practice first before going to our lessons. But what if our practice process had blind spots or room for improvement? Of all the serious music students or young professional players I’ve worked with, every single person has had room for improvement in how to practice, to different extents. If I’m honest, most have little to no understanding about practicing. Most people want some pointers before having to play a program, but how do you make changes that would not throw you off so close to the event? But that is short-sighted anyway. People always focus on one audition, one concert. Working like that will always give you limited results. The objective for me is always to work on a)deepening and refining my understanding of what music is, and what musicianship is, and b) how well I can train my body to communicate such musicianship, and close the gap between what I know what I want and what my body is capable of producing. Each concert I play is simply a short-term goal for me on this life-long road to develop as a musician.


How comfortable are we in our bodies? If we are required to be in positions that we can’t feel strong in, imagine having to move this way as we are under pressure performing in public. There’s the movement and the ease, but again, that this would create nervous system dysregulation is a piece that cannot be ignored. Because it’s not just about using inefficient movements, but that they would  cause all kinds of havoc in your nervous system. (There’s no pushing past NS reactions, only compensations.) Stage fright for me personally, to a large extent has to do with the discomfort of being in my own body, which is why I’ve had to spend so much time on learning about movement. For many years, just standing would be difficult for me (still is, but much better), let alone standing and play. (Though what I used to think were uniquely my own weird problems -I see more and more now that they’re not as uncommon as I thought-even if some of my issues were, and some are, still more severe than most people. But in a way, I can finally see my problems as a blessing too because they have helped me identify some things that perhaps a person having the luxury to take for granted wouldn’t. It’s helped me understand technique better and has certainly made me a better teacher.) So my focus has been to train myself in movements and positions that would help the system feel safe – in essence to be able to stand and sit strong-so my NS wouldn’t try to protect me from the danger of falling (by bracing and becoming rigid, for example. A feeling that almost all musicians have experienced.) So often I’ve heard from instrumentalists and singers talking about playing or singing on stage feeling not grounded. I believe things like that need to be approached both from the movement and NS perspectives.


So what does regulating the system for stage fright look like? (And for well-being: to me the two are overlap)  It’s different for everybody. Let me use myself as an example. First of all, I am constantly exploring better, more efficient ways to practice. By that, I mean I continually try to examine what  “natural” means in music-making, which is often thinking about how to make the complex simple, which then entails a whole lot of things from listening to different kinds of music to thinking about what music is to reading about anything else really  -because everything is connected to each other.  And from there I can then try to figure out how to facilitate my technique to create in sound what music means to me at that given point in time (so much to discuss on this whole process!).


Learning about how the nervous system and movement work – these all go toward regulation. I also have external help in the form of manual myofascial therapy that corrects “hardware” issues in my body. I see a somatic therapist regularly who specializes in regulating the nervous system (if you’re curious, look up Somatic Experiencing-though she also incorporates a lot of other modalities). And of course there’s my movement teacher and many others whom I learn from regarding movement.


The  term “holistic learning” was thrown around a lot maybe ten years ago. The application in the music world was often that you’d do something like yoga, usually, and then you’d go practice your instrument in the same exact way as things had been taught for decades. Things haven’t changed that much from what I can see. There are different modalities and descriptors now but they mostly go along the lines of learning a whole different skill-set or knowledge that has weak relevance to actual playing mechanics . (Some of these modalities in fact teach entirely incorrect information on physiology and movement.)  For me, holistic learning requires connecting the dots, breaking barriers and actually finding strong cross-application between different disciplines. Does this create more work than only focusing on your dedicated field? Absolutely. And work begets work, too. It never ends. I used to get so discouraged by this Sisyphean task, but now most of the time, the work has in itself become the reward. The richness of the entire process simply doesn’t compare to any rigid methodology. And I find it so much more effective to boot.


All this is what I’m willing to do in order to find fulfillment as a musician, a performer. But one doesn’t need to do remotely close to this much work to find even significant improvement if one is willing to really examine their process, and let go of their pre-conceived notion of what improvement might look like. I think that if we can zoom out and try to trace many of the more-often discussed factors in stage fright all the way down to the state of our nervous system, we could have a much less myopic, and therefore, more insightful, view of things.


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