Stage Fright

I began my musical training at an early age, first on the piano and then on the violin. For five or six years I studied violin with a teacher at a local community music school, where I made a lot of friends and participated in performing ensembles. I also took part in recitals, my first taste of performing solo in front of an audience. I didn’t like it at all. Nonetheless, the stakes were relatively low, and I had what might be described as a normal case of nerves.

That all changed when I began studying the violin more intensively with a formidable new teacher during my junior year. He was charismatic, demanding, and by turns seductive and scathingly critical. In two years I made my way through a sizable chunk of the major solo repertoire, developing my technique far beyond anything I had achieved before. I also spent three summers at music camps, where I was thrown in with highly trained, sophisticated people, many of them New Yorkers. By the time I was out of high school at 17 I had a full-blown phobia. My most obvious symptom was a shaking bow arm, which would happen even when I wasn’t experiencing the emotions of panic. I came up with ways to circumvent the problem,  but the result was that I found it impossible to concentrate on the music itself. Sometimes the shakiness would intensify, while at other times it would subside. It didn’t always hit, and not always under predictable circumstances; for example, I was okay in a group or in a rehearsal of a solo, at least for awhile.

My teacher wanted me to go to Juilliard, or failing that, a college with a world-class music program. I ended up instead at a prestigious liberal arts college with no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Actually, the problem was that I had too many ideas, and one of them was still music. I spent the two summers following my freshman and sophomore years in the Fellowship Program at Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I began studying with a violinist from the Boston Symphony, who happened to be a Christian Scientist. She was about 10 years older than I was, tall and blonde (like me!) and we became close. I attended the Mother Church in Boston with her a few times, stayed at her apartment on occasional weekends, and identified with her completely, expecting to follow her path.

The only fly in the ointment was the damned stage fright. Christian Science teaches that even physical illness is a manifestation of a disordered view, a lack of faith and trust. In the case of a phobia, the sufferer is all the more under the spell of misguided thinking, which needs to be corrected through a combination of contact with the truth and prayer. It is best, in fact, not even to allow thoughts of fear to arise, if at all possible, because thinking about it, worrying about it, gives it power. Unfortunately for me, however, I thought about it all the time. I went into therapy with a classic Freudian analyst and talked about anxiety, my family, sex, self-image, and Lord knows what else, to no avail whatsoever (although it was lovely having someone pay so much attention to me). Forty-five years later, after numerous interventions (CBT, EMDR, Beta blockers, whatever) I can’t really say what the source of my phobia was, much less how to get rid of it. I have lectured in front of hundreds of people, sung solos in church and at a diocesan convention, and yet to this day if you stood me up in front of a small kindergarten class and asked me to pull a bow across a string, my right arm would shake.

Under the circumstances, Tanglewood was a protracted nightmare. The stakes were higher than ever, and my fear became paralyzing. By the second summer I was taking Valium for my nerves. I was also enrolled in a conservatory for the following year. Now the paralysis would set in even while playing in an orchestra with a large section. I soldiered on, unwilling to believe that I couldn’t get past the problem. It didn’t help matters that I could play very well, that I was actually accomplished enough to realistically imagine a career for myself. I loved music passionately, and felt overwhelming fulfillment in being able to bring it to life under the power of my own body. I just couldn’t share it with anyone. The grief and frustration I felt were indescribable. It’s only in the past couple of years that someone—a therapist, actually—labeled my experience as “incomplete loss,” the same terminology I had encountered elsewhere to describe the feelings of family members of people with mental illness, people like my brothers.

I left the conservatory after one year and returned to my liberal arts college, where I majored in intellectual history. By then I was married and no longer playing the violin. I would later participate in sight-reading chamber music in graduate school, but eventually I would stop playing altogether for about twenty years. At the time, it was the only decision that made sense.

 

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