Under Pressure

Performance anxiety is common even among the most accomplished professionals. This fight or flight impulse can be paralyzing, but it can also be conquered.

Ben Lloyd: It's a very primal, fight or flight response to being observed.

Joann Kirchner: I don't know that necessarily, that people are going to get over stage fright,  because we're wired for that. It's part of our system.

Rob Kesselman: I think it needs to be talked about, and I'm the man to do it. I almost feel combative about it.

Elina Kalendarova: It's not hopeless, I mean, I'm happy to have discovered, that it's not hopeless, and there are ways to cope.

Philadelphia Orchestra musicians Elina Kalendarova and Rob Kesselman are breaking the long silence on a condition that affects many performers — either on stage or in life.

Kesselman: There is this fear of how, you know, how am I gonna get through this? How am I gonna play up to the level that I was in the practice room? What's gonna happen when I'm actually out there?

And then this negative inner monologue quickly spirals into physical symptoms.

Ben Lloyd: It's overwhelming when you're in the throes of it. It makes thinking impossible, it's basically a small anxiety attack. Your mouth dries up, your heart starts to pound, you feel like you have trouble breathing.

Ben Lloyd doesn't himself suffer from stage fright, but he coaches actors who do. 

And today, says music professor Joann Kirchner, performance anxiety is not limited to entertainers.

Kirchner: The pressure today is so great.  I mean, even in grade school, we're already getting our students prepared for their future careers.

AJC: And we're also asking people to become performers who were never asked to be performers before. In the corporate world now, people need to be great in meetings, you've got to stand up there and deliver on your feet.

Kirchner: Absolutely.

AJC: And that's putting more pressure.

Kirchner: That's putting more pressure, right. The expectations, I think, have been raised.

And for classical musicians like Kesselman and Kalendarova, high expectations also drove their training. For him, at the Curtis Institute of Music, for her, at the Moscow Conservatory.

Kalendarova: My teacher really wanted to show me off to his colleagues. And I would crumble, because suddenly I had to prove to them that he was great. And his remark about my never doing as well when I played for somebody else, that was his conclusion about me, that kind of stuck for a long time.

AJC: That's harsh.

Kalendarova: That's harsh.

AJC: Anything stick with you? 'Cause a lot of this seems to be that this was sort of beaten into her at a young age. Have you ever analyzed where your performance anxiety came from?

Kesselman: It took me a long time to recognize that my public playing was not going to be as good as the best private playing was — it just never would, and I had to accept that that was what my level was. The key is to say, 'okay I'm going for this ten,' and then when you get out there on stage, you know in your mind you're not hitting that ten. And you say, 'heck with it, a nine and a half is gonna be okay, I'm gonna be happy with that.' Because, otherwise, you're gonna be miserable. And that's been my plight, accepting that I did the best that I could at that moment, even if it was way less than I might be able to do in another moment. That has to be okay. And that's something that's really hard for a lot of musicians, I think.

Kesselman: It's probably the most judgmental job you can have in the world. There's an old saying: what's the one thing that two musicians can agree upon? And that is the incompetence of the third. And that is, I think that's really true. It's true in conservatory, where we both went, a high-pressured conservatory. It's true professionally, people who aren't performing well are talked about constantly.

But refusing to become self conscious is, for many actors, the key to a successful performance, says Ben Lloyd.

Lloyd: What stage fright really is, is an overwhelming sense of self-awareness, what is happening to me becomes so overwhelming that you, my character, my fellow scene partner, doesn't exist anymore. The lines that I had to memorize, the direction I got from a director, doesn't exist anymore. It's just all about me, right? And what I'm feeling right now. And that becomes overwhelming. So what I believe is, when actors begin to think of what they're doing as a gift, or as a service, then the attention and the focal point doesn't become who they are.

After years of suffering the ravages of stage fright, a mindfulness meditation class
radically changed Rob Kesselman's outlook on music making.

Kesselman: My goal is to be more present for everything. I consider myself to be at the tail end of my career, so I want to make the tail end of my career as good as I can. And I think being present is very important.

For however complex stage fright feels, one simple technique can make all the difference when it comes to staying present.

Lloyd: A lot of it comes down to breathing. One of the first things that happens when we are beset by anxiety, is we stop breathing. Or, if we are breathing, like this part of ourselves, this diaphragmatic area, our bellies lock up. And it's all like this (breathes rapidly) shallow breathing. So a big part of what we do, if we're coaching somebody with a live presentation or anxiety around testing, is simply about 'can you put your hand on your belly button, get your breath to drop here, just take a few breaths, just acknowledge what's happening to you,
and feel yourself breathing.'

Elina Kalendarova's favorite breathing techniques come from a short book by a German philosopher.

Kalendarova: Breathing normally, but exhaling through resistance, on the consonant sound, like 'S' or 'BR' or something.

AJC: Show me what that looks like?

Kalendarova: For example, so you take normal breath, and then (hisses slowly) by nature, it slows down the exhalation so much that it restores the balance.

And when all else fails, there is a medical option. But though not illegal nor uncommon, drugs remain taboo for many professional performers. A combination of sedatives and/or beta blockers usually used to combat high blood pressure can help to overcome the physical symptoms of stage fright.

Kalendarova: If you take a sedative, and then you're in danger — you're approached by a wild, aggressive animal — you don't get scared. But you take a beta blocker instead, and you are approached by a wild, aggressive animal, and you do get scared, but you don't get a heart attack.

AJC: So you don't have that dulling of the senses or that 'I don't really care?'

Kalendarova: No, not at all.

AJC: How about you Rob?

Kesselman: What the drugs do, is they allow me to have confidence in my hands, that I'm going to be able to — they're not gonna shake. And that's part of what the beta blockers do, they're an anti-tremor. And I don't always take them, because I don't want to develop a dependence, physically, on them. But I freely admit that I take them, that when I need them — and I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Although we are judged, 'you are weak, you're less than, why can't you buck up and deal with it?'

Kesselman: That kind of thing, well I say, 'bring it.' 'Cause that's what I've got. I want to preserve the rest of my career, and if I need to take a beta blocker I'm going to. But the drug doesn't make the experience joyful. I still have the freak-out two days before a performance. I still feel like 'are you really up to this task, are you a fraud?,' etc. So, I think the element of the meditation, and being kind to myself, and really, really surrounding myself with a loving feeling, like it's okay, you worked hard, you have every right to feel good about this...that kind of thing. And through the meditation practice, I think it's gonna have to be a combination of both of them.

But even with the perfect balance, most artists will likely still experience some sort of pre-show adrenaline rush.

Kirchner: There are people that believe that performance anxiety, or stage fright, is really necessary. That you need a certain amount of that in order to perform your best.

Lloyd: I do think, if you feel nothing, if there's no special vibration that's going on inside of you before you perform, then you probably should reexamine why you're doing it. That sensation that you're having, is energy that's looking for a target. What I'm trying to help you figure out how to do, is to take that extraordinary energy, that's just bouncing around inside of you right now, and making you feel like you're about to throw up, and give it a target. And once I'm involved in that, then all of that like, you know, that energy that's bouncing around gets focused and used creatively. And that's when you can get extraordinary performances.

The key, it would seem, is to care enough to bring a performance to life but not so much as to kill it.