With Sara Solovitch
Given how painful the subject is, what made you want to write this book?
When I went back to playing the piano after 30 years, I surprised myself with my appetite for practice. What had once been a grueling regimen was suddenly the happiest time of the day. Not that it was easy.
But soon I was spending so much time at the piano that I had to ask myself why I was bothering if I couldn’t even bring myself to play for a few friends.
Louis Armstrong once said that music ain’t nothing if you don’t lay it on the audience. When I saw that, something clicked. I decided I would give myself a year to prepare and explore every possible method for overcoming stage fright. And then I would give a concert.
How did you begin?
The first thing I did was to set a deadline. As a journalist, that’s something I understand; a deadline is almost religious to me. This one was a whole year away, which seemed generous until I began to get serious. I played for five teachers and I think most of them assumed they were auditioning me. The fact is, I was auditioning them. I wanted someone who would not only inspire me but take me seriously, see my potential and demand that I rise to my personal best.
I contacted a performance coach at the Juilliard School – Noa Kageyama, who works with musicians and other performers, mostly around issues involving stage fright. He agreed to work with me and we met for months on a weekly basis over Skype. Eventually, I also ended up working with his mentor: Don Greene, a renowned sport psychologist who trains athletes and musicians to overcome performance anxiety and other mental obstacles.
Are you an anxiety-ridden person?
Well, I do bite my nails. There’s not much incentive to let them grow when you play the piano.
What else makes you scared?
Besides the thought of tsunamis and shark attacks? Not much, really. I can talk in front of large groups of people and feel nothing more than the usual butterflies in my stomach. My anxiety disorder is very specific. I guess you might say I suffer from pianistic anxiety disorder.
What was your worst experience during the project?
Gosh, there were so many! I was undone at numerous recitals. A real standout occurred when my former piano teacher invited me to play at his students’ recital, and then spoke for what seemed (to me) at least 10 minutes about the perils of stage fright. I played terribly that day.
There were other occasions when I thought I was in control, and then totally lost it in front of an audience. Like the time I played before a laid-back performance class at the local community college. My hands shook so much that people several rows back commented on it after I’d finished.
What do you think helped the most?
The beta blocker was a lifesaver. I never imagined that I would fall in love with a drug until I met the beta blocker. And to think that tens of millions of Americans take it for high blood pressure and heart problems!
The beta blocker gave me room to relax and focus on things like mindfulness and positive thinking — to visualize a successful performance and get me past the worst of the physical symptoms.
Breathing exercises were indispensable. Practicing performing became almost as important as practicing the piano. In the months leading up to my big concert, I gave regular little recitals for friends and acquaintances at my house. I invited them over for wine and dessert, but first they had to sit and listen to me play.
I also played through my repertoire many times at Mineta San Jose Airport, where there’s a tinny grand piano just beyond the Southwest baggage claim area in Terminal B.I could play my heart out, knowing that no one was paying me any mind.
Was there a turning point?
A few months before my concert, I spent a week at Rancho La Puerta, a wellness center just across the border from San Diego, where I gave a performance before a small group of women. It was incredibly affirming and kind of transformative – both for me and I think even for some of them, who got what I was attempting.
That was the moment it really hit me. It’s not about hitting every note. It’s about the communicative power of music and reaching people at their most emotional, deepest places.
Is your experience applicable to people in other fields?
For sure. It’s applicable to anybody who’s scared of standing up and talking, of being judged, evaluated, and found not good enough. Anybody can apply what I’ve done and take it from there.
What do you advise?
You have to begin by making yourself do the very thing you most want to avoid. You have to do it over and over again. If your fear is public speaking, practice talking in front of your friends and family. You may have to start by standing up and reading aloud from a book.
I met a psychologist who leads workshops for people with paruresis, which is the fear of urinating in the presence of others. He leads field trips to public bathrooms – over and over, until the fear starts to diminish and the experience loses its jolt.
Do what scares you and then do it again. Once you make that leap, there are lots of approaches, whether it’s deep breathing exercises, medication or a cognitive behavior therapy. But first take that leap.
Do you think your mother would feel guilty if she read your book?
My mother was the most confident person I ever met and, unlike me, she was not one to second-guess herself. I think most likely she would have chuckled over a lot of the book.
We all screw our kids up in different ways. You’ve got to give them something to talk about when you’re gone.
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