Stage Fright

I recently auditioned several singers for a cantor position at my church and most of the singers either admitted to being nervous or displayed attributes of nervousness.   There was absolutely no reason to be nervous because the people in the pews were not passing judgment on them.  Those people were there to worship God or accept any mental, emotional or physical healing they could gleam from the liturgy.  Fr. Bill was going to make the ultimate decision but I suspect he was basing most of his criteria on the phone interview.

Musically, there were many things I was listening for such as tone, diction, pitch and rhythm but, there were other factors which stood out for me more so.  I took note during the rehearsal if they were marking or doing an all out performance.  If they performed, was the actual singing of the music during the Mass a carbon copy or newly alive in the moment?  Was there a synaesthesis between us?  More on that later.

One singer who impressed me greatly was a woman who looked out at the people quite often and had a genuine smile on her face.  Not the fake kind that voice teachers teach.  Just as you can hear a real smile over the phone, you can hear a forced smile or masked smile on a singer, too.  This is why some mediocre folk singers can touch us more than a trained singer can.  The music comes from someplace deeper.

This woman, as she sang the line “Here, a million wounded souls, are yearning just to touch you and be healed.” she fixed her gaze up and out over the heads of the people.  That caught my attention.  Then on the line “See the face of Christ revealed on every person standing by your side.” she made a sincere perusal of the congregation.  It wasn’t something choreographed.  I could see her look at individual people, too.  To quote Yoda, “The force is strong with this one.”  So, what is this “force?”

When I accompany a musician on the piano, I can feel them in my hands.   Mozart once said that the hands and fingers must never play together.  Chords must never be struck in perfect timing.  The notes should be misaligned in time, that they are desynchronous.  One of my teachers taught me that a melodic line must not be played in perfect metronomic slavishness.  That you steal micro-beats from one note but make it up in another.  This is called entasis meaning “tensioning.”  Any speech or song which is metronomically perfect can lull our audience members’ brains to shutdown.  This can happen immediately from the first few notes or words.  Our ears and brain crave micro irregularity of timing to remain alert and attentive.

I *try* to do this in my playing and, when I encounter another musician doing this, we gel together, like puzzle pieces fitting into one another.  Entasis is what I connect to synaesthesis.  It is a paradox when the voices or instruments are truly independent and seem complex but to the listener and performer it is simple to feel, listen to and follow.  My friend Byron and I have this when we perform together.  I don’t know if it is him or me but, I can feel his performing and phrasing in my hands as I accompany him and without even looking at him, I know when he is going to breath.  I don’t get that often with many singers.  They seem to sing without regard to me and I just follow them.  It is quite dull for me as an accompanist.

What does this have to do with stage fright?  It is actually what musicians need to strive for in order to overcome fear.  Some teachers will say that you have to know your music so well or memorized that you won’t be nervous or, your preparation will overcome the nervousness.  Some say that practice makes perfect but we all know that in reality PERFECT practice makes perfect.  If you practice mistakes, no matter how much you practice you will always make those mistakes.  Even with perfect practice, being nervous can undo much of our preparation.  Natural entasis and synaesthesis comes from a place deep within which can not be touched by the “Id” or nerves.

So, what are nerves?  They are of our own creation.  In the movie “Forbidden Planet,” The Krell were a race so advanced, that they created a machine which made their mere thoughts into reality.   It was the ultimate achievement in creation until one of them thought the entire race out of existence, and so it was.  Stage fright is the same thing, if we give it power, it will take total control over us.  As the saying goes, give an inch – takes a foot.

So how do we control it?  Of course, preparation, perfect practice, being physically warm, diet and rest; these things can ameliorate nerves.  Then there is avoiding the pitfalls of the Krell; not to give power to nervousness in the first place.  If one were to sing Amazing Grace at the bed side of a dying parent, would they be nervous about their performance?  Most likely not.  For, their offering comes from the heart, from pain, from love, from com+passion (with+suffering), and sacrifice.   It will naturally be filled with entasis because their guard will be down.  It is within those thin spaces that entasis and synaesthesis exist.  You can’t force it or train for it.  It has to be there and it comes from embracing the you you hide.

When that cantor looked out at the congregation while singing those two lines, was it choreographed?  Did she make a mental or written notation to “look out here?”  My synaesthesis told me no.   Of course, any musician or stage performer who tries to force this entasis and synaesthesis between performer and audience runs the risk of self grandeur and that is not the same thing.

A performer needs to first realize that they perform what the page reveals and they reveal what their spirit possesses and what they are desirous to share.  They are the conduit between page, instrument and spirit.  Spirit and sharing are both a gift and only require that we accept them and give them freely.  Anything else will result in stage fright or metronomic performances.

When we seek self grandeur, applause, perfection or don’t know why we do what we are doing, we run the risk of the Krellian fate or the self fulfilling prophecy of nervousness for, the performance is then not about them, it becomes about us and that scares us.  Ask any battlefield hero or fireman who runs into a burning building to save someone if they were nervous and they will probably say no.  They did what they had to do to save a life.  If what we do on stage is to share, to teach, to inspire, to heal, to save or to comfort, we won’t fail either.  Every singer should first feel their text for if they don’t know what they are singing about or feel the place where the text comes from, the audience will know it.  Then, entasis won’t exist.  Synaesthesis won’t exist.  The audience will get bored.  The singer will sense this and nerves will creep in.  It’s then too late.

CPE Bach, in his Essay on the “True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments,” suggested that one should “endeavor to avoid everything mechanical and slavish. Play from the soul, not like a trained bird.”


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