Stage fright, performance anxiety, plain nerves…whichever label one prefers to reference, the general experience associated with these terms tends to be one that nobody wishes on themselves or anyone else –and not just because sweaty palms are unpleasant.
The idea of losing focus and becoming negatively, hyper aware of everyone watching an unfolding performance is certainly no fun. Nonetheless, despite burying oneself in an avalanche of books on preparation, the occasional shaky set of legs is virtually inevitable among anybody putting themselves out there for evaluation. I have touched on this topic in a previous piece, as it was a part of a discussion I had with one of the members of the October Project, back in 2012. The occurrence of anxiety around musical performance is nothing unique to one type of musician or one type of situation. Simultaneously, for an occurrence so commonplace, one would imagine that additional, as well as more effective mechanisms for coping with and overcoming the problem would be hanging around in abundance for analysis and personal execution.
Why is this reality important and worth re-visiting?
This piece, from the LA Times, posted a little over a week ago on July 15, ventures into the fearful waters from a slightly different angle and prompts a reconsideration of the lines that separate the reasons for fear in artistic study, among other things elaborated on later: stage terror manifesting not from fear of inadequate musicianship or technical skill, but rather, fear of one’s performance not being the choice of another, that makes the cut for a job spot among others equally as skilled. Auditions, by the nature of their underlying competitive purposes, are associated with wanting perfection and possibly fearing providing less than that and subsequently forming serious anxiety over that. However, when a player is in a room with comparable colleagues, what exactly constitutes less than perfection is not nearly as blatant; with the margins of good versus less good existing so close together, no light can peer through the space between them. Jumping right to the blunt cut of the conversation, take a look at some of these sentiments on the current state of professional level auditions and accompanying anxiety:
“Today, perfection is a requirement…You must have flawless intonation,you must be a machine,”
are the words of David Taylor, assistant concertmaster with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The article then paints and even more overarching picture of what auditions can be like for the modern high level musician:
“Now auditions take place behind screens to ensure anonymity. For a while, tapes were sent along with résumés — before it was realized that…the result might be a record spliced together from several takes. The point of it all is to make the process as fair and democratic as possible,even though subjectivity remains key.”
Carrie Dennis, principal violist of the L.A. Philharmonicdescribed the intense level of anonymity striven for by authorities for her audition as being akin to animal herding:
“[The Philadelphia Orchestra has] carpets so the committee can’t even hear the sound of the auditioners’ shoes. You pick a number, you get called and herded in. It’s like a cattle call.”
Such statements and enforced policies are not freshly conceived, nor are they even especially bolstered thanks to the attention of any particular scandal, however, they have definitely been given even more mental priority and decision-impactive emphasis among some orchestras as the years have progressed, held back partially thanks to the varying approaches to audition and interpretation of perfection among varying cultures as also alluded to by Dennis. A lack of objective, tonal or technique based imperfection leaves seasoned musicians with stage anxiety sourced from a completely separate place –one that holds itself up against unattainable qualifiers, described as such due to the plain fact that no one is a machine.
Moreover, there is something to be said about the elimination and disallowing of any variable in execution because machine-like proficiency is the antithesis of artistic singularity. The inclusion of some humanity –potential for mistakes and all– into ones playing can mean technical pitfalls, or, it can be absent these and simply lead to the inclusion of additional, intangible emotional conveyance, which is as much of an enhancement element as is hitting all the right tones and dynamic markings. It is a wonder performance majors across the country have not already all had severe nervous breakdowns with expectations like these.
Classical music might not use Auto-Tune to excess in the way many contemporary, mainstream musicians do. Still, with the bars for the former group of artists currently set so dramatically high –not to mention functionally impossible– the classical vein is actually mirroring a move toward, and apparent desire for, sonic sterilization in much the same fashion. It just has not realized and or won’t admit it (yet). The sterilization of the latter might not be intended to correct unattainable notes but instead would be akin to a removal of every professional’s own recognizable tone color, as they steadily and forcibly need to adapt to some committee’s nebulous rubric of expectations. Combine those two descriptors together with a pool of people competing for rare orchestral openings and it is difficult to conjure up a list of who wouldn’t be full of terror and eventually develop some degree of an inadequacy complex.