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Fear of Stage Fright

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Occasionally, when I'm backstage at one of WNYC's long-running "New Sounds Live" concerts, a musician will ask, "Don't you get nervous before these shows?" And my honest answer is, "No, I don't anymore. And I kind of miss it."

When I started hosting and producing "New Sounds Live" back in 1986, my nerves would get to be pretty jangly before those early events. But I would just tell myself that the audience was there to see the musicians, not me, and that all I had to do was go out there and do my job and let the bands do all the heavy lifting. And after a few concerts, it became routine.

That made it easier, but it also made things... routine. There's a certain frisson, an electricity, that I found myself missing. It seemed weird, but then I saw an old commercial, probably in the early 1990s, that featured the Baltimore Orioles' Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. I don't remember what the commercial was for, but it showed Ripken digging in at home plate during a game, and his voiceover went: "Nervous? I want that nervous edge." That line really struck me. Ripken was saying that it wasn't just OK to have nerves before going out there in public, but that it actually was something he used. It made sense, when I thought about it – adrenaline is coursing through your system when you're suffering a bout of nerves or stage fright, and that adrenaline can be a very useful thing if harnessed and not allowed to just make your breathing shallow.

Of course, debilitating stage fright is no fun, and very hard to harness. The first time I was invited to lecture at a college, it was a music class at Bucknell University, and by this time I'd done so many concerts, panel discussions, on-stage interviews and the like that I figured this would be easy. So I drove out to central Pennsylvania the night before, hung out with the composer/professors in the department, slept in the school's lovely guest house, and met up with the chairman in the morning for breakfast. There, to my surprise and horror, I found myself hyperventilating, and eventually throwing up. I couldn't understand why... until I realized that this time, there was no band to take the spotlight – this was all on me.

I was able to pull it together – because really, what choice did I have? – and the lecture went well enough. I was invited back several times, and never had a recurrence of that attack of stage fright. But I sure wish I'd known some of Cal Ripken's techniques for channeling that nervous energy on that first Bucknell morning.

Tell us: Have you dealt with stage fright? How?

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