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When Fear Stops The Music

Artworks' Adam Schwartz speaks with a violinist/psychologist who works with musicians afflicted with performance anxiety, and with two of her clients.

For a professional musician, stage fright can be devastating. Shaky hands and sweaty palms can ruin a performance or derail a career.

When violinist Christine Vitale developed stage fright—or as musicians call it, “performance anxiety”—she did something about it. She now has a dual career as a violinist/psychologist who helps jittery musicians rediscover the joy of music-making.

Last year she founded the High Performance Program at the Brookline Center near Boston, where she sees clients individually and in groups.

Like Jumping Off A Building

According to Vitale, musicians keep their performance anxiety secret for fear of being stigmatized. She portrays a pervasive attitude in the music world. The mentality seems to be, “‘If you’ve dealing with problems like performance anxiety, you’re clearly not cut out for the job.’ So we keep it private.”

One of her clients was Savio Santoro, a violist from Brazil. He was so nervous while performing in public that his bow shook uncontrollably. “My bow used to shake—this was the main problem in my life,” he says. “It was terrible. It destroys the performance.”

Santaro took Propranolol, a beta blocker, to slow his racing heart. But the medication did nothing to stop his fear of making a mistake. “I was still nervous, too preoccupied with the public,” he recalls. “I had in my mind that I should play everything correct.” The slightest mistake felt like he was “jumping off the [top] floor of a building.”

Bringing Rio Into The Concert Hall

At one of Christine Vitale’s group sessions, she had Santaro play his viola in front of the class. She instructed him to breathe deeply, to let go of trying to play every note perfectly, and to picture himself in a place where he felt deeply relaxed.

He closed his eyes, imagined himself swimming at a beach in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro, and played.

“I was not nervous, I was not anxious, and Christine asked me, ‘How did it feel?’ I told her and to the class as well. ‘I was feeling very good!’ I was feeling that I had no obligation to do everything correct because my brain was pointing to another direction.”

He got a few notes wrong that day, but the class praised his performance. The experience taught him that a new, relaxed way of playing was possible. “Finally, I had to accept that . . . you don’t have to be obsessive about the technical reasons of the music . . . . Just enjoy your playing.”

Suffering From Punishing Thoughts

As a teenager, Kirin McElwain “really suffered” when playing the cello in public. “My hands would get sweaty. I’d shake,” she says.

Things were no better when she entered the cello program at Smith College. “Any time I had to perform, I would be having nightmares,” she recalls. “I was playing the Elgar cello concerto with the symphony my second year of college, and I remember months before the concert waking up having nightmares about playing and it not being good enough.”

Beta blockers stopped the shaking and the sweaty hands. But the drug clouded her concentration, and failed to stop the punishing thoughts that raced through her mind: “’I’m not good enough. I’m stupid for even wanting to do this. No matter how hard I work, I’m never going to be good enough. There’s something wrong with me. There’s something about me playing cello that’s different from everyone else who plays cello. And the thing that makes me different from everyone else—that makes me a bad cellist.’”

Sucked Into The Zone

Vitale taught McElwain a technique to take her mind off her obsessive thinking and put the focus back on the music. She taught her how to formulate ‘cue words’ for her music—words that summed up her goal for how she wanted to play the piece, or how she wanted it to sound. For one piece, she wrote the word “CONNECT” on top of her sheet music.

“That word reminded me to relax my left hand and connect the low E flat to the high E flat and then back down to the B flat. And that sucked me into the zone there for the first measures of the music.”

Performing in public is now a very different experience for McElwain. She recalls one of the first recitals she played after she had started working with Vitale. “It was the best I ever felt when I was playing in front of people. It was totally different. My best friend said at the end, ‘I have never seen you look so relaxed and focused on stage . . . It was like watching someone else play.’’’

“I never thought I’d get to the place that I am right now,” she adds.

Sharing The Tools

McElwain still gets nervous when performing, but then she uses the tools Vitale taught her. “I focus on my cues and my goals for that performance, and once I start playing I’m able to relax into it and get lost into what I’m doing.”

Christine Vitale hopes her work will encourage more musicians with performance anxiety to seek help. Back in Brazil, Savio Santoro is passing along her methods. He teaches his college-level viola students to breathe deeply, let go of trying to play every note perfectly, and imagine they’re at the beach.

External Links

  • Watch videos of Savio Santoro performing on the viola here.
  • Visit Christine Vitale’s Web site.
Adam Schwartz

WFIU Arts and Culture Producer, Editor "Directions in Sound"

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