Le trac: poison des artistes de musique classique
Le trac: poison des artistes de musique classique

Stage fright: making life a misery for musicians and singers

Performing on stage can become an ordeal when stage fright takes hold. So much so that artists in the grip of this uncontrollable anxiety are prepared to turn to dangerous products - sometimes to excess.

What musician, singer or conductor has never experienced clammy hands, a lump in their throat or shaky legs before going on stage? From a medical point of view, homoeopathic doctor Daniel Scimeca describes stage fright as the "nervousness a person feels before performing, which paralyses them and seems to prevent them from facing a unique situation"

Over the centuries and even today, a number of artists have put their career on hold (either temporarily or permanently) to deal with this handicap, not always in a very healthy way. Stage fright has made life a misery for thousands of musicians and singers, including Glenn Gould, Renée Fleming, Vladimir Horovitz, Frédéric Chopin and Leopold Godowsky.

Drugs and alcohol: the only way to overcome stage fright?

A survey of a German orchestra in 2012 revealed that nearly one-third of the musicians were taking Valium or beta blockers. The documentary film Addicts' Symphony shown on British TV's Channel 4 last summer shines a spotlight on the problem and appears to corroborate these alarming statistics. The composer, musician and recovering alcoholic James McConnel put together a group of 10 classical musicians who were battling addiction. All were professional musicians and all had buckled under the pressure, the difficulty of an artist's life, and stage fright. The only way they could keep going was to take medication or find refuge in alcohol.

In the documentary, James McConnel takes up the challenge of getting them all back on stage again for a single concert. One of the participants, cellist Rachael Lander, began suffering panic attacks on stage at the age of 14: "I had this overpowering feeling of not being able to move in the way I wanted to – I felt trapped." Drinking alcohol was the only way she could deal with the problem. "When I drank, these attacks stopped. I also took Valium and beta blockers," said the musician in her interview for the Telegraph.

Rachael Lander is not an isolated case. During her years as a performer, she met many colleagues who suffered from the same anxiety-related pathology:  

"Addiction problems are widespread among classical musicians, for many reasons. There is the lifestyle, the odd hours, working weekends, post-concert socialising. Many players use alcohol and beta blockers [editor's note: powerful medications that block the effects of adrenaline] to control their performance anxiety. And then, after the ‘high’ of a performance, musicians can struggle to ‘come down’ and therefore drink to relax – which becomes habitual." 

Violinist Tom Eisner knows all about stage fright: "In spite of having played the violin for 20 years, I felt like I was a beginner with zero ability," said the musician in The Guardian. He started to feel like this after his first experiences in public, which were always nerve-racking for him: "As I walked on to the stage I felt like I was walking to my execution." It was only when he started using tranquillisers (always beta blockers) that Tom Eisner was able to go on with his career more calmly.

The same thing was going on all around him: "It was frequent to see colleagues use alcohol to steady their nerves." Alcohol was a very common tranquilliser in the world of classical music, especially among the older generation of concert performers. "Looking back to 1987, there were at least 10 musicians who routinely would go to the pub (...) in the 15-minute morning break. This was followed by even more drinking in the longer lunch break," says Tom Eisner.

While alcohol and tranquillisers "cured" many musicians of their stage fright, the new generation seems to have found another (and far better) way of coping with this anxiety. "Today, physically activity is the best choice of medication," says the violinist. Artists are increasingly using their own body to manage their stress and relax naturally by running, cycling and getting physically fit.