In 'Playing Scared' Pianist Grows Less Frightened Of Stage Fright Performance anxiety kept journalist Sara Solovitch away from the piano for several decades. Then one day she decided to search for the key to putting her back in tune with her performance side.

In 'Playing Scared' Pianist Grows Less Frightened Of Stage Fright

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Everyone has had the dream in one form or another. You're about to take a big test when you realize you don't know anything about the subject. You're on stage but you haven't memorized the lines. It's your basic performance anxiety nightmare. But if you're a musician, performance anxiety, better known as stage fright, can ruin your career, maybe before it even gets started.

That's what happened to Sara Solovitch. After years of practice and private success, she abandoned a dream of being a pianist because she was afraid of performing in public. She was 19. As Solovitch neared her 60s, she decided to confront her performance demons. She writes about her experience in her new book "Playing Scared," and Sara Solovitch joins us now. So good to have you on the program, Sara.

SARA SOLOVITCH: Good to be here.

NEARY: A lot of performers learn to tough it out. They learn to work through their stage fright, but it really stopped you in your tracks at a very young age. When did you first really understand just how difficult it was for you to be a performer?

SOLOVITCH: Well, I think I was probably around 11 or 12 when it just kind of manifested in these really extreme ways. My hands would break out in a sweat, and they would be so wet that my fingers would slip and slide across the keys. My feet would tremble and not be able to hold down the pedals, and my heart would be beating wildly. And I would no longer even be able to remember what I was playing and what I had memorized so carefully.

NEARY: You really sort of spent most of your adult life not playing the piano at all, is that right?

SOLOVITCH: Oh, I whited out that part of me. I - when I stopped playing at 19, I really just walked away from it and didn't play for 30 years. I never mentioned that I played. And so there was always something kind of hanging in the air. I always felt that I had this unfinished business.

NEARY: Yeah, and you decided you were going to give a concert; you sort of set a course of action for yourself. You decided you were going to give a concert right before your 60th birthday - or for your 60th birthday - for some invited guests, I think about 50 people. You started to take classes, and I'd like you to read a passage on page 43, when you were asked to get up and play in front of the class, if you could.

SOLOVITCH: Yes, this was a group class.

(Reading) It was as if my body were hardwired back in some deep cellular pit to which I had no access. I kept playing, but my hands were shaking so uncontrollably that I could hardly strike the chords. I gazed down at myself from a distance high above the keys, watching a body that was no longer in charge. My fear was at the controls, like an independent organism emerging from inside me. My own "Rosemary's Baby." Soon, I was paying more attention to the shakes than the music. And though I managed to make it to the end, it was with an embarrassing array of hiccups and gaffs. Driving home in the dark, feeling depressed and angry, thirsting for a big glass of wine, I asked myself for the thousandth time if I was just one of those people who shouldn't perform.

NEARY: A teacher you worked with, Ellen Chen, suggested that you start playing at the airport - I think in the baggage area at the airport. Why did she suggest that? How did she think that would help you?

SOLOVITCH: I think she realized that this would be a way to play without any kind of judgment. There would be people, you know, who weren't - who wouldn't be paying any attention to me, who were on their way places, and I could just kind of take advantage of sitting at this, you know, rinky-dink piano and playing my heart out.

NEARY: Something else that I found really interesting, too, is that you consulted a sports psychologist. What did you learn from that?

SOLOVITCH: One of the sport psychologists I talked to told me, you know, he didn't want me to be calm; he didn't want me to meditate or try to, you know, reduce my nerves but to use my adrenaline, center myself and just using that adrenaline for passion.

NEARY: I think it was the sports psychologist who told you that stage fright is normal - this is a normal reaction to what you're doing.

SOLOVITCH: It's your body's response to a high-stake situation. When you care, really, a lot about something and you have an audience, it's the most natural thing in the world to get scared. It just signifies that you're doing something special.

NEARY: How did it feel when you finally got out there in front of that birthday audience?

SOLOVITCH: (Laughter) It was a little overwhelming. But there were all kinds of little gatherings that I had at my house, you know, where I'd have eight or 10 people over every couple weeks and play for them. There were master classes and other recitals. So by the time I got to this final - the big performance - I was looking forward to it.

NEARY: And here's a bit of that birthday performance. This is Sara performing "Reflections In The Water" by Debussy.


SOLOVITCH: And when I first began this project, you know, my goal was to kind of grit my teeth and decide that I was going to get through this music no matter what; play an hour's worth of music and not make a single mistake. And as the year progressed, I realized that what I really wanted to do was communicate and just revel in the beauty of it and feel free and passionate. And so if I made a mistake here and there, I would just continue and I would think of myself as being, you know, on a river and occasionally there were some, you know, whitewater that I had to get past, but that I would continue moving all the time and communicate my love rather than a need for absolute perfection.

NEARY: Sara Solovitch. Her book is "Playing Scared" and brava, Sara.

SOLOVITCH: Thank you so much.

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