A must-read piece on performance anxiety

The New Yorker continues to be the best magazine in the English-speaking work for coverage of arts issues (as opposed to arts news), as demonstrated by an article-length review of Sara Solovitch’s book Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright:

Stagefright has been aptly described as “self-poisoning by adrenaline.” In response to stress, the adrenal glands pump the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream, causing the body to shift into a state of high arousal. The person’s muscles tense, he sweats and shakes, his heart pounds, his mouth goes dry, he has trouble breathing, he may become nauseated or dizzy, and his throat constricts, making his voice rise in pitch. This is the so-called “fight or flight” response, which our species is thought to have developed because it helped prepare the body for forceful action in response to a threat. But what Cro-Magnon man needed upon finding a bear in his cave is not what a modern person needs in order to play King Lear. Without the release of abrupt action, the hyperactivation becomes, basically, a panic attack.

As for the thoughts accompanying the physical response, the most important seems to be a feeling of exposure. The English theatre scholar Nicholas Ridout, in his excellent book “Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems” (2006), compares the situation to that of a snail having its shell ripped off. His countryman Stephen Fry, who, one day in 1995, left London—indeed, England—to avoid appearing in the play he was scheduled to perform in, says that, when stagefright hits, the audience sees “the shrivelled penis in your head.” And, in the typical case, the performer can do nothing to change the spectators’ minds, because he feels utterly empty. In 1989, Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the title role in Richard Eyre’s production of “Hamlet” at London’s National Theatre, turned on his heel in the middle of the show and walked off the stage, never to return. (In the twenty-six years since then, he has acted only in movies.) “I had nothing in me, nothing to say, nothing to give,” he said. Others stay, but only by force of sheer, grinding will.

It was only a few months ago that The New Yorker published what was the best article I’d ever read on an orchestral labor dispute (A Fight at the Opera). Given that New York remains unsurpassed as a center for the arts, perhaps it’s not surprising that an eponymous magazine would cover the arts well. But no one does better long-form work in this area than does The New Yorker.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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