Stage Fright

Last week I traveled with my boss and another co-worker to the local offices of a large insurance company which is one our biggest accounts.  We were hosting a “lunch and learn” session, and my boss was giving a presentation on traumatic brain injury. 

The reason for my presence was to serve as an accompanist of sorts for my boss in her presentation,  to maneuver through the Power Point presentation in coordination with her talk.  I’ve done this before for her, sat quietly behind the laptop screen, listening carefully so I can advance the slides perfectly in time with her speaking.  There’s an eerie similarity between this activity and accompanying singers on the piano, the listening, the reacting, the being ready to react to any derivation from the script.  It’s something I’m good at, after nearly 30 years of experience. 

Every time I attend one of these presentations I’m thankful for my musical training, which has stood me in good stead for events such as this.  My boss, one of the most confident women I’ve met, works hard to conceal the insecurity she feels in these situations.  Indeed, all last week her behavior  reminded me of my high school students the week before competition…”Can we rehearse this afternoon?” she’d come asking me right after lunch.  “Should we run it just one more time?” she’d query after our third run-through.  “How does that sound to  you?”  she’d question, trying out a small joke.

And when things don’t go quite as planned, she’s always amazed at my aplomb.  Last week, I ended up running the presentation for our guest speaker, a neuropsychologist who truly enjoyed the sound of his own voice.  “Wow,” she said over lunch, ” I can’t believe you just jumped in there and followed along with him – he was all over the place!”

Jumping in and following along are my specialty, I wanted to say.  How many times have students skipped pages, or sung the wrong verse, or decided to change their song at the last minute?  How often has the piano been so badly out of tune, it seemed to be in a different key?   Or the E below middle C gets stuck every time you press it?  Or the sound system doesn’t work?  Or there’s no light on the piano and the stage director forgets to turn on the spots?  Versatility and flexibility are the mainstays in any musician’s repertoire.

Last winter I visited Taliesin West, the winter home cum school of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.    One of  the requirements for students enrolled in Wright’s program was the ability to play a musical instrument,  sing, or dance.  In fact, there is a lovely little theater on the grounds where regular performances are held.  According to our guide, Wright believed that if you could “present yourself well on stage, you could present yourself anywhere.”

Musical training comes with a myriad of  benefits, that’s for sure.    There is a sense of inner confidence that comes from performing experience, the ability to step into character and stay there until you’ve completed your role, the power to think on your feet and handle the unexpected.   Wright was correct –  it’s great training for life in general.  But like any skill, it must be continually honed and sharpened.    Which is one of the reasons I keep returning to my musical activities, even though they sometimes play havoc with my personal schedule.

I like being able to present myself anywhere…whether it’s on stage at the keyboard of a nine foot concert grand, or a conference room in Lansing manning a Dell laptop computer.


4 thoughts on “Stage Fright

  1. I envy people like you with musical gifts– I so wish I had that, but alas! I can’t identify a single musical note. But I believe I do understand that ability to jump into the moment and be flexible with whatever comes along.

    I love the image of you following the guy with the power point presentation & how you likened it to musical performances. I’ve always wondered what kind of feeling musicians get when they’re all in the “groove” and the performance is outstanding. I’ll bet it’s the best kind of feeling there is…

  2. I’ve heard that public speaking is the number one fear – even greater than the fear of dying. Like your boss, I would practice over and over.

    How wonderful that you’re flexible enough to follow along and confident enough to handle the situation. You must have a keen sense of anticipation.

  3. I remember have a lot of stage fright during my music training though (flute). For my performances and public music exams, the stress of failing was usually incredibly high and it was usually the reason for screwing up some parts…too much saliva in my mouth that made me swallow at the worst moment during that high tune that had to remain crystal clear , sweaty fingers that made my grip slippery in the middle of a fast rhythm that I had never quite mastered 100%…

    Yet later on I accompagnied a choir and the music was rarely ever challenging for me. That made me used to being on stage, seeing the people stare at us and learned me to enjoy performances. In my first job I also had to train people in the use of software and there too I had the confidence to elaborate, change the order, improvise, …since I had mastered that software from bottom to top and vice-versa.

    For me stage fright still depends on how much I know the subject or not. But I suppose each public experience adds to the confidence indeed!

  4. Well, Ms. Becca, the next time you come to Lansing, whether it’s to man a computer or not, let me know!

    But I know what you mean. My theatre background and ability to “punt” has made it far easier for me when I’m speaking or working as part of a team and something goes wrong. I’m comfortable out there. I enjoy performance, and in a way (though I hate it when it’s that way all the time!), a few unexpected moments can ultimately make things feel more real. But very nice to think of that analogy of the music and accompaniment. I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but you nailed it!

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