Battling stage fright: Why the urge to perform in public sometimes triumphs over the 'butterflies'
The urge to communicate what we have, to share our thoughts or expertise or music is so powerful, it overcomes our stage fright
These past couple of weeks I have been helping my father edit his English translation of the memoirs (originally in Tamil) of the Right Honourable VS Srinivasa Sastri — a name not many today would know. Sastri belonged to a critical wing of the Freedom Movement, working with the Imperial Government, representing India’s interests in many international forums. He was a protégé of Gopalkrishna Gokhale, the political guru of Mahatma Gandhi and was President of the Servants of India Society founded by Gokhale.
My own grandfather was secretary of the Madras branch of the Society and my childhood memories include small and large portraits of Sastri (who was my grandfather’s mentor) and of Gokhale. Sastri’s portrait was rather imposing and one got the impression of a supremely confident, even arrogant man — an impression strengthened by his formidable reputation as an orator. He was called the “silver-tongued orator of the empire” by Englishmen themselves.
I was tickled to learn from these memoirs, that the great man found each occasion of speech-making a frightening ordeal, and that he promised himself each of these would be the last time he'd ever do it. This only confirmed my long time suspicion — that even the best fear the stage. Irrespective of how good you have been told you are, and how many times you may have done it, getting on the stage is — for most of us — not roses all the way. As Jerry Seinfeld once quipped: "According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking (or performance of any kind, we may add). Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you are better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Most performers have indeed confessed to varying degrees of stage fright. Sportsmen, lecturers, lawyers and (scarily) even surgeons, are often a heap of nerves before the actual performance. Sweaty palms to shaky hands, nausea to rashes, gastritis to racking cough — stage fear might cause any of these and more. And the way out is not to stay away from the stage but to get on it again and again.
Why then do we do it? It is because that is what we do! But why take it up as a profession when it causes so much unease? Because the urge to communicate what we have, to share our thoughts or expertise or music is so powerful. When it is done well, it means accolades and fame. Humans are like gases — seeking to expand and fill out available space in as many minds as possible — unlike solids, that are content to be where they are. Some have the urge to expand more than others. We need to be in other people’s heads, and for that we're willing to risk making a bad impression. That is the push and pull of it: we feel the push to express ourselves, to actually do what we love and have trained for and think are good at, but are pulled back by fear of making fools of ourselves. And then we must suffer butterflies in the stomach or worse.
And it is a typical vicious circle. Fear invites mistakes and mistakes in turn feed fear and horror until all joy is gone and one wants to get sucked into the earth. Of course this in the case of the very green performer. As we get seasoned, it does get better: we learn to cope with mistakes, even turn them into twists in performance.
In her hugely humourous account of her musical journey in Raga and Josh, Sheila Dhar recounts a radio recording that went poorly on account of her excessive self-consciousness and stage fright. Her teacher, Ustad Faiyaz Ahmed Khan, dismisses it as her ego! He asked her to think of a musical performance as lighting a lamp in prayer. “Do you care about what others think of you when you are in prayer?” Going by our Carnatic divas during Tyagaraja Aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru (which in fact is a musical homage in the nature of a prayer), we would say, “Yes! Many care!” Well, then that is hardly the right frame of mind according to the Ustad. Dhar persists with her right to stage fright and wonders if she is at all fit to light that lamp; to which pat comes the response — to think that one will ever be fit is a “crudity” that would destroy “the perfume of music”. Does one have the right to light a lamp before the Creator? Can one ever arrogate the power to evoke ragas? One might present grand compositions, carefully constructed phrases, and complex, jaw dropping taan-s and yet have avoided the essence of the raga altogether.
“Is this supposed to make me feel better?” should have been Dhar’s next question.
So, for those of us who have stage fright, there is no other way — we just have to get along with them butterflies.
Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at email@example.com.
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