A professional musician playing at Carnegie Hall comes to terms with her intense fear of hitting a wrong note
Even the crystal chandelier appeared to be quivering as I stepped onto the Carnegie Hall stage that night 10 years ago. My debut concert should have been a confident celebration, but I was miserable. I was delirious when The New York Times gave me a rave review three days later—however, I barely remembered the event.
I had two hours onstage to flood the concert hall with a lifetime of creative vision. I knew that mental focus would mean the difference between passionate performance and pedantic exercise, but my thought ran amok. I feared I’d drop the oboe. What if I missed the high G? Everyone will know I’m a fake! Will I run out of air? I’m about to squawk! Is that the critic? He’s annoyed. Did I buy enough cheese for the reception? Can you see through my dress?
My stage fright was just one variation of universal angst. Most people have sweated through grade-school book reports, significant birthday parties, awards banquets, and first dates. You think you’ll strut your stuff, soak up the limelight, and luxuriate in the attention; instead, self-doubt roars. Time is frozen, yet it hurtles past. You’re wondering what everyone thinks of you, why you deserve the chance, whether you’re ready.
Overpreparation helps, but even the most diligent practice is no insurance against the foggy brain function, shaking, gasping and even physical illness I’ve felt onstage. “What’s the worst that can happen?” asks one colleague brightly. Well, a LOT. When oboe keys gurgle, sirens wail outside, strapless gowns migrate south, or the patron in seat T36 throws up, I’m pretty concentration-challenged. There are some well-known tricks. Imagining the audience in their underwear usually works—but somehow it’s not nice. In a twist on positive visualization, I’ve given myself permission—too successfully—to crash and burn. Some colleagues condition themselves with weight training, stretching, Alexander technique, tai chi, yoga, or running. Others reduce debilitating physical symptoms with adrenaline-blocking drugs. Yet there’s no quick fix for the absence of richly conscious thought, no surefire path to the beauty and fulfillment of self-expression born in the moment.
Ready or not, the show goes on. I recently substituted in the orchestra pit for an opera performance. With no rehearsal, my chance of perfection was slim—and I hit one spectacular wrong note. But at least my goof was decisive. Only eon clunker seems a small price for three hours of compelling music making.
Though it took me years to find a way to relax, the answer was literally right under my nose. One morning I sat in my pajamas, warming up. I had recently started using a “breathbuilder”—a plastic tube with a ping-pong ball inside—to practice breath control. Huffing away mindlessly, I watched the ball go up and down; its visual representation of my breath entranced me, clamed me, and made me realize that my breath was all I needed to think about. Then, when I picked up the oboe, the instrument was an extension of my body, spinning phrases out of nowhere.
Soon after, I performed a brand-new solo piece composed by a colleague. It was written in memory of someone I had never met, a beloved local musician, whose friends and family were present. The hall was packed, and I felt an enormous responsibility. Once, I’d have worried for days beforehand. But now my mind was quiet. I walked onstage, breathed deeply, and “spoke” to the audience from my heart.