Damian Thompson

Panic attack

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If you want to make yourself unpopular with a classical musician, bring up the subject of performance anxiety. You can ask soloists how they remember tens of thousands of notes, so long as you make it sound like flattery. But don’t ask how they do it in front of an audience of strangers and critics without dying of fright. Because some of them nearly do. And they don’t like to talk about it — their own nerves, that is; other people’s are fair game. The world of classical music can be as Darwinian as the tennis circuit. Memory lapses are not forgotten. The Wigmore Hall holds a special terror, because it’s often the venue for an artist’s first big recital. He or she looks out at rows of music students who, however supportive, are not immune to Schadenfreude.

Given that stage fright afflicts nearly all musicians, it’s surprising that many music colleges don’t teach their students how to tackle it. So I was interested to learn that Steven Osborne — one of the most technically secure pianists in the world, judging by his astounding Messiaen and Ravel — has been trying to fill just this gap in their education; to teach them to avoid the wave of panic that can sweep over them mid-concert or, more often, just before going on stage.

‘Even when I was a student, I didn’t have any help from teachers to deal with performance anxiety,’ said Osborne when we met last week. ‘This is something that’s so normal, yet so little talked about. It’s an important subject, because fear gets in the way of your performance — and in the way of discovering who you really are.’

Osborne is a wiry Scotsman with deep-set eyes; he specialises in pieces that are ridiculously difficult to play, but also musically intense — he has no time for splashy encores. (His Messiaen Vingt Regards for Hyperion is one of the miracles of the recording catalogue.) Years ago he had a couple of small memory lapses in the first Rachmaninov concerto, which made him ‘really nervous about forgetting’. But, rather than allow the nerves to take root, he anatomised them — and those ruminations are the basis of the talks he gives to students.

There’s a sociological twist to Osborne’s view of stage fright: ‘We live in a world in which everything is controlled, and if something goes wrong then there are immediate demands, from the public and politicians, that it must never go wrong again. This insistence that we must be safe and secure has a backlash internally.’ People’s fear of speaking in public has never been higher, he points out — it comes ahead of dying in some surveys. And performance anxiety is sharpened by society’s hyper-vigilance.

So what does Osborne advise his students? He’s suspicious of cognitive therapy based on mental exercises — ‘just papering over the cracks’. But he does want musicians to ask where their nerves come from. ‘If you feel panic before a concert, it hasn’t just started there. You probably have a long history of anxiety about the performance that you’ve been pushing out of your mind.’ So: stop yourself as it builds up; identify the passages that scare you; and practise slowly, putting the tiniest fumble under the microscope.

‘Also, ask yourself what you’re really frightened of,’ says Osborne. ‘Is it playing a wrong note? Is it the audience? Or is it really a bad review?’ Ah, the newspapers. You don’t have to spend much time with classical musicians to discover that some of them loathe and fear the more sardonic critics: one name in particular keeps cropping up — a piano specialist who raves proprietorially about young pianists, only to drop them suddenly with a stinker of a review.

Fear of bad reviews needs to be confronted, argues Osborne, or it will fester and grow. Certainly it’s true that some of the most experienced pianists, such as Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich, are still prey to nerves. In his later years, even Sviatoslav Richter insisted on playing from the music. ‘He said it was because he didn’t want to lose any detail in the score, but I wonder if that wasn’t rationalisation of his anxiety,’ says Osborne. He isn’t surprised that great musicians tend to be more neurotic in front of an audience than less gifted contemporaries: ‘While other kids were running around, they were the ones practising really obsessively. Perhaps that’s a recipe for someone who’s going to struggle later.’

But, as Osborne keeps stressing, all of us — musicians or not — sometimes have to struggle with ‘the feeling that we’re being attacked’, which is how bad nerves strike most people. ‘Putting things in proportion is crucial,’ he says. Does that mean that stage fright is proxy for something more fundamental? ‘Absolutely. It’s about dying. So ask yourself: when I’m on my deathbed, will I still care about the fluffed note in bar 14?’