July 22, 1916
Page 39

An Affliction Often Deep-Rooted and Persistent and Sometimes Costly in Its Destruction of the Fruits of Genuine Talent—The Case of Celebrated Musicians Forced to Battle with It at Every Public Appearance—Conquering the Evil by Acquiring the Habit of Mental Domination—A Species of Self-Hypnosis

THERE seem to be two distinct forms of stage fear: that nervousness which has its beginning in ordinary self-consciousness and that more subtle variety aroused by the dread of recurring confusion, whether warranted or otherwise. The latter in nature seems to be a mild form of complete stage-fright, a rarely occurring affliction, and visits especially those persons who fail to forget their early spells of consternation in public. The more impressionable type, from which come many talented, are easy prey to this apprehension. That there is a huge annual loss in dollars and cents to the cause of music, that the world is deprived of genius in no small degree, because of a widespread, inherited and largely unwarranted fear is evident upon an examination of the scope and character of the disturbance.
It is simple to say off-hand that stage fear is due to self-consciousness and thus dispense with the subject—that it worries only beginners or that it is a plain proposition. But when one comes to realize that there are celebrated musicians who battle with this feeling as regularly as they appear in concert or opera, the matter takes on a more serious complexion. A distinguished American soloist told the writer not long ago that he never went before an audience without an exasperating weakness and trembling at the knees. Of all musicians he might readily be considered from outward appearances the most composed. The writer has seen famed opera stars a few minutes before an entrance in pathetic nervousness adopting every device to maintain calm. Often they would admit their state and find some momentary relief in so doing, and before their audience eventually conquer themselves. On occasions, however, they failed to quell the riot within and ended by making their hearers almost as uncomfortable as themselves. We are told of celebrities who employ drugs, wine and various other expedients to overcome dread. The writer has observed a famous singer taking strychnine pills shortly before a performance and another long-haired artist prancing about like a mustang to throw off the burden of demoralizing fear. The tremors and incessant swallowing of a singer have been seen to become communicated to an habitually calm one next to him and from the latter to others until a whole company has been noticeably agitated.
Each Appearance an Ordeal
In addition to the trials of publicly appearing soloists there is an abundance of private testimony that indicates the deep-rooted nature of stage fear. Gifted artists sometimes confess their seclusion owing to nervousness. Through innate timidity or lack of self-control, each public effort has become an ordeal and recurring failures have driven them from the stage to a colorless and usually unprofitable business life. Violinists have been found who played gloriously in their studios but who were unable to face an audience and do themselves justice. A trembling arm and dimmed vision accompanied each effort and, pride preventing further experiment as to their weakness, their life work was abandoned. In the ranks of teachers are many fine artists who should be heard publicly to-day. A large number of these are victims of stage fear, a fact which, perhaps fortunately for them but unfortunately for us, they will rarely admit. Those who have had to cope with the monster readily understand that economic reasons aside from personal comfort demand that it be understood and overcome. Prima donna or scaramouch, the ill-defined uneasiness gnaws at the vitals of art and endless tortures are endured without their really knowing why.
The nature of the affliction varies somewhat according to the individual, which suggests that, considering the large number of untalented and unversed soloists, much stage fear is not unwarranted. But this class of sufferers is not herein considered. If Peter Jones, tenor, loves to sing high notes and knows he can hit a B-flat only once in eight times, he should be commended, if not encouraged, in feeling nervous in public. Modesty plays little part in the scourge; as a matter of fact, true modesty—humility of spirit—would do much to prevent the occurrence, if only to curb the ambitions of the half-fledged students.
Self-consciousness is likewise blamed for more than its share. It is a stumbling block in arriving at the facts of the matter. Some of those who receive most credit for their apt interpretations are reflexively self-conscious at all times. Furthermore, it is difficult to understand how a well-balanced interpreter can be otherwise than self-conscious in public, at least in a literal sense, unless he have the sympathies of a Leibnitzian monad or the soul of a ticket speculator.
Mental Control
Those who play habitually games of skill, actors, public speakers and musical artists alike, know that the quality of their work varies mainly in proportion to their mental control—their steadiness in ability to focus undistracted thought upon their efforts. Hardheadedness, too often considered the attribute of uneducated minds, therefore seems requisite to success. More important than the projected philosophy of the moment, invoked to rescue the trembling soloist, is inherent boldness. How to acquire it naturally, without conjuring in space, is what puzzles many gifted artists. From the testimony of a singer of middle age, interesting light has been thrown upon the subject. Naturally of retiring disposition, he had largely overcome his early attacks of stage fear; but, unfortunately for him, he capriciously undertook to experiment with his state of mind. Immediately prior to his stepping upon the stage one evening he recalled vividly his extreme weakness on an occasion years before. In an instant the thought of its possible return seized him and a sickening dread followed. Every effort to steady himself failed and the increasing realization of his helplessness, the fact that the audience was waiting for him, added immeasurably, until he staggered back pale and fainting to a couch. He failed to make his appearance, complaining of acute indigestion.
In the course of conversation this victim declared that he had been in excellent health at the time but had not made a public appearance for some months. He attributed the attack of stage-fright to his vivid imagination, in which he was no doubt correct. He had been able to place himself in the same mental state as existed many years before, notwithstanding a long steadying experience in public during which time he had felt uneasiness only at rare intervals, and these when poor condition slightly warranted it.
The Habit of Domination
Especially in the case of sensitive, highly imaginative and anaemic individuals composure in public is attained with difficulty, primarily through mental habit. Those accustomed to coping with the emergencies of life, encountering the unexpected, recognizing themselves as leaders in some department of work, experience comparatively little embarrassment. Therefore, the practice of mental domination over others, even though it must be attempted by wearying stages, seems necessary to a peaceful attitude. Self-confidence does not exist without good reason; it subsists poorly on theory. It demands practice and the mental habit of calmness. The proper exercise of thought-force endures best under repeated trials.
We are told of orators who have undergone harrowing ordeals before their greatness became public record. Demosthenes carried pebbles in his mouth and Daniel Webster fainted at his début. There is little cause for discouragement at feeling constantly nervous before or during a performance if the nervousness be properly understood, for it is rather because of the misunderstanding of the actual cause and the nature of the stimuli at play that unsteadiness ensues. Sheer eagerness is usually helpful, but often confuses its possessor.
A case in point is that of a young speaker who a few days after a violent attack of stage-fear was obliged to appear again before a still more exacting audience. He spent several hours during the afternoon in looking over his scrapbook; he reviewed his principal achievements, took some meek companions to supper, where he did most of the talking, and in the evening was a ·marvel of composure during his speech. He had taken the sensible course of a mental “warming up,” placing his mind upon a dominating plane before making his appearance. Very likely if he had undertaken the experiment of the man who thought back and grew weak he would have failed signally, but the spirit of domination was sufficiently strong to ward off tramp thoughts and trifling analyses and he was accorded an ovation.
The Lack of Aggressiveness
One who customarily gives in to others, who is not of constructive or aggressive mind, who lets those about him attend to his share of thought or utterance, is likely to fail as a public artist for the very lack of this consciousness of domination. It is often said that a really great performing artist can be of high efficiency in a totally different field, of which the foregoing seems in evidence. On the other hand, the mim-mouthed plodder of artistic yearnings is vastly better off in his prosaic surroundings than in competing with even less artistic but hardier souls afield in the profession.
The average person undoubtedly receives an initiation of stage-fear and overcomes it. Generally mere practice is sufficient, certain fictions being employed, at times with temporarily good results. A great variety of illusions and expedients have been tried to develop control, hut it seems plausible at least to assume that the public man or woman who, by the natural method of constant practice, facing facts as they are, leaves in time all conflicting thoughts of self far behind him is least likely to suffer.


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