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Beating stage fright: Pianist Sara Solovich on tackling her phobia by arranging a solo concert

She could perform Bach at age 10, but stopped playing as a teenager due to paralysing stage fright. In her fifties, Sara Solovich decided to attempt a solo concert. Could she do it?

Sara Solovich
Monday 22 June 2015 18:55 BST
Sara Solovitch at an airport recital
Sara Solovitch at an airport recital (Shmuel Thaler)

For most of my adult life, virtually no one – not even my closest friends – knew that I played the piano. And that was how I wanted it. Playing the piano had once defined me, but so, too, had my stage fright. I was the kind of pianist who played well when there was nothing at stake: in my parents' house, at my lesson, behind closed doors. But put me in front of an audience and my hands would ice over while my palms and fingers would be soaked with sweat. When I quit at 19, my parents protested that I was giving up the best part of myself. You'll go back to it one day, they predicted. When I finally did, more than 30 years had passed.

Word got around after my husband bragged about it at the office, and I found myself at a party, being exhorted to play something, anything. I declined. The other guests cajoled. I said no. In that moment, I realised that nothing had changed. I was 56 years old and my stage fright was as powerful as when I was 14 – maybe even more so.

Stage fright is the great leveller, cutting down prophets, presidents, musicians, actors, dancers, lawyers, athletes, advertising reps – anyone who has ever had to stand up in front of a group and do anything. It demanded some kind of reckoning, I found myself thinking, as I picked my way through a Bach prelude one evening. If I could give myself a year to research the science and psychology of stage fright, try out therapies, and work with performance coaches, maybe I could beat this thing. I would practise every day, quash my fears and at the end of a year, play a recital for an audience of 50 or more. It terrified me.

Months after that decision, my performance coach Noa Kageyama put me in touch with Don Greene, a former Green Beret in the US Army, who in his role as an adviser, bounced between the highest echelons of sports and music.

"Everyone tells you to just relax. But if that's all it took, it would be a piece of cake," said Greene. "Because once you get into the music and the adrenaline spikes, you're blindsided." Performance wasn't about being comfortable, he continued. If you want to be comfortable, stay home and play your piano in a soundproofed room. But learn to channel your adrenaline flow and you'll give a high-energy performance.

I began working with Greene in early May, 10 days before this, my first, practice recital in a local library. When I'd committed to it, I'd imagined it as a dress rehearsal for the real deal. Now, I was beginning to think that it was the litmus test. I had underplayed its import, in part because of its cheesy name, "Munching with Mozart"...

Adele has spoken about her stage fright (Getty)

As I explained all this to Greene, he cut me off. "Let me prepare you for this fight," he said. "So you don't go into the ring and get beat up." Clearly, I was now under the tutelage of a sport psychologist. But first I had to fill out his inventory.

It took about an hour to complete, but I could tell at once that my responses had changed in the past year. I'd been toughened by all those trial runs: the evening soirees at my house, the master classes, the piano teacher recitals, piano camp recital and airport recitals. After months of demanding lessons and four- and five-hour daily practice sessions, my confidence was higher than it had ever been. So I was taken aback when Greene called with the results.

"Your left brain is alive and well," he announced. "Unfortunately, this performance is a right brain activity." I knew, of course, that an active left brain meant tighter muscles and a louder internal critic, but Greene put it to me in stark terms. "It means that you can do quite well for some period of time. But with a feeling of danger, a slip in focus – you make a mistake and the committee's going to come in." My own panel of judges, he meant. "And you won't recover." The key to performance, he declared, was all in the right brain. I wondered aloud if I even had a right brain, which he found funny. But in truth, my body was filled with clues of left-brain dominance.

There is a whole science dedicated to the asymmetry of body and brain. Ultrasound studies have found a strong preference for right-handedness (that is, left-brain dominance) in the womb. And a whole body of research identifies "pathological left-handedness" as a consequence of prenatal stress. But a 2013 review of research into handedness and cognition found the main predictor of cognitive performance isn't whether an individual is left- or right-handed; it's determined by the strength of the preference. The more ambidextrous one is, the more communication there is between the brain's hemispheres.

I was never going to be a lefty, but I realised Greene was correct: I needed to find a way to switch to the right brain – and stay there – throughout the performance; and it was all about centring. Greene cited research that found an increase of alpha waves almost always precedes a fully centred peak performance. But that was all rather confusing. A biofeedback program I played with months before had measured beta waves, which are associated with active thinking and concentration.

Richard Davidson, the neuroscientist, extolled the benefit of gamma waves for changing brain function and improving attentiveness. Now here was Greene talking about alpha waves, which he called "the gateway to the subconscious".

As we began to work – one hour every morning by phone – it would take me 30 or 40 seconds to locate my centre, and even then I wouldn't be sure I'd really found it. Standing up, I would imagine a hula-hoop rotating around my hips. I would try to sense where it lay, two inches below the navel and two inches deep inside me, according to Greene.

"But pinpointing its precise location is not as important as getting out of your head and focusing your energy down." After a few days, I could find it in five or 10 seconds – sitting at the piano, gaze focused just below eye level. ( If your eyes move upward, it usually means you're engaging in left brain thinking.)

I centred at the kitchen table while looking over the piano score and playing the music in my head. ("If you make a mistake, stop the 'tape,' rewind, and do it again," Greene advised.)

Scale of the problem: pianist Sara Solovitch tried meditation, exposure therapy, cognitive therapy and beta blockers to cure her stage fright (Getty)

I centred while playing my scales. I centred before my lesson. ("There's no reason for you to play until you're ready... And that means centring. Switch to right brain, hear the first few bars, and play.")

All those years of military training had given Greene a commanding manner and he gave instructions like orders. I welcomed it. His style grounded the trendy spirituality that lay at the heart of his teachings. Though his advice wasn't new, I sometimes felt as if I were hearing it for the first time. "People want to hear excitement," Greene said. "They want to hear energy. When you play it safe, when every detail is perfect, chances are it isn't exciting. It's like a tennis player who makes every serve... Until they start faulting, they don't know how much range they have for faster serves."

I had, for the first time in my life, begun reading self-help books, but none of them helped me as much as one of my last conversations with Greene. "It's going to go well," he said as we approached the 10-day mark. "You can do anything you set your mind to. If you took up rock climbing, I'm sure you'd figure that out. But my money's on you with the piano. Say it with conviction: 'It's going to go well'."

That was what he said to me the day before my recital, but the words that stuck were: "You can do anything you set your mind to." They were the very words my mother said to me throughout my childhood, into my adulthood, and well into her senility: the words that brought me full circle.

The night before the recital, I scribbled a detailed description of how I wanted it to go. No, not "wanted." Intended. ("Wanting creates more wanting," Greene informed me. "Life is not a discovery. It's a creation.") There was a time I would have dismissed this as just another platitude, but now I embraced it as a motto, another good luck charm. The morning of the recital, my hands were cold and unresponsive as I warmed up at home. As I played slowly through my pieces, the errors mounted, and I was grateful Greene had insisted on scheduling a final phone session.

"It's going to go well," he assured me. "And no matter what happens, keep playing. If the legs of the piano fall off, keep playing." I thought of Vladimir Horowitz's injunction as he accompanied the young Gitta Gradova to a solo performance with the New York Philharmonic: "No matter what happens, don't stop playing!" the famously jittery Horowitz told her on the cab ride. "It's provincial to stop!"

"I can do anything I set my mind to," I muttered as I climbed the stairs to the library's recital room, my husband, Rich, and son Max in tow. "It's going to go well," I said to myself. In the recital room, I stared at the piano, a decent upright that I had tried out a couple of days earlier to get a feel for the keys and the acoustics of the room. Now as I sat down to warm up, half a dozen mothers and children wandered in to listen. It made a nice first audience. Rich set up his iPad to record the recital, and when I looked up a moment later, there was Lynn Kidder, my erstwhile coach, wearing a huge smile. She had heard me play through my pieces a few days before and, if anything, was more positive than Don Greene. Now she led me to a backroom, where she had positioned a couple of chairs. She wanted to share a pre-performance ritual with me. I had accumulated so many performance rituals by this point – a photograph, a totem, belly breathing, beta-blockers. Oh wait! I forgot to take my beta-blocker. I should have taken it at least an hour ago; now, it was only 20 minutes to show time, not nearly enough for it to kick in. What if my hands turned wet and clammy? What if my foot shook so badly that I couldn't control the pedals? What if I was poisoned by adrenaline? I ran back to the recital room, where I'd left my handbag, rooted around, found the bottle, and gulped down one of the little pills. Just another ritual, I told myself, returning to where Kidder was waiting.

Following her lead, I crossed my left ankle over my right knee, placed my right hand on my ankle and my left hand under the ball of my left foot. Five long breaths, in and out. Then I did the same on the opposite side. I made a tent with my fingertips and smoothed my forehead, as if wiping away the wrinkles. Max leaned against the wall and watched. Now 27, he had wrestled with his own bouts of stage fright. In his first year of conservatory in Toronto, he was so undone by anxiety that even his violin lessons had become exercises in fear. I breathed deep belly breaths, and now, with the door to the recital room open just a crack, I heard my name and the applause of the audience. It was time. "People don't enjoy watching someone playing like they're being led to the gallows," Greene had admonished. I walked through the door, Max behind me, Kidder, my page-turner, behind him. I bowed and smiled at the audience. Maybe I should have taken a longer bow? Would I never stop second-guessing myself? Stop! I commanded myself. Shut up.

I sat at the piano and looked at Max, whose violin was raised and ready. I stared down at the lettering on the fall board of the piano, just below eye level. I waited. I centred. There was no hurry. It was like that long, sustained moment when you're at the top of the roller coaster and you wait for the gravitational pull that sweeps you down with all that energy and danger. I can do anything I set my mind to, I told myself one last time.

I took a deep breath, gave a sharp nod at Max and we launched into the Haydn.

It was at once fluid and easy. Halfway through, I skipped a bar, but Max understood instantly and jumped ahead to meet me. The second movement was a soft adagio. I felt myself relaxing into the music, which was so plaintive, so clear, so goddamn lovely. Was that a little mistake I'd made? I wasn't sure and I didn't care. I sang the notes in my head as I played, and when, too soon, it was over, all I wanted was to hear the music again; more, I think, than I yearned to play it.

When the applause began, I felt stunned, the way you feel after awakening from an unexpected nap. And now it was just me and the piano. I began with Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau. I took another deep breath, let it out slowly, and waited and searched for that evanescent sense of core. Yes, there it was. I breathed into it and began.

Deep in the rhythm of it, I told myself to just sing. The runs were softer, faster, more liquid than any I could remember having played before. A thought broke through the ripples: I'm doing very well, I wonder what people think of me? I swatted it away like a gnat. And then, almost as soon as it had begun, it, too, was over. Between pieces, I could hear the hum of a happy audience, which sounded to my ears like the hum of diners at a restaurant. And I was having fun. Starting a Brahms rhapsody, I felt under a spell, watching my fingers moving over the keys. I seemed to drift like a balloonist above the room until there were no more notes to play and I came down for a landing, wishing I could keep going. As the applause began, I had an urge to raise a hand and tell my audience, Wait, I can play more. I looked over at my husband and realised he was tearing up. I smiled at my teacher, who was grinning.

I was elated. I had never played so well.

This is an edited extract from 'Playing Scared', by Sara Solovitch, which is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

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