What’s not normal is to get stomach-wrenchingly, can’t-breathe, can’t-stop-shakingly anxious about it.
Welcome to the wonderful world of stage fright.
I started playing the piano when I was 4. I practised and practised for years, and eventually got to be a pretty good pianist (and I’ve got the Grade 8 certificate to prove it), but I still remember the night the fear started. I was 16, and the Head of Music had asked me to accompany the junior orchestra at the Autumn Concert.
The concert rolled around, and I was so confident, it didn’t even occur to me to be nervous. I played the first part of my piece beautifully, then I was off for 16 bars. I just had to sit and wait for the orchestra to play their piece, and then I was back in. I just had to sit and wait. And concentrate. And not start daydreaming about what I was doing that Sunday, and had I finished my homework, and when was I going to see that cute… hang on, what was I doing?
I was lost. I didn’t know where I was in the music. I didn’t know when I needed to come in. I was staring around the orchestra for clues when I noticed the Head of Music frantically gesturing at me. I’d missed my cue. Scrambling back in, as best as I could, I fell over my notes and limped to the end of the piece.
The concert was repeated the following night, so I was determined I was going to get it right this time. All I had to do was concentrate for the 16 bars. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake and let my attention wander to the party on Saturday night, and whether that idiot on the school bus was ever going to leave me alone and… oh dammit.
I’d done it again. But this time I definitely knew where I needed to come in, so I launched myself confidently at the keys and… THUNK!… no…
Again, I’d come in at completely the wrong time. The Head of Music glared at me and mouthed something that probably wasn’t a compliment on my playing. As soon as the piece was finished, I shot off my stool, ran off the stage and out of the hall.
And I’ve suffered from stage fright ever since. Which is a bit of a bugger when you make a living from performing (in my career—amongst other things—I’ve presented on radio, lead parent and baby music groups, plus I play the odd gig at the Union Chapel as part of the wonderful Daylight Music).
Anyway, over the years I’ve shuffled out of the limelight (my career right now is 99% writing, 1% music). But I still force myself to perform in public a couple of times a year because apparently I enjoy the psychological torture. (Yes, those are my feet in the picture, practising the organ in preparation for another concert.)
These days, the terror’s a lot milder than it used to be. But it’s still there. The knowledge that I’m only ever a moment from disaster. That no amount of practise will guarantee I play perfectly. My hands will be shaking before I play. If I’m really unlucky, they’ll still be shaking while I play.
But, I still play. I force myself onto stage, I tremble with nerves, I take a breath and I start to play.