Wednesday, March 24, 2010


This video showing Minneapolis Symphony concertmaster, Roger Frisch, undergoing brain surgery to relieve him of bow shake seems like an act of desperation, and rather ghoulish to me. I agree with Mr. Frisch that a loss of bow control is the kiss of death for a violinist. By now, it's no secret that most professionals and conservatory students regularly rely on low dose beta-blockers, and sometimes alcohol or benzodiazepines, to prevent adrenaline from wreaking havoc on a performance. I feel empathy for Mr. Frisch. We've all been there—not on the operating table perhaps, but faced with a loss of control during a sudden, intense rush of adrenaline. This condition, I might add, can strike at any magic moment.

I remember in my youth watching a scary performance of Yehudi Menuhin struggle through the Beethoven Concerto. He suffered anguish during the long sustained held notes which turned into flying staccato. I was so impressionable as a youngster that the effect of watching a great artist battle bow shake replicated itself in my own performances, a week or so later, and stuck for some time. These were the days before Propranolol, commonly known as Inderal. At some point, during the mid 1970's, I became a student of Erick Friedman at the Manhattan School of Music. I never thought he had been tormented by stage fright and bow shake, as he reminded me of a prize fighter, but sure enough, Friedman was all too eager to talk about his own survival. It boiled down to this: As a youngster, Friedman played with so much underlying tension and fear that he suffered "psychosomatic asthma" before each performance. There were times when he fought to catch his breath, and wound up in the hospital rather than onstage. It wasn't until Friedman closely studied with both Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz, that he began to re-engineer his own playing, with a keen eye toward what he called, "conscious relaxation". How Friedman managed this, I still do not comprehend, but the crucial factor is that he himself believed in his methodology, enough to face down cameras during the famous Heifetz Masterclass Series on television. Erick Friedman was a marshmallow on the inside, but gave an appearance of outward unflappability.

As I teach students with the goal of successful future performances, I have come to rely on wisdom from psychiatrist, logo-therapist and concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl. In his important book, "The Will To Meaning", Frankl devotes numerous pages to the topic of hyper-reflection and the confrontation of fear. In a sense, this is the crux of what performers go through during an anxiety attack; hyper-reflection means excessive attention. A performer undergoes a case of nervousness, for no obvious reason, and then becomes fearful of the event reoccurring. This presents an "anticipatory anxiety" which turns into a conditioned response, and continues indefinitely, growing into a performer's worst nightmare. In "The Will to Meaning", Frankl gives his patients permission to do the very things they actually fear, and perform them with abandon. The practice is known as paradoxical intention:

"We know a case in which a violinist always tried to play as consciously as possible. From putting his violin in place on his shoulder to the most trifling detail, he wanted to do everything consciously, to perform in full self-reflection. This led to a complete artistic breakdown...Treatment had to give back to the patient his trust in the unconscious, by having him realize how much more his unconscious was than his conscious."

Of course, I have come to believe in the power of suggestion. I think a person is capable of being transformed by healing words. At one point, I recall Erick Friedman offering his blessings for me to take a risk and "mess up". And here, I must include Friedman's words which I've never forgotten: If you played the notes upside down or backwards, you'd still sound like an angel to me.

Many parents have solicited advice on how to minimize the nasty effects of stage fright for their youngsters. Here are a few suggestions, although this is not a one size fits all approach: Make sure that your child is given permission to make blunders or mistakes, and that he/she will not be measured by any performance or compared to others. Please let teachers know that to push a bit is acceptable, but to assign works which are beyond the student's capabilities have the potential to turn disastrous. Accept challenges in small steps. Have your child perform for family, friends, teddy bears, cats and dogs. If those performances go well, great, take the next little step. It's normal for children who have previously been unaware of the public to become self-conscious during adolescence. Lastly, not every talented individual is destined to be onstage, or viewed under the lens of a microscope.

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