BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Your palms are wet, your throat is dry. Are your hands shaking? Knees weak? Is your heart racing? Perhaps you feel like vomiting, or simply running away. Congratulations. You have just been diagnosed with an acute case of glossophobia [Gr. glosso, tongue + phob, fear], more commonly known as stage fright. First, know that it is not fatal, and second, know that you are not alone. It goes all the way back to Moses. “Pardon your servant, Lord, please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:13). That’s right, performance anxiety is biblical.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
Fear is a perfectly natural and reasonable reaction that has kept our species at the top of the food chain. Our ancestors faced predators and dangers every day. Whether hunting or making war, when a human comes up against a deadly foe, the brain reacts quicker than thought, and signals the adrenal glands to dump adrenaline into the blood system, affecting every part of the body. From the hairs on your head standing on end, making you seem taller, to your toes going cold as blood is redirected to your fighting arms or fleeing legs, every part of your body is on red alert. Even the pupils of the eyes dilate (all the better to see you with, big bad wolf).
However, what works well to keep you alive when facing a bear does not help when facing Bach on your music stand in front of an audience. Unfortunately, the amygdala—the spot in the brain where fear memories are stored—doesn’t know the difference. The hippocampus, where most of our long-term memory resides, can, over time, let things go—but not the amygdala. It holds on to the stuff of survival, like fear. This means that even though you might have forgotten the best parts of 7th grade (were there any? See, we don’t remember!), you will never forget the talent show when you couldn’t find your starting note, or the moment the music teacher told you to stand in the back and move your lips without singing. The adrenaline pumping through your cells helped your brain build a slow-motion memory, similar to what happens when we are in a life-threatening crisis. A little musical gaffe can find itself lodged firmly beside a car accident in your amygdala.
THE DOCTOR IS IN: SHAME AND COURAGE
Most people experience the jitters when the spotlight shines on them. The lucky ones can channel that nervous energy into their performances, giving them energy and depth. Others find themselves sabotaged by their own bodies, regardless of their skill level. Artists as great as Glenn Gould and Daniel Day-Lewis both gave up on live performance entirely, finding safety behind a microphone or in front of a camera. What is the underlying fear that strikes virtuoso and novice alike? Let’s have a seat on the sofa and unpack our fears.
When we stand up to perform, we are at our most vulnerable. We fear the judgment of others, and we fear failure—we experience shame. Shame is the monster who whispers “You are not good enough” in our ear. We lose our courage. The solution lies right there, within the word “courage,” from the Latin cor, heart. When you have courage you have heart, and to have heart means to love. One of the greatest gifts of love is the suspension of judgment, and extending that gift to yourself is the first step in conquering stage fright.
ASK YOUR DOCTOR IF UKULELE IS RIGHT FOR YOU
A class of drug called beta-blockers does just that: blocks the effects of adrenaline on beta-receptors on the nerves. It is estimated that 40 percent of musicians in professional orchestras use them, although few will admit to it, as it carries a stigma. Beta-blockers are among the many drugs banned in athletic competition. In sports such as marksmanship, where “nerves of steel” are required, they steady the hand and give unfair advantage. Many physicians will prescribe beta-blockers for stage fright, but contraindications include blood pressure issues and serious side effects. There are other, more natural, ways to deal with stage fright, including meditation, exposure therapy, and mindfulness. And ukulele.
One of the first things you might notice when you attend a ukulele festival is how many new players there are, and how happy they seem. It’s not just the accessibility of the instrument, it is the culture of the uke world. What is culture? It can be defined as “the way we do things around here,” and the culture of ukulele is one of love and encouragement. The play-along welcomes all levels. Voices rise together above the cheerful strum as people find their worthiness; everyone is good enough. Stay for open mic and watch the brave souls getting up for the first time. You might find yourself deeply moved by the vulnerability you see. Vulnerability on stage is a performer’s asset, it allows the audience in. Embracing the notion that weakness is our greatest strength changes the dynamic of performing by removing the shame. Everyone knows ukulele players are shameless!
Exposure therapy is the process of replacing bad memories with good ones in an effort to reprogram the brain. The more you play, the better you feel; the better you feel, the more you want to play. Taking small risks in a safe environment gives you the chance to brainwash the amygdala and step toward fearlessness. The ukulele is your friend in conquering stage fright. What are you waiting for? Expose yourself!