Magazine article The Spectator

Music Panic Attack

Magazine article The Spectator

Music Panic Attack

Article excerpt

If you want to make yourself unpopular with a classical musician, bring up the subject of performance anxiety. You can ask soloists how they remember tens of thousands of notes, so long as you make it sound like flattery. But don't ask how they do it in front of an audience of strangers and critics without dying of fright. Because some of them nearly do. And they don't like to talk about it - their own nerves, that is; other people's are fair game. The world of classical music can be as Darwinian as the tennis circuit. Memory lapses are not forgotten. The Wigmore Hall holds a special terror, because it's often the venue for an artist's first big recital. He or she looks out at rows of music students who, however supportive, are not immune to Schadenfreude.

Given that stage fright afflicts nearly all musicians, it's surprising that many music colleges don't teach their students how to tackle it. So I was interested to learn that Steven Osborne - one of the most technically secure pianists in the world, judging by his astounding Messiaen and Ravel - has been trying to fill just this gap in their education; to teach them to avoid the wave of panic that can sweep over them mid-concert or, more often, just before going on stage.

'Even when I was a student, I didn't have any help from teachers to deal with performance anxiety, ' said Osborne when we met last week. 'This is something that's so normal, yet so little talked about. It's an important subject, because fear gets in the way of your performance - and in the way of discovering who you really are.'

Osborne is a wiry Scotsman with deepset eyes; he specialises in pieces that are ridiculously difficult to play, but also musically intense - he has no time for splashy encores. (His Messiaen Vingt Regards for Hyperion is one of the miracles of the recording catalogue. ) Years ago he had a couple of small memory lapses in the first Rachmaninov concerto, which made him 'really nervous about forgetting'. But, rather than allow the nerves to take root, he anatomised them - and those ruminations are the basis of the talks he gives to students.

There's a sociological twist to Osborne's view of stage fright: 'We live in a world in which everything is controlled, and if something goes wrong then there are immediate demands, from the public and politicians, that it must never go wrong again. This insistence that we must be safe and secure has a backlash internally. …

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