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To Master Stage Fright, Practice Makes Imperfect OK

Sara Solovitch plays the piano in the Terminal B baggage claim area at San Jose International Airport.
Chloe Veltman/KQED
Sara Solovitch plays the piano in the Terminal B baggage claim area at San Jose International Airport.

In the past, if Sara Solovitch tripped up while playing the piano she would get flustered and stop. Especially in front of an audience.

"I felt like I had to correct everything and each note had to be perfect," the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based author and pianist. But now, she can breeze through a few bum notes while playing Claude Debussy's lyrical piano piece Reflections on the Water as if no one were listening.

"One of the things I've really worked on has been continuing to play," Solovitch says.

For the past three years, Solovitch has been coming regularly to San Jose International airport to play the beat-up Hamilton baby grand located in the Terminal B baggage claim area.

"Here, I'm not worried about people's judgment and evaluation," Solovitch said. "People aren't listening and that's kind of a godsend to me."

Solovitch's impromptu airport recitals are part of her push to overcome stage fright — a phobia that has plagued the musician since she was a little girl.

And now she's written a book on the subject — Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright.

Solovitch loves the piano. But she's so scared of playing the instrument in public that even practicing at home when her family is around regularly unsettles her.

"My hands turn wet with sweat and they'll slip and slide," Solovitch said. "My feet tremble so that I have a hard time controlling the pedal. I feel my heart beating really uncontrollably. And then there's just this kind of like pounding in my head."

As a teen, stage fright drove Solovitch to give up her dream of becoming a professional musician. But even the most seasoned performers struggle with the anxiety.

Berkeley standup comedian W. Kamau Bell has hosted his own cable TV series and has appeared on popular podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron.

Yet despite Bell's impressive chops, the comic still suffers from performance anxiety on a regular basis. And it makes no difference if he's in front of a national television audience or a small crowd at a bar; he says his mind scrambles and his mouth goes dry.

"I've often said that if there's a way to email the crowd the jokes and still get the same feeling from performing live I would just as soon do that," Bell said.

Comedian W. Kamau Bell at home in Berkeley, Calif.
/ Chloe Veltman/KQED
Chloe Veltman/KQED
Comedian W. Kamau Bell at home in Berkeley, Calif.

It's not just performers who deal with this issue. John Beebe, a Jungian psychiatrist in San Francisco, has dealt with performance anxiety in his own career and treats people who suffer from it. He thinks stage fright is universal.

"When we can't live up to the image we'd like to project we just feel within ourselves that we fail terribly," Beebe said.

But Beebe believes people can overcome stage fright if they face it head on. Repetition is key.

"I think some of us have learned that the only way to master anything is to practice and do it," Beebe said.

A steady diet of playing to passersby at the airport has helped Sara Solovitch vanquish her stage fright. Yoga and anti-anxiety medication has helped, too.

"You have to practice performing as much as you practice practice," Solovitch said.

Practice seems to have paid off: Solovitch is actually looking forward to her next gig. She'll be performing at the public library in Santa Cruz in August.

"I used to talk to myself the way one doesn't talk to their dog: You know, 'You're stupid, you're an idiot, how could you make that mistake?' " Solovitch said. "And now as I approach a performance, instead of saying 'I'm nervous,' I say to myself 'I'm excited.' "

This story was produced by KQED Arts.

Copyright 2015 KQED

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.
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