Featured Article, January 2019

Lime-Light Fever

Cold and flu season is here, but lime-light fever has nothing to do with winter ailments. The malady  many of us occasionally struggle with is what Italians and Germans respectively call febbre della ribalta and Lampenfieber. These expressions directly translate into English as stage-fever or lamp- and lime-light fever. Merriam-Webster’s definitions for fever are “a state of heightened or intense emotion or activity,” as well as “a contagious usually transient enthusiasm.”

Is it a cultural difference, or are Italians and Germans onto something when they use more benign terms for stage fright and performance anxiety? Their stage related “fevers” don’t have such negative connotations and even resonate with spring fever, which is not entirely bad, and often implies some sort of excitement and even positive expectations. It doesn’t really matter what you call the tension and the anxiety that we deal with when performing for an audience, but it can wreak havoc on your nerves and body. Perhaps you could try to use that heightened awareness, as well as the frisson of emotional turbulence, to your advantage?

It is the (over-)production of adrenaline that causes the problems, and its effects are most pronounced during the waiting period before your performance. We can suffer from a number of symptoms, such as a racing heart, trembling, excessive perspiration, a dry mouth, breathing problems and our stomach going haywire. The adrenaline attack on your body, and especially your heart, is actually rather brief and its negative effects start wearing off quickly. How can we deal with this overload of a hormone that readies us for a fight or flight response to stressful situations?

Everyone knows that we usually play cello much better when we are by ourselves or in the safety of our home. However, in public we are afraid of not meeting the audience’s expectations. We are self-conscious and concerned about how people will judge and rate our performance. As ardently as we may wish to impress and awe those listening to us, we rarely believe that we have what it takes to do that. At times our fear of stage fright is actually worse than the fear of making mistakes.

Hardly anyone is immune to these fits of anxiety, but be honest: How terribly bad can your performance turn out if you are reasonably well prepared for it? Good preparation almost guarantees mostly positive feedback and experiences. Visualizing the entire sequence of your playing, from practicing to waiting, and from performing to a positive outcome, can help minimize the fear. Establishing a pre-performance routine, a ritual, a stereotyped choreographed procedure may be your best antidote to “lime-light fever.” Often we just need time to adjust, to get a grip on ourselves, and usually we do better during longer performances. I’m not suggesting that we should endlessly tune, adjust our endpins, or fumble with the music on our stand, but if this helps you calm your nerves…

We need to be cautious when looking for help in the medicine- or liquor-cabinet, but there are various mental techniques, breathing- and relaxation exercises, that can help you deal with your anxiety. Countless books and articles have been written on this subject. You may already be familiar with the Alexander-Technique and the Feldenkrais-Method, and you can find more information than you will ever need on the internet. Explore different ideas and talk to friends, teachers and other cellists.

Always remember why you love your cello! One safe and trusty remedy to Lime-Light Fever is to play much, play often, and play for friends and for friendly people in the supportive and nurturing environment of Cellospeak.

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