Beyonce, miming, stage fright and one of the commonest fears of all
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
Beyonce has confirmed that she mimed during the national anthem at the inauguration of President Obama last month. She has now explained she’s a “perfectionist” and – due to lack of rehearsal time – “did not feel comfortable taking a risk”. To make a point, Beyonce opened the press conference, by asking reporters to stand before giving a live rousing rendition of the national anthem.
Many will still be wondering if she just got a bit nervous at the inauguration, and this explains why she didn’t perform live.
After all, President Obama himself stumbled while taking the oath, albeit not as badly as he had done during his first inauguration. These might be pointers to what a high stress occasion this is.
Veteran performers still get stage fright.
Sir Laurence Olivier, one of the most famous British actors of all time is reputed to have developed crippling performance anxiety and to have requested those on stage not to look him in the eye during some performances. It is said his use of intricate makeup, and adopting heavy foreign accents were just some of his many strategies to deal with his fears, which got so bad he was sometimes pushed on stage.
Let us drag stage fright from the shadows into the limelight. It is closely related to general public speaking fear, which is one of the commonest phobias. Public speaking anxiety has been established by research as thwarting many careers. This is needless suffering as it is readily treatable.
Fear of speaking in public can manifest itself as being anxious and avoiding speaking up at meetings or in groups, or even in one to one conversation. Public speaking anxiety is linked to an even more common phenomenon – social anxiety. Fundamental to social fear is deep apprehension over negative appraisal by others. Social phobics feel constantly judged and believe that others are always coming to negative conclusions about them. This inhibits social performance and leads sufferers to withdraw from contact.
Social phobia is frequently mistaken for everyday shyness, and as a result is thought to be one of the most under-diagnosed conditions.
Regina Studer, Brigitta Danuser, Horst Hildebrandt, Marc Arial and Patrick Gomez from the University of Lausanne, University of Geneva and Swiss University Centre for Music Physiology, report in a recent paper that large surveys of professional orchestra musicians confirm 24% experience stage fright as a difficulty and 16% as a severe problem. Stage fright is the leading severe problem amongst the musicians taking part in these surveys.
Their study was entitled ‘Hyperventilation complaints in music performance anxiety among classical music students’ and focused on the fact that stage fright often peaks just before a performance, rather than during it. Of course, this peak of terror encourages some musicians in the grip of it to back out just before going on stage, or maybe to switch into mime instead of ‘going live’.
This study of 169 university students of classical music found female performers were generally more anxious, and displayed some more patterns of hyper-ventilating associated with anxiety. Among the female students, 48.5% were classified as hyper-ventilators before performance vs. 19.7% of the male students. Female students were 2.5 times more likely to be classified as hyper-ventilators before performance, than male counterparts
Stage Fright is also referred to as Performance Anxiety and sufferers report palpitations, sweating, a dry mouth, trembling, and disturbances in their breathing patterns before and during performance. Hyper-ventilation or rapid shallow breathing is increasingly seen as fundamental to the disorder, as a result treatments focus on slower, more controlled breathing.
The study of classical music students is published in the ‘Journal of Psychosomatic Research’ and explains that over-breathing through hyperventilation leads to a drop in Carbon Dioxide in the blood stream, which in turn produces widespread physiological changes throughout the body. In particular, blood vessel constriction starves the body and brain of oxygen. Increased nerve excitability is also produced leading to pins and needles, feelings or strange tingling, muscle cramps and even muscle spasm.
Symptoms reported by the performance-anxious such as shortness of breath, confusion and cold hands can all be explained by metabolic body changes induced by hyper-ventilating.
To return to Beyonce. The authors of this current study tell of previous research into performance anxiety in musicians finding again that women score significantly higher than men in performance anxiety and women were three times more likely than men to be hyper-ventilators during performances.
Dorsha Hayes, a former Board Member of the Carl Gustav Jung Foundation, explains in a paper entitled ‘The Archetypal Nature of Stage Fright’ that this mysterious condition is best understood from the standpoint of a person as a herd creature, attached to the primary safety of the pack. To make one’s self conspicuous is, in her analysis, to detach oneself from the flock. Historically separation from the group has always been precarious. These fears are deeply embedded below conscious awareness she argues. And being before an audience may awaken this primitive fear to erupt from our archetypal memory.
Her paper in the journal ‘Art Psychotherapy’ contends that standing alone is to be vulnerable and helpless against massed attack. Facing an audience reminds our brains at a primitive level of this confrontation. It was the outcast, the victim, the tortured, the stoned to death and the crucified who through history, faced the crowd.
While she might have a point, the treatment of social phobia, public speaking fears and stage fright is an action-oriented therapy, which means to get out there, in a graded manner, and do it. Not to avoid, but also to regulate breathing throughout.
Notwithstanding archetype primitive memory or not, we can learn to become comfortable before spectators if given enough exposure, in a graded manner, by slowly increasing the size of the audience we are exposed to.
We don’t know if Beyonce had stage fright or not, but choosing to sing at the press conference, was the correct cure, or was just a great idea.