Dealing with Stage Fright: Virginia Kerr

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

"I am not fitted to give concerts. The audience intimidates me, I feel choked by its breath, paralyzed by its curious glances, struck dumb by all those strange faces".  — Frédéric Chopin to Franz Liszt (1835)

Performance anxiety is a part of every musician's life. For some, the rush of adrenalin and nervous energy can prove an enriching experience, while for others the results can be truly debilitating. This condition envelops a multitude of differing psychological and physiological factors, which are indigenous to each performer. As recently noted by journalist Ivan Hewett: 'classical performers are especially prone' to performance anxiety, because 'accuracy and virtuosity are at such a premium'. Unlikely sufferers from the world stage (both past and present) include Renée Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti, Steven Osborne, Maria Callas, Pablo Casals, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Internationally acclaimed Irish soprano and vocal coach Virginia Kerr has recently published an insightful book on the subject, entitled Stage Fright. Here, she explores the theoretical underpinnings of musical performance anxiety (MPA) and psychotherapy as a key to understanding the apprehension and confidence issues experienced by classical singers.

We here at Final Note are delighted to have Virginia on board to discuss various aspects of her studies on the subject over the coming months. We are especially interested in hearing from you, our readers — whether you are an aspiring student or a professional. You are warmly invited to contact Virginia with your specific performance issues at: Virginia.Kerr@finalnotemagazine.com. All answers will be discussed in her monthly feature, and all contributors will be treated anonymously.

We recently spoke with Virginia about her training as a psychotherapist, and how that has informed her teaching in the vocal faculties of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and Maynooth University.

How did you get into psychotherapy?

I have always been interested in the psyche of the musician and the dichotomy of how one person can find performing easy and enjoyable, while another can be terrified by the prospect of going onstage. I was living in London and was between contracts at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden when I decided to do a foundation counselling course. It went on from there.

Was your interest in the subject originally geared towards performance, or did you set out with a different purpose in mind?

It started out as a journey of self-exploration and a keen interest in the minds of musicians. It developed as I progressed further with my studies. In order for me to qualify as a psychotherapist I needed to do a placement in a psychotherapy/counselling centre. I was fortunate to do my placement in ARC Cancer Care in Eccles St, and I continue to work there one morning a week. It is very helpful to work in other areas of psychotherapy, even though my main focus would be on the psychology of performance and the problems and issues therein.

What motivated you to write this book, Stage Fright?

I was asked to write the book as the first in a new monograph series. It is a subject which is very relevant for performers today, and nothing has been written specifically for singers. Given that we are both instrument and instrumentalist in one, and that the art of singing involves the complete person, rejection of a singer's voice can result in a feeling of rejection of the complete individual.

How do you use psychotherapy within your own philosophy of teaching?

I find that my psychotherapy training is hugely beneficial to me as a singing teacher. I can recognize problems very quickly and can understand how music and singing can bring up a lot of emotion for students. While I don't engage in psychotherapy with my students, I find that I am very aware of when a student is struggling and I can then assist them in getting help, if they so desire. It is very important to say that the request has to come from the student, and not be directed by me.

In my Performance Psychology lectures at the RIAM I try to give all the students, both singers and instrumentalists, the strategies to cope with whatever challenges they might meet on their journey to become professional musicians.

As a performer how has your analysis of performance anxiety affected you, and how have your students reacted to such an approach?

My knowledge and training have helped me to recognize issues in myself and to put the necessary strategies in place around my performance. If one is aware of what is happening then it is not so alarming. The fear comes when a performer doesn't understand, or isn't aware, of the effects of performance anxiety. I think that my students, and hopefully all my performance psychology students, feel that they are in a safe environment in which they can explore issues and problems, should they choose to do so. Any sharing of experiences is completely voluntary and it is very important that there is no pressure to speak at all. People can learn a lot about themselves through listening, and realizing that they are not alone in their feelings.

We look forward to hearing more from Virginia over the coming months!

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