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In 'Playing Scared' Pianist Grows Less Frightened Of Stage Fright

Everyone has had the dream in one form or another. You are about to take a big test when you realize you don't know anything about the subject. You are on stage but you haven't memorized the lines. You have to make a speech but you haven't written it.

It's your basic performance anxiety nightmare.

But if you are a musician, performance anxiety, better known as stage fright, can ruin your career — maybe before it even gets started.


That's what happened to journalist Sara Solovitch. After years of practice and private success, she abandoned any dream of being a pianist because she was afraid of performing in public. She was 19.

As Solovitch neared her 60s, she decided to confront her performance demons. She writes about her experience in her new book, Playing Scared. She tells NPR's Lynn Neary how she learned to be less anxious about performance anxiety.

Interview Highlights

On her difficulties performing and deciding to give up playing


Well, I think I was probably around 11 or 12, when it just kind of manifested in these really extreme ways. My hands would break out in a sweat and they would be so wet that my fingers would slip and slide across the keys. My feet would tremble and not be able to hold down the pedals and my heart would be beating wildly, and I would no longer even be able to remember what I was playing and what I had memorized so carefully. ... When I stopped playing at 19, I really just walked away from it and didn't play for 30 years. I never mentioned that I played. And, so, there was always something kind of hanging in the air; I always felt that I had this unfinished business.

On the advice she got from sports psychologists

<em>Playing Scared</em> is journalist Sara Solovitch's first book. Her work has appeared in <em>Politico</em>, <em>The Washington Post</em>, <em>The Los Angeles Times </em>and <em>Wired.</em> She lives in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Christine Z. Mason
Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA
Playing Scared is journalist Sara Solovitch's first book. Her work has appeared in Politico, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Wired. She lives in Santa Cruz, Calif.

One of the sports psychologists I talked to told me, you know, he didn't want me to be calm, he didn't want to meditate or try to reduce my nerves, but to use my adrenaline, center myself and ... using that adrenaline for passion.

On stage fright as a normal reaction

It's your body's response to a high stakes situation. When you care really a lot about something and you have an audience, it's the most natural thing in the world to get scared. It just signifies that you're doing something special.

On performing again many years later

It was a little overwhelming. ... There were all kinds of little gatherings that I had at my house, you know, where I'd have eight or 10 people over every couple of weeks and play for them. There were master classes and other recitals so by the time I got to this final, the big performance, I was looking forward to it. ...

When I first began this project, my goal was to kind of grit my teeth and decide that I was going to get through this music no matter what. Play an hour's worth of music and not make a single mistake. And, as the year progressed I realized that what I really wanted to do was communicate and just revel in the beauty of it and feel free and passionate. And so, if I made a mistake here and there, I would just continue and I would think of myself as being on a river and occasionally there was some whitewater that I had to get past but that I would continue moving all the time and communicate my love rather than a need for absolute perfection.

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