17 May 2007

Managing Stage Fright & Performance Anxiety in Classical Musicians

Before beta blockers, I saw a lot of musicians using alcohol or benzodiazepines. I believe beta blockers are far more beneficial than deleterious, and I have no qualms about prescribing them.”

  —  Mitchell Kahn MD, Director, Miller Healthcare Institute for Performing Artists

Edgar Ende, El Espejo en El Espejo: Un Laberinto, 1947
DSM: A friend of mine, an experienced pianist accustomed to performing frequently in public, recently confided to me how much she’s still affected by “jitters” before a concert, despite the years that she has been playing and building her career. In fact, as her career has progressed and the concert dates have become more frequent, she notes that the pre-concert anxieties have been getting worse, not better. Her heart thumps loudly; she feels distracted, so much so that she worries about forgetting passages that she never in fact forgets; and her head feels as if it were burning up. Her hands shake, and the tension in her arms and wrists keeps her from performing with her normal sensitivity and nuance.

CMT: This is your friend who has a couple of recent CDs?

DSM: Yes. With the positive reviews that those have received has come more frequent coverage by critics in the press. And, at least in her mind, she imagines more people in her audiences arrive at the concerts expecting a particular kind of experience or level of performance or interpretation that her recordings or the reviews have conditioned them to expect. She feels she’s no longer the obscure academician playing her heart out. Admittedly, performances were never carefree. But now she feels the stakes are magnified each time she strides onto the stage. That’s what makes her “jitters” worse. Breathing exercises and yoga and other things she’s tried seem not to have been effective . . .

CMT: What do you think? Should she see a clinical psychologist or therapist about it? What about medications that are at all effective for stage fright or “performance jitters”—ones that would not majorly blunt her acuity or sedate or otherwise interfere with her performance practice? I know that beta blocker antihypertensive drugs are used by quite a few people. And half-dose escitalopram or half-dose diazepam are used by some.

DSM: Well, frankly, there are some psychologists who work with performing artists and claim to have approaches that are reasonably effective.

CMT: What about the meds, though? What’re the current statuses of those?

DSM: To me, that’d be somewhat a last recourse, something to try if other things fail. But, yes, there are several alternatives that enjoy a degree of effectiveness. All of them would be prescribed off-label, of course. None of them is specifically designed or approved for use in performance anxiety as such.

CMT: Yes, well, the transformation of “enhancements” into “treatments” is now a familiar part of medicine, of course, and it’s been accelerated by medicine’s move into the consumer marketplace. Carl Elliott’s essay in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine (17-MAY; 356: 2024-5) notes that physicians today prescribe drugs to lengthen attention spans, strengthen erections, and smooth out wrinkled brows, even when they are not entirely convinced that what they are treating is a medical need rather than merely a consumer desire. Many others write prescriptions for conditions that blur the boundary between pathology and ordinary human variability: synthetic growth hormone for short stature, SSRI and NERI antidepressants for social anxiety disorder, and hormone-replacement therapy for the effects of menopause (although the risks that militate against that one are now recently pretty clear-cut). The line between what consumers want and what patients need has become blurred beyond recognition. So why should chamber music be any different?

DSM: Many people feel uneasy about this, including me, without being able to say exacly why we feel uneasy. Michael Sandel’s fine new book, ‘The Case against Perfection’, aims to characterize that unease. Sandel is not so much bothered by the specific enhancements and abilities that consumers might choose (my own accomodating or preferring deafness and stapedial spasms rather than super-hearing, for example) or even the possibility that these procedures will be bought and sold in the marketplace. It’s the commodification of human experience itself. Sandel worries that more genetic choice will undermine our appreciation of the gifted character of human life—our sense that the way we are is not solely the product of our own doing. For Sandel, the effort to bring our physiologic or psychologic or genetic constitution under our voluntary control represents a kind of hubris. Standing face to face with a marvel of biology, one produced by eons of natural selection, we decide we can do better.

CMT: Many Americans see choice as a categorical good: the more we have, the better. I think other people in other countries have maybe a more balanced view. But as Sandel points out, choice is everywhere a mixed blessing. The more control we exercise over our identities, our capabilities, our deficiencies, our limitations—the greater our responsibility for the results. Weaknesses and minor afflictions that we could once blame on Nature or Fate, we’re now able to blame only on ourselves. The illusion that you can ‘master’ or ‘control’ things is an illusion—an illusion that can leap up and bite you. Look at all the failed plastic surgery walking around! So what about medications in pre-performance “jitters”?

DSM: Beta blockers, taken in small dosages, can quell anxiety without apparent side effects. The article in the New York Times by Blair Tindall several years ago was the first piece in the lay press I’d seen about that, despite the fact that it’s really common practice.

  • Lopressor® (metoprolol), 50 mg
  • Tenormin® (atenolol), 25 mg
  • Visken® (pindolol), 5 mg
  • Corgard® (nadolol), 40 mg
  • Blocadren® (timolol), 20 mg
  • Trandate® (labetalol), 100 mg
  • Inderal® (propranolol), 40 mg

One of these can be taken an hour or two before a concert. You don’t have to take them every day. In fact, you probably would prefer not to take them on a routine, daily basis. That way, the drug’s effectiveness for mitigating the pre-concert anxiety is preserved. Your body isn’t accustomed to having the drug on board all the time. And these doses are small enough that the usual beta-blocker side-effects (drowsiness or fatigue; cold hands and feet; weakness or dizziness; dry mouth, eyes, and skin; trouble breathing, or shortness of breath; libido changes) would almost certainly not occur, especially in these reduced single-dose pre-concert-only amounts.

A beta-1-selective adrenergic receptor blocking agent like metoprolol or atenolol is probably best. In vitro and in vivo studies have shown that it has a preferential effect on beta-1 adrenoreceptors, chiefly located in cardiac muscle. This preferential effect is not absolute, however, and at higher doses such as are used in treating severe high blood pressure, the beta-1-selected drugs can also block beta-2 adrenoreceptors, chiefly the beta-2 receptors on the cells located in the bronchial and vascular musculature. Clinical pharmacology studies have confirmed the beta-blocking activity of metoprolol and other beta-1-selective adrenergic blockers, as shown by (1) reduction in heart rate and cardiac output at rest and under stress, (2) reduction of systolic blood pressure upon exercise, (3) inhibition of stress-induced or isoproterenol-induced tachycardia, and (4) reduction of reflex orthostatic tachycardia.

Relative beta-1 selectivity has been confirmed by the following: (1) In normal subjects, metoprolol’s unable to reverse the beta-2-mediated vasodilating effects of epinephrine (adrenaline). This contrasts with the effect of nonselective (beta-1 plus beta-2) beta blockers like propranolol, which completely reverse the vasodilating effects of epinephrine. (2) In asthmatic patients, metoprolol and other beta-1-selective blockers don’t reduce pulmonary function like FEV1 and FVC as much as a nonselective beta blocker (such as propranolol or timolol or labetolol or nadolol or pindolol) would do at an equivalent beta-1-receptor-blocking dose. So if you’re a singer or a wind instrument player you want a beta-1-selective for sure, but even if you’re a keyboardist or a string or percussion player you probably want a beta-1 selective drug too.

Musicians quietly began to do beta blockers after their application to stage fright was first published in The Lancet, the British medical journal, in 1977. By 1987, a survey conducted by the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians, which represents the 51 largest orchestras in the U.S., found that 27 percent of its musicians had used the drugs. Psychiatrists at centers that treat professional musicians now estimate that the number’s much higher today. Robert Barris, bassoonist and a co-Chairman of the Music Performance faculty at Northwestern University, encourages students to address the root cause of their anxiety instead of relying on medications, though. He tends to recommend yoga and exercise. The only issue is that those take a long time to be effective and in some cases they aren’t effective. Many people don’t have the patience for that; they just prefer to go with the sure-fire, pharmaceutical solution, especially since that usually just involves single low-dose use right before the performance.

The information on this page is not intended as medical advice and is not meant to be a substitute for individual medical judgment by a physician or other medical healthcare professional. The aim is to provide information and help in suggesting considerations for preventive care. Beta blockers should be used only after a medical examination and under the supervision of a doctor, of course. This is because people with asthma or heart disease could develop problems like shortness of breath or heart failure or a slowing of the heart rate. Remember, always consult a licensed healthcare provider for individualized advice on your health decisions.

If you have to take a drug to do your job, then go get another job.”

  —  Sara Sant'Ambrogio, Cellist and founding member, Eroica Trio.

13 May 2007

Violin Physics, Chladni Patterns, Mysteries of Tonewoods

Rosslyn Chapel chladni patterns in ceiling ornamentation
CMT: The timbral range of most instruments is impressive. But bowing a string on a member of the violin family is even more so—the vibrations produce remarkably rich harmonics. Oh, I know the vibrations of the strings are mechanically coupled to the bridge. And the bridge transmits the vibrational energy produced by the strings to the body through its feet, to the belly, and through the soundpost to the back plate. The vibration of the body determines sound radiation and sound quality, along with the resonance of the cavity between the plates. But how is it that the richness and diversity of the sounds in the violin family is so great? Often we’re led to focus on the physics of the strings. What about the physics of the wood of the front and the back plates? Is there much new these days in terms of physics or engineering analysis of this?

Violin Crossection

DSM: There’s an increasing number of physicists who are conducting research on vibrational dynamics of stringed instruments. And the computational power to do finite-element analyses and mathematical modeling of the arched plates’ vibrational modes is finally up to the task. KTH University in Stockholm is doing exciting things, for example. Look at that video above and the images of the violin below. Metal filings placed on the violin plate’s surface will form 7 or more patterns according to the plates ‘modes’ of vibration. The pattern shows the ‘node’ areas that don’t move, while all of the areas around them are vibrating. You want to match the modes between the front plate (belly) and the back plate when these are thicknessed. If on each plate you can get modes 2 and 5 to agree within one whole step, then your instrument will vibrate as a whole unit. This will ensure the instrument plays easily. The mathematics and computation are good enough these days to clearly reveal and explain what the differences are between good instruments and not-so-good ones. The difficulty remains, though, in getting mathematical models and numerically-controlled machining to automatically create superior instruments—as contrasted to merely explaining the goodness of hand-crafted ones.

Violin Plate vibration modes, University of New South Wales
[Photos from Dept of Physics, UNSW.]

CMT: The woods traditionally employed for the construction of the violin family instruments are maple or sycamore for the back, ribs and neck, and generally sitka spruce for the front plate or belly. The variety of maple used is usually Acer pseudoplatanus or Acer platanoides. The sitka spruce used is most often the Picea abies or the Picea excelsa. It’s sometimes said that wood suitable for violins is that which has fine-grained, narrow-ring structure—grown at high altitudes or under harsh conditions such as cold weather and poor soil. Wood that’s grown too quickly in warmer environments and rich soil generally tends to be less resonant. Luthiers prefer air-dried wood (not kiln-dried). Do luthiers still bite on the wood to assess whether it will be strong enough, like they used to do in the olden days?

DSM: The whole craft seems to have become far more quantitative over the past couple of decades, especially with the growth of luthier education programs. But the qualitative lore will never go away. You know, the quality of sound is more affected by the top plate than the back plate. For that reason, a one-piece back plate is not uncommon, but a one-piece top plate is rare. Generally, each plate consists of two pieces glued symmetrically lengthwise. This orientation is preferred because the grain is wider at the bark side and narrower at the heart, in the middle of the tree. So if a single piece of wood is split and glued bark side to bark side, the acoustical properties of the wood will be approximately equal on both sides of the center line where it’s glued. Despite the two-piece, center-glued arrangement there are still only 2% of trees in today’s commercial forested stands are large enough to yield usable tonewood. And of course that tonewood-scarcity / large-tree-availability situation is even worse for the larger instruments—the violas, cellos, and double-basses.

CMT: Carleen Hutchins had an excellent article in Scientific American back in 1981, with photographs showing vibrational characteristics of wood pieces after cutting to shape, and before and after application of varnish. The pictures showed metal filings scattered on the surface of the wood before inducing vibration, and the particles collecting at the nulls or nodes in standing waves set up in each plate.

DSM: Remember, the plates of a violin bulge outward. The size and shape of these bulges, or “archings,” have an enormous influence on an instrument’s sound, as do the nature and varying thickness of the wood, and all these quantities and qualities need to be measured and modeled. What’s advanced quite a lot in the past few years is the ability (in MATLAB or in other software applications) to mathematically model the vibrational dynamics of those 3-dimensional, arched plate surfaces . . .

CMT: The front and back plates are carved mostly by hand, with ever-finer tools as the process unfolds. The tools include thimble-sized finger planes and tool-steel miniscrapers. I was interested to learn that, in making a copy of a Strad or other premier instrument, the luthier makes the plates’ outer arch match the outer arch of the original instrument. But the thickness and the inner contour is governed by the acoustics of the specific wood that the copy plate is made of. The acoustics are continually suggested evaluated by the changing sound of finger-elicited “tap tones” as the wood is gradually thinned from the inside with the finger planes and miniscrapers. The ‘copy’ is not, in other words, an exhaustive, explicit dimensional copy. Only a subset of the dimensions and contours of the original are used; the rest of the process is governed by the de facto acoustics, iteratively, by trial-and-error.

Violin Plate finger planing
DSM: The first physicist who was enthusiastic to study violin acoustical physics was Felix Savart, in the 19th Century. Boundless optimism, confronting such complexities with only rudimentary tools. Both the experimental sensors and the mathematics would not catch up with the size and scope of that challenge for 150 years! Savart experimented with the vibrational properties of violin plates, sprinkling the plates with sand and observing the patterns made when a bow was run across the edge. This technique is still used today in modified form by some luthiers to “tune” their plates.

CMT: The first American scientist to embark on ‘big science’ of the violin was Frederick Saunders, an amateur violinist who was chairman of the Physics Department at Harvard from 1926 to 1940. But there have been legions of others. University of Michigan physicist Gabriel Weinreich has now spent more than 20 years studying violin physics, including “directional tone color”—how different notes radiate from different parts of the violin’s body in different registers and at differing loudnesses. The ‘bug’ for the challenge of understanding violin physics is easy to ‘catch’, despite the difficulties that the challenge holds . . .

Violin sound production
DSM: What makes a violin belly a ‘good’ belly? The goal is to have many different vibrational modes spaced relatively uniformly. Another goal for a violin’s sound is a high “Q” (sharpness) of the resonances. With string instruments a high Q is desired because the aim is to create sound ‘character’. A cheap instrument has few resonances. Each of these has relatively low Q, and the sound dies out soon after you stop bowing. A good instrument continues to sing for some time after you stop bowing, because the resonances are sharp (high-Q) and do not dissipate the energy quickly. So a good string instrument has many high-Q resonances at favorable frequencies. Amazing, given how technology has advanced, that so much of the physics of these instruments still defies explanation. Anders Buen in Norway has some very nice MATLAB-based studies of what we’ve been discussing here. But the mesh-free ('Galerkin', 'meshless', 'MLPG', etc.) finite-element methods have not, so far as I can tell, been brought to bear on violin plate dynamics yet . . .

Anders Buen MATLAB violin study

Chladni Vibration Patterns, 3D

12 May 2007

Unplugged Folias & Romanescas: Acoustics Très Tendrement, Finances Très Tendres

Jordi Savall Trio

The viola da gamba is a chamber instrument with a soft, sweet tone, incapable of the dynamic extremes and brilliance of the violin. This helps to account for its decline.”

  —  Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Edition

CMT: During the interval I had a chance to glance at some of the music that Jordi had left on his music stand and on the floor. Beautiful hand-prepared manuscripts! Based on some idiosyncrasies in his scores, he seems to have intended to maximize exploiting the possibilities presented by the viola da gamba’s extended range. The gamba’s seven-string guitar-like tuning allows the performer a range of almost three octaves without shifting or changing positions (compared to two octaves plus a step on the cello). And its seven-string setup is conducive to virtuosic, arpeggiated passages. In one of the Marin Marais muzettes last night where a range of four octaves is spanned in only a few bars, Jordi demonstrated the flexibility the instrument allowed the composer. Phenomenal! The extended range of the viola da gamba is an “enabling technology” for a really dramatic melodic lyricism.

DSM: Together with Montserrat Figueras, Jordi Savall has founded three ensembles—Hespèrion XX, La Capella Reial and Le Concert des Nations. Each has in its own way charted new waters in terms of expressive beauty and lyricism. Savall’s performance in Alain Corneau’s film Tous les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World), which won a César award for the best soundtrack, also charted new waters.

Jordi Savall
CMT: Sitting just 3 meters from Jordi at last night’s Friends of Chamber Music concert allowed me to observe his technique in detail. I was especially fascinated by his dramatic treatment of these pieces. According to Stowell’s Cambridge Companion to Cello, among the viola da gamba players of the 17th Century vibrato was associated with a tender, passionate or wailing quality. Jordi seems to favor a ‘flattement’ style of vibrato—one that’s extremely moving in tender pieces and on long notes. There is an intimate, introspective, confessional aspect to Jordi’s rendering of the Ortiz Folias—a storyteller’s sentimentality in his account of the Marais pieces. Almost autobiographical, when you are in the front row in a stone cathedral like this.

  • Diego Ortiz—Recercadas sobre tenores (Folias, Passa mezzo moderno, Romanesca)
  • Tobias Hume—Musickal Humors (Whope doe me no harme)
  • Gaspar Sanz—Piezas para la Guitarra (Jacaras-Canarios)
  • Marin Marais—La Viole de Louis XIV (Prelude-Le Labyrinthe)
  • Mr. De Sainte-Colombe de Fils—Fantasie en Rondeau
  • Mr. De Sainte-Colombe de Fils—Les pleurs
  • J.S. Bach—Bourrèe
  • J.S. Bach—English Suite in A minor
  • Antoine Forqueray—La Marella
  • Antonio Martin y Coll—Diferencias sobre las Folias
  • Jean-Baptiste Forqueray—La du Vaucel (Très Tendrement)

DSM: The movement of playing should serve to illustrate the music. Jordi does this superbly and consistently. These scores read as though they had a verbal text—well, in some cases they did have a verbal text, since much consort music was vocal in conception. But to see and hear Jordi Savall play is to believe that the entirety of the music is vocal in conception! The player must be ready to use a light, heavy or medium bow stroke according to the demands of the music. The melancholic music should be bowed lightly and evenly, while the left hand can use a tasteful amount of ‘tremolo’ to enhance the melancholy. Cheerful music requires the bow to animate the instrument and animate the music. You can only really see this adequately in live performance, close up! These pieces make you wonder for whom were the pieces written. Just who were the viola da gamba players and cellists capable of playing these pieces? Whoever the original dedicatees were, the performers must have been ones of great talent in order to do justice to this music.

Jordi Savall
CMT: You’re referring to the fact that every one of these pieces reveals big biomechanics issues, for the performer? These issues arise not only with the viola da gamba but basically with all other fretted stringed instruments that have more than four strings. Gambas and lutes and are tremendously delicate instruments. The bridge curvature on the gamba is pretty modest, and this makes it very difficult to apply bow pressure on a single string without touching off adjacent strings. Jordi is a phenomenal gymnast when it comes to expert bowmanship in the face of such risks. In the 16th Century, the necks of viols had very little backward tilt, making it necessary for the necks to be thick, to withstand the string tension. They were also narrow at the nut, bringing the strings very close together. There’s tremendous difficulty with chords and double-stops, especially for a player with a large hand or thick fingers, who would have difficulty in holding chords without overlapping other strings.

DSM: Compared to a modern cello, the absence of an endpin also makes the gamba awkward to play—hard to stabilize and hold between your gambas, I imagine. This physical precariousness of the gamba accentuates the delicacy of the sound, I think. For audience members who are in close proximity to the performer, the precariousness is visually captivating—somewhat in the way that we are captivated by watching a tight-rope walker—or a gymnast, as you put it. I was wondering in one of the Marais pieces whether Jordi had alternate-tuned one of the strings—scordatura? By the way, the fretted members of the string family, like the viola da gamba, came to be regarded as musical relics by the mid- to late-18th Century and were way out of fashion by the 19th Century, didn’t they?

CMT: Well, yes. The dark timbre and limited volume were the main reasons why, I suppose, given the acoustic demands of larger concert halls. Notably, the bright tone of gifted harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï achieved a volume perfect for balance between the instruments last night. Theorboist-guitarist Xavier Diaz delivered an exquisite offering as well. The full-to-capacity audience at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral responded enthusiastically—an appreciative standing ovation for the deeply moving and technically superb performance.

DSM: But the acoustical properties of the viola da gamba and theorbo and harpsichord still have consequences in terms of the economics of live performance then, don’t they? It’s unreasonable to program this Trio into a venue with an audience of more than a few hundred—with an unamplified sound so delicate as this Trio has. And, after all, how much can you charge per seat? So it’s hard for the presenter to gross more than $20,000 for this kind of program. Therefore, for the artists the financial viability of this delicate music really depends upon CD sales and paid digital downloads—to augment the proceeds from performance fees. And for the presenters, the financial viability of this delicate music really depends upon interested donors/patrons and upon grants from public-sector agencies, foundations, and commercial benefactors—to augment the proceeds from ticket sales/subscriptions.

CMT: You were speaking of ‘physical precariousness’ of the instrument earlier. I suppose a correlate of that is the ‘financial precariousness’ of the artform itself. Just as there is an appreciation of beauty created against all odds by artists like Jordi and Pierre and Xavier—the adversity and risk that their chosen instruments present to them—there’s also an appreciation of beauty and rarity—conservation of endangered early music and chamber music species against all odds, by chamber music presenters and other organizations around the globe. Attending concerts or supporting organizations that nurture these species in the Arts, don’t we participate in a kind of beauty that’s somewhat like observing a rare orchid?—contributing to habitat preservation for the spotted owl? Aren’t the gesture and its internal rewards a little like supporting Nature Conservancy?

Jordi Savall

Jordi Savall