I’m a journalist, a mother, a gardener, a voracious reader, a hiker, and a really good cook. I’m also a classical pianist. For most of my adult life, virtually no one — not even my closest friends — knew I played the piano. And that was how I wanted it. Playing the piano had once defined me, but so, too, had my stage fright.
I was the kind of pianist who played well when there was nothing at stake: in my parents’ house, at my lesson, behind closed doors. But put me in front of an audience and my hands would ice over while some invisible spigot let loose a burst of sweat that soaked my palms and fingers. When I quit at nineteen, my parents protested that I was giving up the best part of myself. You’ll go back to it one day, they predicted.
When I finally did, more than thirty years had passed. Word got around; my husband bragged about it at the office, and one winter evening in 2011, I found myself at a cheery holiday party, being exhorted to play something, anything, on the host’s baby grand. I demurred. The host insisted. I declined. The other guests cajoled. I said no. After opening the piano bench, the host pulled out a book of Bach inventions. How about this, he said. Yes, yes, play that, the others chanted. Jump! Jump! was what I heard. In that moment, I realized nothing had changed. I was fifty-six years old and my stage fright was as fearsome and powerful as when I was fourteen — maybe more so.
Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright (published: Bloomsbury 2015) chronicles my yearlong journey to understand and overcome a lifetime of performance anxiety, beginning with a childhood full of disastrous performances and ending with an hour-long concert the day before my 60th birthday.
Along the way, I talk to famous athletes, tightrope walkers, preachers, actors and just regular folks who find it hard to stand up and speak in front of a group.