Beder’s “Composed” Sheds Light on Stage Fright


Rick Yu, Photo editor

Director John Beder leads a panel of Conservatory faculty at the Apollo Theatre Wednesday night after screening his film Composed. Discussion revolved around the film’s exploration of performance anxiety in professional musicians, hoping to shed light on a little-discussed area of the music world.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

Composed, a new documentary by John Beder, features interviews with professional musicians exploring their experiences with being affected by and coping with performance anxiety. The film had a screening at the Apollo Theatre on Wednesday night, followed by a panel discussion with Beder and Conservatory faculty members.

Although musicians may be reluctant to discuss performance anxiety, the film emphasizes that it is a very common phenomenon.

“With the documentary, I am hoping that people will understand that they are not alone,” Beder told the Review. “I think most musicians who feel any amount of performance anxiety or stage fright initially feel isolated, like there’s something wrong with them. … If you meet someone who has never gotten nervous — they are the weird one.”

Conservatory Viola professor Peter Slowick, who appeared in both the film and discussion panel, agreed.

“Do you know musicians that don’t struggle with performance anxiety?” Slowick asked the Review. “That’s the point of the movie. They say that something like 93 percent of musicians self-report having some difficulty with it. It’s hard to get 93 percent of people to agree about anything — I think even head lice polls at about nine percent.”

In fact, this anxiety statistic may be even higher than Beder says; the 2015 Musicians’ Health Survey found that 98 percent of performers reported at least some degree of performance anxiety, though numbers like these rarely enter the public consciousness.

Beder’s inspiration for the documentary came from a discussion about musicians taking beta blocker pills, which are generally used to treat hypertension and cardiac episodes. Many musicians use them because of their effects on the physical symptoms of performance anxiety such as a racing heart, shaking muscles and sweaty palms.

“I was having a conversation with an old friend … we discussed how strange it was that we as musicians know about beta blockers but we don’t really talk about them so much,” Beder said. The film found that at least 72 percent of professional musicians have at least tried beta blockers. “So why don’t we talk about this, if so many of us have tried it or heard about it?” he asked. “Why wouldn’t this be a major part of discussing what it means to be a performer?”

Though the film includes a nuanced discussion about the relative merits, drawbacks, necessities and dangers of musicians taking beta blockers, Beder expanded the scope of the film to explore performance anxiety more generally after speaking with professional musicians.

“[After that conversation] I started hearing not only about beta blockers but musicians talking about things like using meditation and mindfulness techniques, people undergoing physical activities to calm themselves or train themselves,” he said.

Conservatory Associate Dean for Academic Support Chris Jenkins was enthusiastic to bring this film to campus to facilitate discussion about anxiety and stress among musicians.

“Stigma around performance anxiety is a really big issue,” Jenkins said. “A lot of musicians think that everyone else has it all figured out. It looks like you are the only one who has an issue with this, but in reality it’s so common among musicians. … We don’t always talk about how debilitating it is. So hopefully this [film] will help students become aware of how frequent this phenomenon is and be able to talk with one another about it, and feel free to talk with their teachers about it too.”

In the film, Slowick speaks about his experience with stage fright. For instance, he described how he developed “Superman ears” so that although he heard a mistake in his playing, nobody else in the room heard. For Slowick, this anxiety is a result of the raw nature of musical performance.

“When you perform, you’re really putting your barest self out there,” he said. “You’re putting out your soul. You’re playing or singing, and you hope that people like you … it’s a very personal thing.”

A significant portion of the documentary focuses on what conservatories around the world could be doing to better prepare their students for auditions and performance.

“We talk about … music education and the institutes and organizations that are producing musicians, and some of the ways that they can improve the training so that when [musicians] graduate, they’re not just technicians and talented musicians, but they also have a grasp on the mental side of performance,” Beder said.

A large part of musical education at Oberlin focuses on preparing students to be confident in performance.

“A lot of performance anxiety is justified,” Slowick said. “So we try to prepare people in such a way that they don’t have any reason to be scared of performances. … Performance is sort of a lab situation for our students. It’s really something that undergirds everything we do in the Conservatory. It’s not talked about in every lesson, but it’s dealt with in every lesson.”

Jenkins has made health and wellness a focus of his tenure as associate dean.

“Part of what I’m doing in the Conservatory is presenting … wellness workshops, which focuses on improving mental and physical health as well as social health in the community,” he said. “As part of that, I wanted to be involved in the presentation of Composed, because I think it should play a role in an important discussion about anxiety and stress among musicians.”

Oberlin’s commitment to having these difficult discussions became clear to Beder in his interactions with the College throughout the process of creating the film.

“When we first started approaching schools about a film that deals with performance anxiety — and in some ways points a finger towards conservatories as maybe not having enough resources — there were two schools who responded immediately and said ‘We want to screen this, tell us the details, we want to figure this out,’” Beder said. “It was New England Conservatory and Oberlin.”

The destigmatization of anxiety and the facilitation of discussions is important to many, and not just Conservatory students.

“We feel that it’s for everyone — and not just musicians, too,” Beder said. “There’s anxiety in daily life for everyone, I think.”

“Stories matter,” Slowick said. “There are a lot of people that are having anxiety these days, and the way to move past anxiety and into functional performance is always communication. By hearing a lot of artists’ stories about the struggle they have with themselves, perhaps it will support or kindle conversations that we can have with other people and allow us to meet them in a way that’s meaningful.”