Fight or Flight

arts-2 sara-solovichSanta Cruz author Sara Solovitch on overcoming stage fright in ‘Playing Scared’

Does the thought of giving a speech make you nauseous? Do you tend to miss shots in clutch time? Welcome to the agonizing world of performance anxiety. It plays out everywhere we feel the eyes (or judgment) of others upon us.

Journalist and classical pianist Sara Solovitch knows the feeling. After years of managing her stage fright through avoidance, the Santa Cruz author became determined to get past it in time to perform a piano concert on her 60th birthday.

In her memoir, Playing Scared, she takes us on a year-long journey to overcome a lifetime of fear. Along the way, she talks to athletes, performers, psychologists, and kindred spirits, who help her understand that focusing on connection instead of perfection is the key to the spotlight. We talked recently about life, love, and sweaty palms.

How did you fall in love with the piano?

Sara Solovitch: I come from a family that valued music more than anything else. My aunt, who was a great pianist, bought me my first piano when I was 7 years old. Even though we lived in a small town in southern Ontario, everyone took piano lessons. Locals would fill the recital hall just to see how the kids were doing.

When did your stage fright set in?

I’m not sure exactly, but at about 13, I started crashing at recitals. My hands would sweat, my heart would pound, and I could barely see the music. My mother was horrified that I couldn’t maintain my composure and play the way she heard me play at home, but I couldn’t help it. I became known for it.

Did that make you stop performing?

Not right away. At 14 or 15, I played in a higher-level competition in a bigger town and got second place. Everybody in the hall gasped, and the adjudicator, who was from the Eastman School of Music, had to explain why he gave it to me. A couple of years later, we moved to upstate New York and I attended Eastman on the weekends, but I stopped competing. Then I went to college, got into journalism, and didn’t really play anymore. But my aunt bought me an upright piano for college graduation, and it became a source of hidden strength. I schlepped it with me everywhere.

How did you get back into playing?

Flash forward 30 years to Santa Cruz. My youngest son, who was turning into a great saxophone player, wanted me to accompany him. He was 13 and I knew he wasn’t going to keep asking me to do things with him much longer, so I started to play and became absorbed. Suddenly, I was practicing two or three hours a day, more than I had as a teenager, but I still couldn’t play for people.

What made you decide to write about it?

My husband told people at work that I’d gotten back into the piano. We went to a Christmas party and everyone started saying, ‘play, play, play,’ but what I heard was, ‘jump, jump, jump.’ I’m not driven by fear in other areas of my life, but my stage fright actually felt worse than it had before. I talked to a friend about it, my husband, too, and they said I should write a book.

Was writing the book part of trying to get past your fear of performing?

Definitely. I’m a writer. Telling my story, telling any story, is really important to me. I had to express it, otherwise I would keep running from it.

What helped?

I found a wonderful teacher. Something I did with her, and it became a regular outing to play at the San Jose airport, where there’s a grand piano in terminal B right outside the baggage claim. It was there for anyone to play, and it was liberating because people were just walking by, talking on cell phones, going about their business.

What larger issues opened up as you were writing the book?

I kept hearing something my father used to say: “If you want to understand something about yourself, try to change it.” Trying to change my fear around this meant tackling something deep within. I didn’t want to die with it, and that made all the difference.

Info: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 18, Bookshop Santa Cruz, free. PHOTO: ‘Playing Scared’ author Sara Solovitch played piano in the San Jose airport to help overcome her stage fright.


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