Germany's stage fright clinic helps musicians get a grip

University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy in Bonn offers discreet treatment for affliction they believe affects half of all musicians.

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BERLIN // Stage fright is seemingly an epidemic among concert musicians, although few will admit it to their peers.

Flautists fear that their trembling lips will cause dissonances that make listeners wince; violinists are petrified that their shaking hands will make the bow bounce across the strings; bassoonists suffer dry mouths just when it's their turn to blow. One conductor is known to attach his baton to his wrist with a rubber band to stop it quivering.

The paralysing fear of hitting the wrong note on stage or in the orchestra pit can plague performers their whole lives, cause alcohol and drug dependency and thwart promising musicians whose talents would otherwise lead them on to illustrious careers.

Experts at the University Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy in the western German city of Bonn have decided to tackle the problem. They have set up the country's first stage fright centre, offering discreet treatment for an affliction that they believe affects half of all musicians.

Martin Landsberg, a psychologist who set up the centre, said: "We want to help musicians to break this vicious circle." Patients are told to write down the sources of their fear in an "angst diary" and are taught personalised relaxation exercises to lessen the symptoms of stage fright.

Dr Landsberg, an amateur musician who plays the horn, said: "The longer a musician has had the problem, the longer it will take them to control their stage fright."

The centre has treated 50 to 60 people since it was set up last year, including musicians from Britain, Austria and the Netherlands, and has had positive feedback. The treatment can last several weeks, depending on the severity of the symptoms.

Deirdre Mahkorn, a neurologist who co-founded the centre with Dr Landsberg, said: "Stage fright is a taboo subject, and colleagues don't discuss it among themselves. There has been strong interest in our new treatment centre as a result. The musicians are happy that their fear is being acknowledged."

Dr Mahkorn, who is a professionally trained singer and plays the piano, said musicians who had undergone treatment had gone on to win auditions and pass their entrance tests for music school.

Each patient has his or her personality and specific circumstances profiled and the centre uses that information to address the root causes of the individual's stage fright.

"It is always caused by thoughts such as disaster fantasies or self-fulfilling prophecies," Dr Mahkorn said. "We try to fathom the thoughts that create the symptoms of fear and then we tackle those thoughts and turn them round so that the patient can then sit in the orchestra and say to himself, 'Nothing is happening, those are just my thoughts doing this to me and in reality nothing bad can happen'."

The centre also simulates concerts to help musicians practise confronting their anxieties in realistic conditions.

There are no plans at present to expand the programme to treat actors. But Dr Mahkorn has some general advice for people suffering from nervous tension before a stressful situation, such as an exam or a job interview: "There's no panacea but it's important to keep the surroundings as constant as possible, which means having enough sleep, having enough to eat and not arriving at the last minute with one's heart racing."

The centre places much emphasis on preserving the anonymity of its patients. Appointments are co-ordinated to make sure that musicians who know each other do not run into each other at the clinic by accident.