Neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks, about whom I’ve recently written two posts (here and here), has been a public figure for decades now. He has given countless lectures and interviews, including one at my school in 2008, when I asked him about his book Musicophilia and other topics. Sacks was nervous at the start of that event, although he soon relaxed and performed splendidly. I subsequently wrote him a letter to thank him—and to ask for his thoughts about stage fright, which once afflicted and still fascinates me. Sacks responded with characteristic eloquence:
On the matter of “stage fright” I am somewhat ignorant, despite (or because) I suffer from it myself - perhaps less than I did, but nonetheless significantly. That is to say, I find my heart is racing a bit, my palms sweat, and my fingers and toes get icy. But within a minute or two of actually facing the audience, I (nearly always) feel different - and start to enjoy myself. Though people sometimes recommend beta-blockers (or do I mean alpha-blockers) for the anxiety and the autonomic effects, I have never taken these - partly because I feel that this sort of tension, unpleasant though it is, is (for me, at least) a prerequisite of performing well. I do, however, need to be alone, or with a supportive and congenial presence, for half an hour or so before any talk or “performance.” I can't bear moving straight from a social situation to a performance one. My sentiments are exactly those of (the younger) Bragg:
"A good lecture is a tour de force; a good lecturer should be keyed up to a high pitch of nervous tension before it and limp and exhausted after it . . . If a sensitive lecturer is to give of his best, he must be left in peace for a period before the lecture starts. It is the refinement of cruelty to expect him to be social."
And I find I need - as perhaps we all do - a strong basic structure, along with the freedom to improvise at any point.