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Student Blog: Performance Anxiety and Making the Stage a Second Home

SFCM’s student blogger Helen Wu on the homecoming experience of rehearsing, taking class, and performing in Barbro Osher Recital Hall—a newly-built performance venue at SFCM.

September 16, 2022 by Alex Heigl

No matter how well I prepare for a concert, I still feel intimidated before going onto stage from time to time. Something unknown can be sensed backstage. It’s especially so when being in a different city, different hall, and knowing in the center of the stage there stands a black-and-white “monster” that I’ve barely greeted.

One day, when the stage manager opened the stage door of Barbro Osher Recital Hall for me, that intimidation disappeared. Osher feels like home for me—a home where I wouldn’t worry too much about dirtying the floor, breaking a wine glass, or lying down in a strange posture. Of course, performance is not, and will never be, an easy task, but when the surroundings are familiar, the familiarity eventually soothes the anxiety. It might even become a sense of “daring,” like daring to dance at home without your eyes open even if you know the risk of bumping into a table.

I don’t recall how I felt when I took the elevator to the 11th floor of Bowes Center and saw the main lobby for the first time, just as I don’t recall what it was like when I slept on my own bed for the first night. Rehearsals, classes and concerts took place there every month, every week or even—during a residency week featuring guest artists—every day. Last year, Barbro Osher Recital Hall was a home for the Chamber Music Tuesdays concert series, where we as chamber music majors shared the stage with renowned artists and SFCM faculty members. The backstage was often crowded with people and instruments and filled with whispers and warm-up routines. I’ve long lost count of how many times I have been there over the past year, but for sure they have magically softened my anxiety in the course of time.

I’m now used to opening the heavy glass door to the hall, or going straight to the backstage without looking around with amazement, though I can still imagine what might have gone through my mind when standing at the window wall for the first time, facing the dome of City Hall, watching cars driving down Van Ness Avenue on the other side.

The Hamburg Steinway, staged in the center of the room and covered with a soft glow of sunlight, seems to blend into the skyline. I used to sit on the left side during the chamber class, which took place every Thursday afternoon, around sunset. I would lean on the column close to the window and feel the aura of the sunlight as it slowly warmed my hair. The dusk colors the music, while the music makes the light sing.

I love playing in the hall at night, when the window shields are no longer lowered against the sun. Every night City Hall changes color, and the first thing I do once getting there for warm-up is to check if it coincidentally matches my dress or headband. When I sit at the piano, on my left towards the back a crowd of small blurred red lights shimmer, as we’d see on a plane minutes before landing on a clear night. They’re just a visual accompaniment, one I would hardly notice as a performer or as an audience, but it amazes me when I go back to the recording of the concert and see the slowly moving glow, for a second not knowing if they are real.

If you happen to attend a concert or recital there in Osher on weekends, look out of the window during the intermission and see if there are a bunch of people with glasses of wine in their hands, standing on the balcony of the San Francisco Symphony hall across the road. If you’re lucky enough, they might wave back to you when you wave to them, an almost surreal but heartwarming experience. It’s inspiring to see people making a connection with each other through music, just as Osher, once foreign to me, now feels like home.