Many music makers have something in common, other than their love of playing—performance anxiety, otherwise known as stage fright. An intense desire to share music with others draws people to the stage, yet whether you carry a bow, drumstick, or sax, dancing butterflies can still unnerve the most seasoned performer.
No amount of talent or performance experience guarantees that stage fright will go away for good. For some, just playing with friends is enough to cause discomfort. Even the world’s top performers are susceptible. The most famous example might be Barbra Streisand, who couldn’t perform for more than two decades because of stage fright.
Still, stress, nerves, and adrenaline can be helpful. They keep us alert, heighten our senses and our reflexes, and ensure we try our best. However, too much stress can impede performance.
One way it does this is by causing a musician to “overthink.” A key element in mastering an instrument is repetition. Through the repetitive tasks of practice, musicians condition their minds and bodies in specific ways. Many aspects of performance —holding a pick, working foot pedals, or positioning a bow—are the result of instinct as much as conscious thought.
Playing in your living room or in a friend’s garage are very low-stress situations and in those settings, musicians don’t think about techniques that have become instinctual. It is only when musicians get in front of a crowd—even a very small and friendly crowd—that self-consciousness strikes. Stage fright can result in a musician overthinking his or her technique for fear of making a mistake.
If too much mental energy is exerted on every detail, musicians may override the subconscious programming they depend on in order to play their best. You may have seen this happen in another arena. When a tennis player gets nervous at a big match, the most basic tasks, such as the serve, can be quickly lost.
How do you fight the fright? Forget drug prescriptions, hypnosis, or a shrink’s couch. There are plenty of natural techniques you can do at home to alleviate performance anxiety. And if all else fails, you can always fall back on the old public speaker’s trick—picture the crowd in their underwear!
5 Ways to Overcome Stage Fright
Think Positively—As simple as this tip sounds, it works. When you become nervous before a performance, remind yourself of the talent you possess. Reflect on memories that make you happy, including previous performances. Imagine an excited audience ready to applaud your skills and remind yourself that they aren’t there to count the number of mistakes you make. By taking comfort in positive thoughts, you’ll gain confidence to aid you on stage.
Don’t Dwell—It’s one thing to focus on everything that is going right, but all too often performers allow wayward negative thoughts and needless worries to plague their mind and performance. If you make a mistake, don’t dwell on it. Your frustration may cause you to make more errors, leading to greater stress. Also, while on stage, don’t preoccupy yourself with outside stresses. If something in your life is pressing, try to take care of it prior to the performance.
Prepare Properly—Routine creates familiarity and familiarity brings comfort. So, establish rituals that put you at ease before you go on stage, and that make you feel comfortable, whether they include a slow-breathing exercise, mingling with audience members, or taking a walk. Proper preparation also includes plenty of practice, getting enough sleep, and staying healthy in order to have the energy for a successful performance.
Go to the Tape—Another way to prepare for a performance is to tape yourself. Aside from being a great practice tool and one of the best ways to judge your progress, the act of taping might make you nervous enough to realize what areas of technique might fail in a performance: Do you lose your grip on your drumsticks? Do you lose the ability to play altissimo? Once you have identified problem areas, try to find solutions or devote extra time to them in practice.
Start Small—If you’re lucky enough to
have been asked to perform for a large audience, and especially if you’re new to performing, nerves will be inevitable. Dip your toes into the water by playing at small, friendly venues first, such as an open mike night at a coffee shop or as a guest player in a larger group.