Stage fright is the bane of all performers – musicians, actors, lecturers, even professional athletes can all experience bouts of nervousness or even sheer terror before getting up in front of their respective audiences. The ability to get past stage fright (sometimes called “performance anxiety”), its causes, how to overcome it and climb up on stage to successfully perform have often been debated.
As a (mostly) amateur musician who has performed solo and with groups of various sizes for more than two decades, I will first offer my experiences before moving on to a more learned perspective.
I started playing the guitar at age 13 and continued with both 6- and 12-string versions of the instrument through high school, college and even during my military service – though I didn’t have much time to play as the Army kept me busy. I was then, and remain, largely self-taught – learning by observing other guitarists and picking up an occasional tip here and there. It wasn’t until I reached my early 30s that I got the impetus to start performing in front of an audience.
A few months before my 30th birthday, I moved to a new place where, by happenstance, the first group of people I met were all musicians. Up until then I didn’t consider myself a very strong a player; I played for my own enjoyment and that was it. But after considerable encouragement from several of my new friends, I started regularly performing at an open-mic night. It was here that I discovered stage fright, or at least my version of it.
Symptoms and Help
Many commonly reported symptoms of stage fright include increased heart rate, shortness of breath or hyperventilation, involuntary shaking/tremors, sweating, dry mouth and/or nausea. My symptoms were mild tremors in my hands, a faster heartbeat, and some sweating. They would hit me maybe half-an-hour or so before it was my turn to step up to the mic but would almost immediately cease as I started to play. Sometimes the symptoms weren’t too bad; other times my hands would shake noticeably. There didn’t seem to be rhyme nor reason to my stage fright.
Then two things happened that seemed to help. One was that an accomplished musician, someone who I really looked up to, told me the following (paraphrased): “You’re going to make mistakes – everybody does. Just don’t worry about it and keep playing. Most people probably won’t notice and if they do, who cares?” It may not seem like much, but it helped me a lot.
The second, and perhaps more important, thing that helped me get past stage fright was that I began to develop greater confidence in my playing. I began to practice more seriously and more frequently, and took up the mandolin, which demanded considerable practice! But as my confidence grew, I began to be less worried about mistakes and the stage fright diminished accordingly. In my case, it seemed that my fear of screwing up was what made me nervous.
Now that’s not to say that I don’t screw up on occasion, because we all do. And I would also be remiss in saying that I no longer experience stage fright – if I’m playing before a large crowd or sitting in with folks who are “better” (maybe “more renown” is a more accurate term) than I am, I still sometimes get butterflies. In my case, getting past stage fright meant developing the confidence to get past any mistakes I might make onstage. But what works for me may not work for someone else.
An Academic Perspective
I recently came across an interesting book which in fact prompted this article. Michael I. Goode is an orchestral trumpet player who holds an MA in Psychoneuromusicology; he has studied stage fright and published his findings in “Stage Fright in Music Performance and its Relationship to the Unconscious” (bibliographical info below).
Goode examines how various hormones affect the brain and nervous system – causing the symptoms associated with stage fright and disrupting the performer’s ability to focus on his or her artistry during practice and performance, using professional orchestral performers as the focus of his study. He offers case studies of three musicians who have experienced varying and disabling degrees of stage fright and one who has never had it.
In his chapter on “New Solutions to Stage Fright,” Goode states that “The majority of teaching methods for stage fright in instrumental music involve the repetitive instruction in the mechanical functions of the instrument, much like the teaching of multiplication tables to children in the lower grades … The theory here is that constant perfect repetition over time will increase the confidence to such a level that they will never make a mistake even under the most stressful of situations.” As the musician gains skill and experience, he or she begins to gradually transition from student to artist. To make this transition happen, Goode says “the performer must disregard any negative prior training, assumptions, and anxiety about what is to come up. He or she must simply focus on the music in a childlike [emphasis mine] manner, with total trust, sincerity, and lack of worry.”
The author posits that to beat stage fright, “The performer must feel safe … It is interesting to note that those who have stared from an early age performing with strong emotional encouragement from their parents tend to suffer less from the stage fright phenomenon as they progress in their artistic careers. This is because those individuals, through the example of their parents, began with the simple belief that not only was performing encouraged, but it was fun …”
Thus, parental approval and encouragement during a musician’s early years, according to Goode, can result in a performer’s lack of stage fright in his/her adult years. Conversely, he says, “… those aspiring performers who did not have the support and security of a positive background often suffer from stage fright and its related lack of confidence.”
Goode opines that simply studying and practicing will not eliminate stage fright. The performer must also “… spend time discovering and solving the personal blockages resulting from any inconsistent support for their musical career from parents during childhood years.” In his concluding chapter, Goode states, “If the performer with severe stage fright tries to follow traditional advice of simply more practice and performance, it becomes a hopeless situation. The more a performer with stage fright performs and in severe cases even practices, the worse the stage fright gets.”
Something to Think About
As mentioned, Goode based his studies and conclusions on working with professional orchestral musicians and goes into greater detail than I can describe here. But do they apply as well to those of us who are “making music” just for the fun of it? That’s certainly something to think about; his book is worth a read.
In the meantime, perhaps Robbie Robertson of The Band said it best, in his immortal song “Stage Fright”:
See the man with the Stage Fright
Just standin’ up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again.
[Feature photo credit: Ed Balduzzi; photo taken at the Westcott Theater, Syracuse, NY.]
[Note: Information in this article is drawn from the author’s own experiences as a performing musician, as well as from the book “Stage Fright in Music Performance and Its Relationship to the Unconscious,” 2nd Edition, written by Michael I. Goode and published by Trumpetworks Press, Oak Park, Ill. in 2003.]