Stage fright: Four Ways to Deal with Nervousness when Performing

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Stage fright is the fear of failure when performing. When we are talking about a performing artist it’s the fear of a public failure that all will see. It’s not only failing, but also having everyone see all your inadequacies. So, stage fright is more than just being a little nervous. Does everyone get nervous when getting up to play music or performing in public? Almost always the answer is yes. Even seasoned professionals get nervous before a performance. It’s the tightness in your jaw, throat or chest. Maybe you start to take shallow breaths, or sweat, or you become hot or cold. Your heart might beat faster.

stage fright when playing SaxophoneBut is being nervous really an all bad thing? Some say that a little bit of nervousness might be a good thing in order to keep you alert. It keeps you on your toes, and it means you care about doing a good job. However, stage fright is more than just being a little nervous. Instead, it is an overwhelming feeling like a phobia. It’s a feeling of panic. Unfortunately, it won’t enhance a performance. It causes you to freeze, to seize up, and to stumble mentally and physically. It might even cause you to avoid performing entirely. Stage fright is a debilitating fear for someone who needs or wants to perform music, and anyone who experiences it needs to find a way to cope.

“How do you deal with stage fright and nervousness?” I’ve heard questions like this asked many times by people attending masterclasses with respected artists. Answers will vary, and luckily there are a lot of techniques and strategies that work for performers. Maybe you’ve heard the one that says, “Imagine the audience are all in their underwear.” This advice is well known, but in case you need some more tips try these.

Be Prepared

Although you cannot be prepared for every eventuality, preparation is probably the most important thing in coping with stage fright. If you feel you are thoroughly prepared for a performance, you will be more at ease. On the other hand, nervousness can arise from lack of preparation. If you don’t know the performance material well, you will be more fearful of forgetting something or making mistakes. Study, practice, train, and internalize what you need to perform. Practice to the point that you can do it when you are distracted, stressed out, and nervous. Practice the difficult sections more until they become second nature.

Beyond that, being prepared means having experience. Ironically, this means having experience with failure too. Trying to perform something and having it go wrong is an opportunity to improve next time so you will be ready for the chance to do it better. For beginners, it’s good to start performing in situations that are not high stakes. You probably don’t want your first performance to be in front of thousands if it is your first time playing a violin solo or giving a speech. Basically, if you avoid performing because of fear, you won’t be prepared when the moment arrives. So take chances to perform and that will increase your poise and ability to deal with nervousness.

Focus

A small amount of nervousness might sharpen your focus, but being overly nervous will distract. Try not to let nervous energy sidetrack you from your task. Concentrate completely on what you need to do. Most problems in performance happen due to loss of concentration and flow.  One practical tip I’ve heard some public speakers (and singers) use is to focus on a specific thing in the room where you are performing. It could be a picture on the wall, a mark on the floor, or maybe that man’s coat in the corner. The idea is that this one place will give you a place to center yourself if you become distracted by nervousness or something happening in the audience. In many performance settings you should look at your audience and engage with them. Other times, it may help to close your eyes while performing. Nervousness can break your focus when you have an audience, but it’s necessary to keep the attention on the performance task. Don’t let your mind be concerned about what might happen in a certain part of the performance. Try not to worry about the difficult parts of what you are performing or the things you can’t control.

Try to Relax

Something that might lessen anxiety is to be aware that everyone makes mistakes and it’s natural to be afraid of messing up. Don’t stress out too much about it; try to relax. My experience playing an instrument has taught me that tension in my muscles and body hurts my performance. If I feel too much nervousness, I lose flexibility. I can’t perform what I could when I practiced in a low pressure environment where I was relaxed. If I am not calm enough I will not execute the difficult and fast parts of the music. Sometimes it’s frustrating because I could play these same difficult sections in my practice sessions.

So, what to do? Some performers try to chase away the jitters by joking around before going on stage while others stretch or do breathing exercises. Some need a quiet space to clear the mind almost like meditation. I try to shake my hands, stretch and take deep breaths. These techniques usually work to ease physical tension and calm the mind.

Have Confidence

If you are going to perform publically you have something to offer. You have some skill or knowledge to share. This should give you reassurance and purpose. There are always some things you can’t practice or prepare for and you need to trust that you can deal with these situations. If you can’t deal with a situation, don’t let it sink you. Move on. Move forward. Some audiences will not like what you offer no matter how well you perform. There are some things beyond your control. Gain experience through positive reinforcement from performance opportunities. Do some public readings. Perform in a group setting so the pressure is not solely on you. Confidence takes practice too. Everyone gets nervous, sometimes very nervous, but it often subsides when you start your performance and realize, “Oh yeah, I can do this.”

Finally, try watching a performer accomplish something that is technically demanding. Try watching an athlete perform in a high pressure situation. You likely won’t perceive nervousness or fear. Amazingly a display of great skill can look almost effortless. Certainly, this kind of effortless mastery in performance happens when someone is well prepared, focused, relaxed, and confident.

Please share your experience and advice dealing with stage fright.

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