How to Deal With Stage Fright
This post in an excerpt from my hold-it-in-your-hands real book The Moderately Tortured Artist.
If you like the post and are intrigued about the book, you can go and check the rest of it out HERE.
Stage fright. The one thing all musicians collectively fear.
Standing in front of an audience, paralysed, hoping that someone will drag you off with one of those crooks that shepherds used back in ye old days.
Our friend stage fright is just a very specific form of anxiety, but is there a way to get rid of it entirely?
WHY STAGE FRIGHT CAN BE USEFUL
The funny thing is, even though it’s an uncomfortable feeling, in small doses it lends itself to HELPING our performances.
If you walked out on stage, not feeling nervous at all (in fact a little blasé) people aren’t going to get the best performance you can give. It could be TOO relaxed, lacking in oomph and perhaps a tad boring.
Stage fright (and the adrenalin pumping through us) gives a great boost of energy. It helps our performances have a certain buzz to them.
Being afraid also helps us feel vulnerable which in turn connects with people in your audience. It makes you human.
That doesn't mean that we don't need to find a way to harness this and use it to enhance our performance rather than ruin it.
WHAT IT FEELS LIKE WHEN IT'S NOT USEFUL
Let's talk about the physical elements of this fear: sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, shallow breaths, sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. Y’know, all that good stuff.
This is the body gearing up to either fight or run. Fight or flight mode my friend. It ramps up the cortisol and adrenalin in your body until you feel like you want to disappear faster than Road Runner.
That then causes our heart rate to sky rocket and our breath capacity seems to cut itself in half. We realise that we’re sweating, wonder if the amount of deodorant we put on is enough and notice that we’re also possibly shaking, experiencing dry mouth or we have a bizarre need to go to the bathroom despite going 10 minutes ago.
Any or all of these symptoms cause us to hit panic mode because “this isn’t meant to happen” and “I should be calm but all I want to do is hide in a closet until people forget I was meant to perform.”
So let’s get real. You’ll probably always get nervous before a performance.
Some nerves are good, it means you give a damn. Tonnes of nerves that overwhelm you not so much, but the worst thing you can do is to berate yourself for feeling that way.
What can you do to make friends with your stress levels?
How can we make the stress work for us to deliver an energised, exciting performance and not cause us to bomb?
One of the best tactics I’ve encountered is Dr Don Greene’s ‘Centering’ approach. This technique is a blend of his knowledge of athlete psychology and the ancient Japanese martial art of Aikido. It balances presence, visualisation, breathing and tension release and is incredibly useful for musicians.
I’m simplifying Dr Greene’s technique, but he has audio and video products that also help talk you through it.
Step 1: Choose a focal point.
Focus on a specific point in front of you, making sure it’s below eye level.
Step 2. Set an intention
Close your eyes and set an intention for your performance. Don’t use negative words like “don’t screw it up” and “to not miss that high note.” Always focus on what you DO want, not what you don’t.
One I love using with my students is “I’m going to be all in.”
Step 3. Lower the breath
This step is especially useful for singers because it primes the breath in exactly the right way for when we start. Breathe low, expanding the ribs slightly and lowering the breath towards the pelvis (or your centre).
Focus on the breath for a while, inhaling through the nose, exhaling through the mouth. Be mindful and try to stay present.
Step 4. Release body tension
Now use the breath to release tension in the body. All those stress hormones that are buzzing around tend to get us ready to fight or flee so our muscles are tense, ready for action (not for singing).
Inhale and notice where you’re holding tension. Is it in the jaw? Release the jaw as you exhale. Inhale, release the neck muscles on the exhale. Inhale, release the shoulders on the exhale. You get the gist.
Step 5. Get into your body
Bring your awareness to where your breath is moving into, just below the navel towards the pelvis. You’re breathing into your centre of gravity and in Chinese philosophy this is where your ch’i (or life-force) resides.
This helps you stay inside your body (not going crazy with negative thoughts in your monkey mind) and to centre yourself.
Step 6. Visualise success
Okay, I know you're going to roll your eyes at this, but hey it sure beats thinking about how you’re going to botch that riff later on, no?
Remind yourself what it feels and sounds like when you absolutely nail it in when you practice. How does your body feel when you are playing at your best? What do you want ideally from your performance?
Once you’ve spent some time really feeling into those sensations you want to recreate, open your eyes and return your gaze to the focal point you chose earlier.
Step 7. Use the energy for a present performance
Now that you’ve calmed the breath, released added tension and focused the mind, you should feel more prepared to meet the challenge of performing.
That’s all it is, a challenge. It’s not life or death. It won’t be the end of the world if you don’t perform perfectly (which we know isn’t a real thing anyway).
Accept the challenge, hold your intention tight and dive in.
You can’t beat stage fright completely, so you might as well play nice.
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