“Stage Fright”, as we often call it, is the bane of many a performer, both amateur and professional. Although some won’t admit it, a majority of performing musicians experience some form of it, from mild jitters to debilitating fear. When it’s mild, the feeling of increased adrenalin can actually help us perform well. When it’s profound, we can’t perform at all. When it’s moderate, it may make us play too fast, play inaccurately, or just not enjoy ourselves while performing.

I’ve heard budding musicians say they don’t think they are qualified to perform until they get past their feeling of nervousness or insecurity. In that case, they’ll probably never perform! It’s normal to feel some jitters before or during a performance. If you suffer from stage fright, you’re in good company.

Interestingly, very few music teachers address this issue with their students. It’s always a surprise to hear people ask about it as though it were a brand new subject. In actuality, it’s as old as the human race.

What exactly is the cause of performance anxiety? What has traditionally been done about it? What are the current and most effective ways to understand and handle it? Let’s look at each of these questions.

 The Cause

The strangest thing about stage fright is that it has no logical basis. Being anxious actually creates the situation we fear. The shaking hands can cause mistakes. The sweaty palms can make strings and keys slippery. The breathless feeling and distracted state of mind prevent focus.

So what is it that actually causes such a lack of confidence? Here’s a checklist. Before reading on, check off only what’s true for you.

I’m not confident because…

__ I haven’t practiced enough.

__ Someone said this should be scary.

__ I might make a fool of myself.

__ I’m not qualified to do this.

__ The music is too difficult for me.

__ The audience is too large.

As you can see, there are a number of reasons we can develop fear. But only a few of them are valid: if you haven’t practiced enough or the music is too difficult, those are real and can be easily fixed. All the other reasons are stabs in the dark to explain our anxiety, and probably none are true.

For instance, a large audience is no different from a small one. You’re playing for individuals  –  the same as if you were playing for one person. And by whose standards are you not qualified? And by whose judgment will you make a fool of yourself? And what authority told you it should be scary?

Actually, anxiety pops up unbidden in response to putting ourselves in situations where we feel under pressure to do what we assume is the impossible. How many times have you seen a performance that was so amazing that you had no idea how it was humanly possible and the performer must be superhuman? That’s why we call them “idols”.  But the fact is, they are human. Many have stage fright. Some make mistakes. But they excel because they refuse to let their fears run their lives.

Another factor: performance anxiety seems to crop up when we perceive we are committed to doing something that we think is at the apex of our ability. But our apex is merely what we think it is, and it may not really be the limit of our ability. (For instance, public speaking is notoriously nerve-wracking for many. But as a performing musician, public speaking is easy for me. It’s the playing of complex, difficult music that scares me  –  that’s my perceived apex  –  even though I’m a professional )

The obvious fix for this is to purposely do, and do often, things that are way above your confidence level, way beyond what you thought you could ever do (with plenty of practice, of course). If you’re scared to play for twenty people, play first for 300. If you’re scared to play two pieces of music for an audience, play six pieces.  If you are scared to play at a nursing home, play first for a wedding. Everything else will be a piece of cake for you after that.

Another way to get past stage fright is to play in public as often as possible, and is as many different situations as possible.

By the way, I think many an amateur musician doesn’t realize just how confident you need to be with a piece of music before it’s performance-ready.  If you can’t play it without feeling like it’s playing itself, you probably can’t play it on a stage.  It should be as automatic as tying your shoes. That requires a lot of practice. Don’t underestimate this!

Additional advice:

  • Release the idea of “performance” and play the music for its own sake. Show us how beautiful it is, not how good you are.
  • Know that the audience is on your side. They are there to enjoy themselves, not to judge you. If someone is judging you, that’s their problem, not yours.

There are a few people for whom experience and practice are not enough. For them, even over a lifetime of continuous performances, stage fright may actually increase. In such cases the usual logic and the usual advice aren’t very helpful, because for them there are other causative factors. Some are physical.

For instance, for those with head or inner-ear injuries or balance problems, there’s an explanation. My ENT doctor explained that the part of the brain that regulates the fear response is located next to the balance response, so it’s common for the signals to get mixed. Such people can experience unexplained anxiety in many kinds of situations, and anxiety issues increase if the balance problem worsens.  In such cases, amazingly enough, balance therapy with a qualified physical therapist can be helpful.

New Approaches

The best news is that new research has turned up some great fixes for stage fright.  First, I highly recommend this book: https://www.stagefright.com/the-stage-fright-cure-book/  by Marti McEwan. She leads excellent workshops as well.

Certain body postures have been shown to increase confidence. Some postures actually cause a release of testosterone in the body. (Women, that’s OK. We all have, and need, some testosterone.) It is the “confidence hormone”. Other postures tend to release endorphins (positive brain chemicals) that relax us.

I’m not talking about “correct” posture or anything uncomfortable! So don’t go all military. Here are a few of the postures recommended:

Before a performance:

  • Avoid any posture that makes you look or feel smaller.
  • Relax your shoulders, hold your head high, and raise your sternum comfortably.
  • Stretch out your arms like you’re embracing the universe, and hold that pose for a minute.
  • Arms akimbo: like the Jolly Green Giant. Hold it for a few minutes while imagining or actually observing the audience from an unobtrusive place.

More next time….