Lesson 65: Stage Fright

Some of my students and many professional musicians and hobbyists that I know, experience a lot of stress, anxiety and general nervousness prior to, and during music performance.

This short post will examine  a few strategies that I have used over the years to help me work with stage fright and performance anxiety.  Sometimes, when you least expect it, you get nervous, while other times you feel like your hanging out with good friends in a relaxed environment – eventually you can be comfortable with either.

Things to think about:

1. Be prepared musically.  This is the most important issue – practice the material, memorise it if appropriate, work on it until you can play it correctly over and over with very little effort.  If you suffer badly from stage fright than include rehearsing the stage banter you will use during the performance; write it out, memorise it, and practice performing it.  These two things will not ensure you will play perfectly, but they will increase your odds tremendously if and when your attention becomes taxed or divided.  Being nervous is fine as long as it does not keep you from playing well and enjoying the experience.

2. Practice feeling nervous.  I learned this simple trick from a great book on playing under stressful conditions, “Performance Success” by Don Greene.  Basically, seconds before you work on something you will perform, get your heart rate way up by doing  a long set of fast jumping jacks, berpees,  jump squats or mountain climbers , then immediately play the piece or improvisation on your instrument.  This does a great job emulating the effects of adrenalin (the fight or flight bio-chemical that makes us feel so nervous).   This exercise will help you get used to the feeling of “nerves” and help you learn to focus extra energy into awareness and concentration instead of fear. You will begin to realise that even when your heart is racing, you can still play and improvise well and that the increased heart rate might actually elevate your technique and emotional content.  After doing this many times, the effects of adrenaline will feel less unusual and much more like a normal state of performance.

3. Research stage fright and performance anxiety.   Here are some of the books I have read and recommend, “Performance Success“, by Don Greene, “Stage Fright” by Kato Havas, ” The Inner Game of Muisc” by Barry Green,  “On Piano Playing” by Abby Whiteside, “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner, “Zen Mind Beginners Mind” by D.T. Suzuki.  All these books and countless others can give you the gems of wisdom that will slowly, over time, begin to eliminate your fear and performance anxiety.  Eventually you recognise the nerves as good energy that will help to heighten your awareness and concentration.

4. Deep Breath.  Slow, deep breathing will clam you and even out your energy and focus.  One simple way is to breath deep, tense up all your muscles and hold them as tight as possible for about 10 seconds than let go and start to breath  in and out to a slow count of 10  – about 10 seconds in and 10 seconds out.  While breathing and counting, relax and observe muscle tension.  Doing this up until the first note of performance will go along way towards creating a calm, focused state of  mind and body.

5. Shift your focus from yourself to those around you.  While preparing to play, focus on others; the audience, friends, family, the rest of the musicians performing with you.  While actually playing, listen to the other musicians more than yourself, be aware of the audience, look at them, make some eye contact. .. it may be difficult and uncomfortable at first but practice it each time you perform and you’ll get better at it – more comfortable and more relaxed.  If you can maintain slow deep breathing while doing this, all the better.

6. Take on an open (non defensive) posture.  Deliberately keep your arms open (not crossed), your back straight, your chin up, your legs open (not crossed), in other words, take on open postures.  Open postures will help tell your mind and body that “all is well” and that there is no danger, nothing to fear.  Over time, this will help you accept the nervous energy as a “positive” experience and as completely “normal”.   Your posture may feel forced but if you stick with it, over time, it will become natural.  Copying the postures of performers you admire can be a short cut to finding a higher comfort level on stage.

7. Take a class on public speaking or acting.  A inexpensive class at a community college can be more challenging and helpful towards overcoming performance anxiety than playing an instrument on stage.  If you take a few classed on public speaking, or acting, playing music will become much easier and your comfort on stage will increase immensely.  There is also the option of joining an inexpensive speech club like Toast Masters.

I’ve also found some useful information in the videos below.  Just watching through them in the days leading up to an important gig can help you prepare for a relaxing performance.

~ Enjoy!


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