My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Dealing with stage-fright by taking a cue from your audience

Photo by Andrew Brown, from Wikipedia Commons


We all know about stage-fright. It's that tight knot in your stomach, the sweaty palms, the frigid hands and fingers, the constant sense that you need to go to the bathroom, the incessant yawns, the trembling hands, that makes it clear that the anxiety monster is comfortably perched on your shoulder. Stage-fright can be overwhelmingly omnipresent, filling up your mind and soul so much that there is no room for what the audience has come to experience. Stage-fright can make all of your hours of hard work seem like a waste of time.

So what can we do? How can we flick that ugly little guy off our shoulder?

Before I walk out onto the stage I ask myself the following two questions:

What is the worst thing that could possibly happen?
Why are the audience members here? What do they want from this experience?

To answer these questions, I routinely have a conversation with myself. Essentially the same from one performance to another, it's something that I've worked out in the past few years as I've gotten back into performing more. This internal dialogue is between the eternal optimist side of myself and the worrywart side. If you're reading this post, my guess is that you are familiar with these two personalities.  Here's how it goes...

Eternal optimist: So, what are you so nervous about this time?
Worrywart: I'm worried that I'm going to make a mistake...a big mistake.
Eternal optimist: Ah, that's original. Well of course you're going to make a mistake. It's virtually, and possibly even impossible to deliver a perfect performance. So yes, you are going to make a mistake. You may even make several. So what?
Worrywart: Well, so I'm worried that then people are going to think less of me. And I've worked so hard for this recital. I want them to see that. If I do make a mistake, I want them to know that I know I've made a mistake and am mad at myself about that. 
Eternal optimist: Hmmm...that's interesting.  You have worked really hard which means you're also very ready to deliver this performance.  But when the inevitable mistake occurs and you choose to show them that by your contorted facial expressions, do you really think they're going to disrupt their listening to think back to the mistake you made seconds ago?  Do you really think they are going to care? And more importantly, do you think they even noticed that mistake in the first place? 
Worrywart: Hmmmm...well, if they know the music well they would probably know that I made a mistake. 
Eternal optimist: OK, that's possibly true for literally a couple people in the audience but that means they are musicians too and know that mistakes here and there are inevitable.  So what's the problem?  Here's another question - why are these people in the audience?
Worrywart: Well, my teacher is here because he has to be. Same with my friends and family. But the others are here because they enjoy listening and watching music being played. Maybe some of them want to escape from life for a while. And some folks might just be kind of bored and want something to do. 
Eternal optimist: So in other words, they haven't come to see if you can deliver a note-perfect performance?
Worrywart: I guess not. I guess they are just here to enjoy some good music and to be supportive of me.
Eternal optimist: And why are you here? Why are you a musician?
Worrywart: I'm here because I have to be here. But also because I love this music. I love to share it with other people and to allow others to get to know me through my music-making.
Eternal optimist: That's great! So you want to share great music and give the audience a glimpse of who you are; the audience wants to hear great music and learn more about you through your music-making. Where do mistakes fit into this grand scheme of things?
Worrywart: I guess nowhere, really. Unless I make it an issue.
Eternal optimist: Exactly. Don't make it an issue. You are going to make a mistake or two but treat those mistakes as the majority of the audience will - with no thought at all. Move on...keep listening to the wonderful music...keep enjoying the music...keep playing the music. Don't look back because that's not what the audience is doing.
Worrywart: Hmmm...OK, I think I can do that. Thanks!

I make a tradition of going through conversations such as this one before any performance of mine, usually in the moments right before I go out on the stage. And sometimes, if mistakes are a-plenty in a given performance, I revisit the conversation while I'm actually performing. It's well-worth the time and can turn performing into an enjoyable, fulfilling experience rather than a frightful, discouraging one.

Happy Conversing with yourself!  And more importantly, Happy Performing!!


  1. While this is pertinent and would help to diminish the fear , I have found that most people with really bad(trembling) stage fright don't even know why they are afraid. It has crossed the rational line for them and entered the scary plane of the irrational. For such people , a better option is continuous exposure to small public performances - Chamber Music where they play more of an accompaniment role, playing the organ in Church, accompanying young singers, that sort of thing.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Andrew.

    I completely agree with you, that putting oneself in lots of small performance situations can be extraordinarily helpful in dealing with fear and anxiety. Doing that also increases the amount of music being given to the world around us and perhaps helps us to see a bigger picture when it comes to music-making.

    I also agree that for many with really serious anxiety, they don't even know why they have the anxiety in the first place. However, speaking as one that has been through cognitive therapy for anxiety issues unrelated to music, I think one of the humongous advantages of this approach is that it forces one to stop and really figure out what mental processes are that are behind the scenes but that build up so much that they lead to unbearable anxiety. Almost 100% of the time those fears that we uproot through such questioning are clearly false assumptions. When brought to the surface, it's then much easier to see the fears for what they are and then to move on from there. That's at least my experience with anxiety.

    But yes. By all means, for those with anxiety issues, play on, play on!
    Thanks again for your insightful comment.