You get nervous whenever you have to play live. Whether audition or performance, you get the jitters. Having stage fright so badly that it keeps you off-stage happens to the most accomplished musicians. If that’s you, you have Vladimir Horowitz, Pablo Casals and Frederic Chopin for company. They had to work through their stage fright and you can, too. So our first tip for overcoming stage fright:
Understand it’s a real thing. Don’t knock yourself, thinking you should just get over it. The folks at WebMD say the formal term is “performance anxiety,” and it can manifest though hyper-ventilation, dry mouth, trembling or nausea, among other symptoms. So start by giving yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling, with the added boost that you’re taking control by taking steps to work through it.
Performance anxiety has two main aspects: the mental and physical changes that interfere with your ability to play your best. Let’s break them down.
Managing the physical manifestations of stage fright
- Settle down and control your breathing. If you’re breathing reactively, rather than taking deep, calm deliberate breaths, your body and brain are too anxious to focus on anything else. Anxiety triggers shortness of breath because your “fight or flight” instinct has been triggered. Learn some breath relaxation techniques. Practicing a breath exercise for a few minutes each day can help you relax generally. Daily practice will also prepare you to use your favorite technique to calm you down and get centered right before a performance or audition.
- Get enough sleep. Whatever is the amount of sleep you need to be fresh and focused the next day – get it. Ideally, don’t shift your sleep patterns, but stick to the same sleep schedule. Changes in your sleep time and duration have the greatest negative impact on your ability to function. And remember – you don’t “catch up” on sleep by sleeping for 12 hours the night after you only had 4 hours of sleep. Our bodies don’t work that way.
- Figure out what you can eat and drink before a performance that doesn’t trigger worries about feeling nauseous from nerves, having to use the restroom, or foods that make you feel sluggish.
Alright – the really hard work – managing the mental aspects of stage fright
- Our first tip is so important, it bears repeating here: Pro-actively taking control to manage your stage fright is an incredibly powerful mental tool. Anxiety is often a feeling of loss of control. When you remind yourself of the steps you’re taking to get back in control – that alone is an effective confidence builder.
- Part of taking control and being pro-active is sticking to your practice schedule and making each practice effective. If you are only going through the motions during practices, then you can’t expect to do more during your performance. Don’t avoid the tough passages or just focus on your favorite ones. You can’t lie to yourself about whether you’ve practiced enough and done all you can to prepare for the performance. So whatever your anxiety level before your performance, it’s tied directly to how well-prepared you feel.
- Understand that the audience is your friend. It may not feel like it, especially if the performance is an audition. But audience and judge alike – they want to be wowed. They want to enjoy your performance. If you find it helps, find a friendly face in the audience to focus on.
- Practice visualization techniques, like this 7-step process here. The science on the positive impact visualization has for performing artists and professional athletes is well documented. However, don’t just visualize an extraordinary performance (although that is part of it). An important part of visualization is preparing your response if something doesn’t go exactly as you’d wish. Remember, anxiety is not knowing. When you feel prepared to handle bad situations, the potential that it may happen is less scary.
Having some stage fright isn’t necessarily a bad thing - it means you care. You care about your craft and whether you’ll connect with your audience. Don’t worry about eliminating pre-performance jitters; they’re actually a good sign. The key is to channel your energy in positive ways.