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Screenshot of Marlene Dietrich from the traile...

Marlene Dietrich in Alfred Hitchcocks "Stage Fright" ~ Image via Wikipedia

Most people who perform, whether it be in sports, public speaking, or music, are familiar with what it feels like to be nervous.  Performers in general believe that without any nerves at all, the results are boring.

I have certainly been there.  In sixth grade, standing in front of the class to give a book report, I blacked out and became very dizzy.  I told the teacher, who said I could sit down.

During sophomore year in college, I sang a voice jury.  The first song was called “Old Woman Rain.”  I forgot every word after the title!

And when I began commuting from Amherst to New York to study with Martin Katz, my hands shook during lessons for an entire year.

Increased many fold, nerves become debilitating.  In that case, they turn into stage fright.  A performer can be so affected by stage fright that s/he grows dizzy, forgets everything, loses focus, and feels completely out of control.

There are many things one can do to overcome stage fright.

These are all things that have worked for me:

Learn the music very well.

Control your breathing ~ count 4 in, 4 out.  The counts should be slow enough to allow for a complete breath.

Repeat a mantra.

Eat before you perform ~ healthy food, no sugar, not much caffeine.  (In other words, don’t skip breakfast or lunch, and at least have a snack before an evening performance.)

Wake up and go to sleep on a regular schedule.

Exercise.  You don’t have to be super human ~ take an energetic walk!

Running works extremely well.  I began running six months before playing a Messiaen recital, solely for the purpose of improving my concentration.

Make a list of positive things people have said about your performing.  Tape it inside the front cover of your music, then read it just before going on.

Choose a place to look ~ if you’re a singer, talk to your teacher about this.

Look like you mean it ~ head up!  (Don’t look at the floor!)

Project confidence.

Walk with purpose.

Take your time before starting ~ be grounded first.

Focus on communicating with the audience.

Play for friends.

Then invite some people you don’t know to join the group.

Practice with a variety of distractions.

Perform as often as possible.  Extended care facilities, schools, and churches all provide valuable experience.  I’m sure you can think of more.

Wear clothing that breathes, and realize that stage lights are hot.

Practice your entire program in your concert clothes, shoes included, hairdo, everything.  If that slip doesn’t work or your hair falls, you don’t want to find out during the concert.

Practice your entrance, bows before and after, and exit.  If you will be standing between groups to bow, practice how you’re going to do that.

Will you be speaking to the audience?  Practice that!  Will you be using a microphone?  Check it out.  Will someone hand it to you?  Do you need to remove it from a stand?  What happens to it when you’re done?

Ask a friend or two to sit in the front, middle, and back of the hall.

Focus backstage on channeling your energy into the music.  Don’t dissipate it by talking.

Accept that no one is perfect.  This is not your whole life.

Make plans for after ~ go to a movie!

OK, I’ve tried that.  Now what?

Additional things you can do:

Group therapy with stage fright as the focus.

Individual therapy with a therapist who works with performers.

Meditation.

Yoga.

Tai Chi.

Kickboxing.

Hypnosis ~ a friend of mine who had finished his coursework at Columbia was having trouble going to the library to write his dissertation.  After many attempts at self-discipline didn’t work, he saw a hypnotist.  He is now a happy PhD!  And his mother has stopped asking him every week whether his dissertation is finished yet.

Biofeedback ~ participants learn to control their anxiety.

Role playing.

Write out the worst scenarios you can come up with about performing.  Then rewrite them as success stories.  Draw illustrations for both.

Taking care to maintain your metabolism without allowing it to spike and then rapidly decline goes a long way toward eliminating triggers leading to nervousness.  Eating regular meals, avoiding sugar, and taking any medications at the same time every day are all factors.  More information about maintaining a healthy metabolism can be found in an excellent book written by Walter Willett.  Links on his Wikipedia page include a PBS interview.

Some musicians take Inderal just before performances and auditions.  Inderal is a beta blocker prescribed to reduce stage fright.  This New York Times article presents a balanced assessment.  In addition, I have read of skeptical musicians who tried Inderal and played for their friends the first few times.  Their friends preferred the performances with the musicians using the beta blocker.

Note: I do not take Inderal, and am not recommending it one way or the other.  Speak to your doctor.

How do you deal with nerves?  Stage fright?  How do you help your students in those situations?  Please share your ideas in the comment section below!

  • Stage Fright (psychologytoday.com)  About public speaking, applies to music as well.  Includes links to other relevant articles.


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