Stage fright is a primitive physical response to a frightening situation. Your Stone Age ancestor felt the same rush of adrenaline, the same crippling anxiety, trembling and shortness of breath when confronted by a saber-tooth tiger. He could use this adrenaline burst to slay the tiger or to make his escape. But when you are a guitarist confronting an audience, it’s not so easy to channel your flood of adrenaline productively. In this article we discuss performance anxiety, and give you practical tips on how to overcome stage fright.
How To Overcome Stage Fright: What is performance anxiety?
Every musician and singer, famous or otherwise, has suffered the intimidating paralysis of stage fright or performance anxiety. Guitarists are particularly vulnerable because they are concentrating on small hand and finger movements while the rest of the body remains still, making it difficult to release the adrenaline. Performance anxiety is akin to an allergic response, as your body is mistaking the audience for a foreign invader, and responding to the threat with a host of physical symptoms. Ironically, many of these physical responses such as trembling, paralysis or memory loss will inhibit your performance, making the primary fear a reality.
So how do you overcome stage fright? Performance anxiety is so common that, unsurprisingly, almost every experienced performer has an opinion. There are two main schools of thought: some performers believe that the adrenaline rush enhances creative performance, while others believe in overcoming the fear so performing does not have to be a physical and emotional ordeal. As you confront your own performance anxiety, you will probably find that your strategy develops from both philosophies.
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Practical Advice On Overcoming Stage Fright
As a musician you are used to having to practice in order to improve your playing skill. Improving your performing skill is no different. Take a long view and view each performance as part of an ongoing learning process. If anything does go wrong, it is merely part of your development as a performer. Learn from it and move on; being practical and detached removes much of the pressure from individual performances.
First Steps Towards Overcoming Stage Fright
Performing regularly for a sympathetic home crowd, such as family and friends, will help you view the audience as friendly and participatory who simply want to share and participate while you play. Start by performing material that you find easy to play. By doing this, your confidence will rapidly increase.
Control your environment
Concert pianist Stephen Hough has called Liszt “the man who invented stage fright”. It was Liszt who established the rule that pianists should not follow the score when playing at piano recitals, placing a great deal of pressure on pianists to remember each note faithfully. However, Hough points out that while some musicians would dissolve into performance anxiety without the music, other musicians are inhibited by the effort of following the score too closely. Try to find what works for you rather than tailoring your performance to arbitrary rules set by others.
Most rock musicians play without written music, but if you are worried about certain sections or lyrics then there is nothing preventing you from having a crib sheet next to your set list. Classical guitarists can use reminders for problem sections, even if they are not performing from the score.
How To Overcome Stage Fright: The Importance Of Preparation
Controlling your environment also includes doing everything you can to ensure that your performance will go as planned. Make sure you have a spare guitar tuned and ready for use in the event of a string breaking. Have spare leads and batteries ready for all of your gear. Be aware of how long the journey to the venue will take, and leave plenty of time to get there. By leaving nothing to chance you will minimize any additional stress.
Prepare Yourself Physically, As Well As Mentally
Both fighting and fleeing require physical exertion. An energetic rock performance may allow you to work adrenaline out of your system; an acoustic guitar recital will not. Try going for a brisk walk before a performance, or perform exercises or stretches. Not only will you work off some energy, it will also take your mind off of the performance. However, you do need to have some energy in reserve, so don’t run a marathon before your show!
Get Through The First Five Minutes
The effects of adrenaline are short lived. Bear this in mind when you are planning your performance. Technically demanding pieces should be positioned towards the end. Start with pieces that are familiar and easy to play. After five to ten minutes the effects of stage fright have usually worn off. Use this knowledge to your advantage.
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Visualization And Other Mental Strategies
Athletes talk of ‘focus’ and ‘tunnel vision’. Musicians can do exactly the same. Visualize a successful performance and imagine how it feels. Don’t be put off by external influences, and focus only on achieving what you have visualized. Once you know how a successful performance feels, all you have to do is work backwards to achieve it.
Concentrate On The Performance, Not On Yourself
Bear in mind that when performing you are simply doing what you love to do. Concentrate on playing the music to the best of your ability – if you are enjoying your performance, your audience will be too.
By focusing on the music, rather than yourself, you instantly remove much of the pressure. You are simply a conduit, passing on notes and sounds that will arouse emotions in others. Removing yourself from the equation is a good strategy, particularly if you are not a natural extrovert.
Worst Case Scenario
Another way to overcome stage fright is to imagine the worst case scenario. This could be anything from forgetting the music to making a mistake and having to start a song again. Whatever happens, it won’t be the end of the world. Stage fright is partly a fear of the unknown. If you visualize all eventualities, they become familiar and less frightening.
How To Overcome Stage Fright With Bananas And Dutch Courage
One common tip on how to overcome stage fright is to eat one or two bananas an hour before the performance. Although it sounds like a myth, it may have its roots in science: the potassium in bananas is said to reduce stress.
Some performers recommend a glass of wine before a performance. Others would say drinking alcohol is the worst possible thing you could do. Certainly it is not something you would want to become reliant on. However, for those first few tentative gigs, with non-demanding repertoire … well, only you can be the judge. Not an option if you are driving home!
Every musician has experienced performance anxiety to some degree. If you do suffer from stage fright, be practical and examine what you can do to alleviate the symptoms and even to use them to your advantage. Treat those first concerts as part of the journey and continue to learn as you go. Remember, once you make it through those first ten minutes you’ll find yourself in “the zone”… and those saber-tooth tigers in the audience won’t seem so intimidating.
These books offer further information on how to overcome stage fright.
Secrets Of Performing Confidence
Performance Strategies For Musicians
Do you have any advice on how to overcome stage fright? Help other musicians by sharing your experiences in the comments below.