A Few Things Every Musician Ought to Know About Stage Fright

How to conquer stage fright?
How to conquer stage fright?

Think back to your last big audition or recital. What do you remember feeling, moments before you walked on stage?

Heart pounding in your chest? Butterflies in your stomach? Cold, clammy hands? Feeling light-headed, tight, weak, or shaky?

Perhaps you had trouble concentrating? Felt your mind racing? Doubts and fears popping into your head? A vague sense that something bad was going to happen? Kicking yourself for not practicing more?

Sound familiar?

Is It Just Me?

Well, you’re certainly not alone. In fact, you’re in good company. Pablo Casals, Arthur Rubinstein, and Luciano Pavarotti (to name a few), are reported to have struggled with performance anxiety at various points in their careers.

For what it’s worth, anxiety is pretty common even amongst professional musicians. In one survey, 96% of the orchestra musicians surveyed admitted to anxiety before performances. In another survey of 48 ICSOM orchestras, 1 out of every 4 musicians said that stage fright was a problem for them.

“Ok, fine, but the fact that Rubinstein struggled with nerves isn’t going to help me win an audition.”

Good point. Keep reading.

Will It Ever Go Away?

Great question, and I’ve got some good news and bad news for you.

Bad news is that unless you’re a robot, zombie, or just don’t give a crap, you will probably experience some degree of anxiety every time you go on stage. “Say WHAT? You mean I have to suffer through this for the rest of my career?”

Well, the good news is that no, you don’t have to let your nerves control you, and you most definitely don’t have to suffer.

Have you ever had a performance when everything just “clicked?” Where you felt like you were in total control, everything just flowed easily, and you sounded great (at least until you started thinking about how well everything was going)? You may have heard of this referred to as “the zone.” Well, this magical state pretty much requires that you experience some degree of anxiety. No anxiety, no zone.

If you ever get to a point in your career where you start feeling nothing and walk on-stage as if it’s no different than going for a walk in the park (i.e. it’s just another day, another venue, and you’re just mailing it in), your audience is probably not going to get the best performance you have to offer.

Let me tell you a story that will help illustrate my point. My senior year of college, a few of us were preparing for a competition. To give us an opportunity to run through some of our repertoire, my teacher set up a small concert in one of the recital halls.

I decided to play the most challenging piece on my list – Wieniawski’s F# Minor Violin Concerto. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the piece starts out with parallel 10ths, and just gets trickier from there. Needless to say, it takes a lot of energy to stay focused through all three movements. I was feeling pretty good about it on this particular day, but was still pretty nervous. Not freaking out, but definitely a little anxious.

When it was my turn to play, I walked out on stage, smiled, and as I turned to look out into the audience, for a second, I saw nobody. What? Was this intermission? Wait, no. Sitting in the back right corner of the hall were two elderly women. My pianist stifled a giggle.

Instantly, my nerves vanished, and my heart sank. I didn’t know what to do. I seriously contemplated turning around and leaving the stage. It was finals week, after all, and I was tired and worn-out from a long semester. I really didn’t feel like playing this monster of a piece for just two people. I didn’t see the point. I tried my best to care, but I couldn’t.

As a result, the performance felt just like a casual rehearsal with my pianist. I was calm, relaxed, and didn’t experience any anxiety whatsoever. So how do you think my performance went? You guessed it. I sounded dull, uninspired, and ultimately, very forgettable. The musical equivalent of soggy Rice Crispies.

My point is this. If you want your performance to really reach out and grab the audience, you need adrenaline to give it that extra pop and sizzle that is missing in the practice room. The problem is not adrenaline itself, but not knowing how to control, manage, and channel it effectively into your performances. More on this later…

Why Do We Experience Stage Fright?

So why do we experience anxiety in some situations and not in others? If the two people sitting out in the audience were Isaac Stern and Leon Fleisher, my anxiety probably would have gone through the roof. What gives?

Well, the biopsychosocial stress model is probably the best explanation of why we experience performance anxiety.

“Anxiety is the product of a complex and dynamic cognitive appraisal process which actively balances an individual’s perceptions of resources, situational demands, and internal and external sources of feedback prior to, during, and following performances.  One’s appraisal of the demands of a performance situation (e.g. task difficulty, consequences of failure, others’ high expectations, and the perceived importance of the outcome) are compared with one’s unique individual characteristics (e.g. self-efficacy, trait anxiety, skill level, degree of preparation, and past experience), resulting in an overall assessment of the degree to which the situation poses a threat.”

What does all that mean? Basically, your brain tries to calculate the odds that you’ll nail this performance, and the odds that you’ll fall on your face. If your brain decides that you are probably going to do really well, you won’t feel anxious. Excited perhaps, but not anxious.

On the other hand, if your brain thinks there is a good chance you could crash and burn, you will most definitely feel anxious. Simple as that.

Here are two scenarios.

Scenario #1: Imagine you are playing an easy piece that you could play perfectly even if I woke you up at 3AM, and are doing so in front of an audience that will love your playing no matter what (say, your grandparents). Think you can handle that?

Well, given that it would be pretty hard to screw up, and even if you did, your grandparents wouldn’t notice or care, you will probably be pretty darn confident that you can handle the situation.

Brain says piece of cake, no worries. No anxiety for you.

Scenario #2: Now let’s say that you are at an orchestra audition. You’re sick and tired of auditioning, are almost broke, and this is the orchestra you’ve really had your heart set on. However, you know that there are 200 other musicians auditioning for the same seat. You heard a few of them warming up in the green room, and oh crap, they sounded awfully good. You haven’t played well in the last few auditions you took, and haven’t had as much time to practice as you would have liked.

Well, it looks like you will have to play your absolute best if you’re going to stand out from the others, but what are the chances of that, right?

Brain concludes that this is a pretty challenging set of circumstances. There is a very real chance you could fail to get through to the next round, let alone make it all the way to the final cut. Think you might be a little anxious? You betcha.

So What Can I Do About It?

Let me start by telling you what the answer is not.

  • Trying not to care is not the answer (good luck trying to fool yourself anyway).
  • Some take supplements like kava (I tried this a few times; don’t even bother).
  • Many have experimented with beta blockers like Inderal.
  • Others try relaxation strategies, meditation, yoga, etc.
  • I used to deprive myself of sleep the night before, thinking that my being tired would balance out the adrenaline a bit. Don’t do it – you’ll just be cranky and tired on top of being anxious.
  • I tried drinking lots of chamomile tea before performances, even though I don’t much care for tea. This just made me paranoid about having to go to the bathroom at the worst possible time.
  • A friend told me that I should eat bananas, so I even tried this a few times. It just made me feel a little sick to my stomach (I’m not a huge fan of bananas).
  • Another friend told me to eat turkey explaining that turkey has the amino acid tryptophan in it, which supposedly makes you sleepy. Um, ok, but how many of you are in the mood to chow down on bananas, turkey, and tea 30 minutes before you go on stage? Ugh.

Fact is, I haven’t seen any research evidence that the potassium in bananas makes any difference in your anxiety level before performing, and if you’re going to load up on tryptophan, it would be more efficient to eat egg whites (4x as much tryptophan as turkey), cod (3x), or parmesan cheese (2x) instead of turkey. But here too, I’ve not seen any concrete evidence that tryptophan reduces performance anxiety, let alone make you perform better. Of course, if you are aware of a study that I haven’t come across, please send me a copy, and I’ll be happy to take a look.

“But wait! What about all of those people who swear that bananas, turkey, tea, etc. make them feel calmer? How do you explain their experience?”

Actually, they are probably telling the truth. These things probably do make them feel calmer. But not because of any special chemical ingredient in these foods. It’s called the placebo effect. Statistically, about one out of every three people who try something, will swear that it worked – even if it was completely bogus. Wikipedia has a nice page on the placebo effect if you’d like to read more about it.

But here’s the real kicker. A lot of people assume that reducing performance anxiety is a good thing, but in reality, this is just a myth. Before you start sending me emails explaining how I am mistaken, look back on your own performance history. I’m sure you will be able to think of performances when you were too calm and too relaxed, and saw your playing suffer as a result.

Even more people (experts included) believe that a moderate amount of anxiety is best, and that too much or too little anxiety is bad. Guess what? This isn’t completely true either. Don’t believe me? Stay tuned for a future article that will explain all of this in more detail. Until then, here is the main take-home point.

What you want is to play your best, right? Reducing your anxiety or shooting for a moderate amount of anxiety will make you more comfortable, but not necessarily help you play better. This is why trying to relax isn’t the answer. What you need, is to learn how to control and channel your anxiety into more dynamic and powerful performances.

How do I do this, you ask?

The 8 Keys to Becoming the Best That You Can Be

Eight different ways, to be specific:

  1. Preparation: Learn how to practice the right way
  2. Manage energy: Learn how to control your body’s response to adrenaline
  3. Confidence: Learn how to build confidence
  4. Courage: Learn how to play courageously (vs. playing tentatively and worrying about mistakes)
  5. Concentration: Learn how to slow down and regain control of your mind – even under pressure
  6. Focus: Learn how to quiet the mind, focus past distractions, and stay in the moment
  7. Resilience: Learn how to recover quickly from mistakes (so you don’t make even more mistakes)
  8. Determination: Learn how to keep yourself motivated and relentlessly pursue your goals

Helping you master these eight performance psychology skills is ultimately what this site is about. Once you develop these skills, you will no longer be quite as concerned about stage fright or performance anxiety. You may not be 100% comfortable, but it won’t matter. Your performances will speak for themselves. They’ll feel more like a challenge and a thrill than a threat. And at the end of the day, that’s what really matters, right?

Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

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