10 Tips for Overcoming Stagefright
by Christian Morris
"an audience intimidates me, I feel asphyxiated by its eager breath, paralyzed by its inquisitive stare, silenced by its alien faces."
If the above quote feels familiar, then you are in good company. The words are attributed to one of the most famous pianist-composers of all time: Frederick Chopin
. He suffered from such debilitating nerves that he performed relatively little in front of the general public, much preferring intimate gatherings of friends.
Neither was he an isolated example. Other great performers that have suffered from nerves include Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Gould, Sergei Rachmaninov, Pablo Casals and, in the pop arena, Adele
, Eddie Van Halen and Barbra Streisand (whose crippling nerves prevented her performing for 27 years!).
This then is the first tip for dealing with your nerves - realising that you are not alone. In fact, the news is rather more positive even than this. You are actually in the majority! Studies show that amongst professional musicians debilitating nerves are experienced by more than half of all players. If it sometimes does not seem like this, this is probably because those players you admire for their fearlessness are not fearless at all - they have simply developed coping strategies. And like all strategies, these can be learnt. So what are they?
We all know the phrase 'perfect preparation prevents poor performance.' Fear of 'messing up' is usually at the base of all performance anxieties. The most important thing, therefore, is to prepare assiduously for a performance. This really means being able to perform the piece as if it were second nature, like putting on an item of clothing or driving a car. Aim, especially, to be able to play the piece without the sheet music.
However, especially if you are in the early stages of learning an instrument (things are a little different amongst professional players), think twice about actually playing without the sheet music, even if you think you don't need it. For some performers this can simply add an extra 'what if I forget the music?' layer of anxiety. Lapses of memory can also have crippling knock-on effects - Streisand's 27-year 'break' was a result of forgetting the words to a song during a live performance.
Be realistic about what you are performing. Are you really ready to be performing that Rachmaninov Piano Concerto
? Choose repertoire that is sensibly within your current abilities. Be self-aware and know what your performing strengths and weaknesses are.
Choose your audience. If you are uncomfortable playing in front of your nearest and dearest you should probably not start by playing to a packed Carnegie Hall. Perform to your close friends and family first, then to neighbours and people in your locality. Only then think of performing in front of complete strangers.
Practise like an athlete. A major cause of anxiety can relate to physical endurance, especially on some wind and brass instruments ('I hope my lip holds out!'). The temptation is often to practise very heavily before a performance. But, just as an athlete would not run a marathon the day before competing in a marathon, neither should you embark on mammoth bouts of last-minute practise - you are very likely to wear yourself out. There is, incidentally, a good artistic reason for keeping your practise quite light immediately before the performance - whilst knowing a piece well is hugely important, this last gap produces just a little distance between you and the piece. This can bring a hint of spontaneity to your playing.
Before your performance remind yourself how well prepared you are and that you have no reason to worry. At the same time be realistic. Your inner-narrative before the performance should never be about trying to avoid the feelings of nervousness or saying such things as 'it'll be great' or, worse, 'it doesn't really matter'. This can be the very worst strategy, since you will instead get a massive adrenaline rush the moment you go on stage - which often then manifests itself in 'the shakes.' It is much better to acknowledge what is about to happen, that it does, indeed, matter. This will help you to get the adrenaline flowing before you go out to perform. That moment, when you finally 'get out there' then becomes a relief. You're finally doing it!
When you get out on stage, project how you want to feel, even if you don't feel it. Studies show that adopting a confident pose in front of a mirror for 10 minutes every day actually makes you more confident. So don't go straight to that protective zone behind your music stand. Consider taking an opening bow in the middle of the stage or in some more open position where you can look round the audience and smile.
Take your time before beginning to play. Tune your instrument, wait for the audience to be quiet, relax your shoulders and gather your thoughts. You are in control.
Once performing, if you get the shakes, there's a simple strategy for dealing with them. Ignore them! Really, don't think about them at all, or at least view them as just 'one of those things.' That is exactly what they are. The more you fixate on them the worse they get. And, don't forget, the audience is always much less aware of this kind of problem than you are yourself - they can't feel the shaking, very likely can't see it and very often can't even hear it.
Let the mistakes go and don't let them show! Meaning, don't get fixated on wrong notes and certainly don't draw attention to them by grimacing, groaning or otherwise telegraphing their presence. Fixation leads to worrying and, inevitably, more wrong notes. Grimacing will simply draw attention to a mistake and make the audience feel uncomfortable. The fact is, if you continue to look confident the chances are that the thing that you consider to be a 'howler' will not even noticed.
A couple of final thoughts. Firstly, it is important (within certain limits) to do whatever works for you. A well-known player who now performs with the London Sinfonietta used to tell his students how he'd lock himself in a room and tell himself the performance would be terrible! The actuality of walking on stage was then such a pleasant contrast he would really enjoy himself.
Finally, many would anyway argue that the tension a musician experiences is part of what can make a performance truly great. So perhaps instead of viewing nerves as a debilitating condition that one must be rid of, accept that they might actually be your greatest friend.