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April 1, 2023IM -
It’s a musician’s dream to play to a packed house. Yet for many, it comes with a cost. Paralyzing anxiety, often called stage fright, can derail concentration and sabotage your ability to play well. The autonomic nervous system emits a rush of adrenaline to prepare your body for a perceived threat, called a fight or flight situation. While completely natural—and an essential reaction to an actual physical threat—it’s counterproductive when it comes to performing.
The most important step to overcoming stage fright is to give yourself a break, which means “don’t be hard on yourself.” It’s not unusual to get preshow jitters. And you’re not alone. Singers, rock stars, soloists, and orchestral musicians all can have anxiety before a performance. Barbra Streisand famously quit touring after a severe episode in which she forgot lyrics. Paul McCartney implements pretour rituals to keep his anxiety at bay.
It’s normal to feel anxious before a performance, but prolonged stress will make you more anxious. Give yourself a short amount of time to feel nervous—set a timer so you don’t go over—and then move on and do something active like stretching or a warm-up. Take a deep breath and remember how many famous performers go on stage feeling the same self-doubt—and they still crush it. This means you can, too.
To gain more control over your performance—and be comfortable with your nerves, try these strategies.
Limit caffeine and sugar intake on the day of the performance. Eat a sensible meal a few hours beforehand so that you have energy and you are not hungry during a show. Low-fat meals that include complex carbohydrates, like whole grain pasta, lentil soup, and yogurt, are good options.
Take a walk, shake out your muscles, or do some stretches—whatever it takes to ease tension before the performance. Don’t let your routine slip on the day of a concert. Exercise is one of the best anxiety management tools out there. Just don’t overdo it.
Don’t focus on what could go wrong. Instead, focus on the positive. Visualize your success.
Avoid thoughts that produce self-doubt. Shift the focus from fear to the enjoyment you are providing the audience members. Practice controlled breathing, meditation, biofeedback, and other strategies to help you relax and redirect your thoughts when they turn negative. It is best to practice some type of relaxation technique every day so that the skill is available when you need it.
If you arrive before the audience, you will feel more like you “own” the venue. View the audience as friendly and supportive. Remember, they want to be there. They paid an admission fee to get in and have dedicated their evening to listening to your music.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself performing. You’re hitting every note, and connecting with every audience member. These kinds of positive visualizations not only help you feel calm but also set you up for success.
Take deep breaths. This is a simple technique that helps lower your blood pressure and your heart rate. Whether it’s physical activity or something more meditative, do what works for you.
Once you feel calm, close your eyes and empty your mind. Visualize your flawless performance, including a standing ovation and looking out at a sea of smiling faces. Give yourself a mental pep talk, recalling performances where you have excelled.
Medications, like beta blockers, can lower stress on the heart and help manage migraine, anxiety, tremor, and other conditions. These work for severe cases of stage fright. However, seasoned musicians often say that being nervous and excited is part of the process. World-renowned concert pianist Steven Osborne describes the agonizing moment that he began to experience memory lapses due to anxiety while performing. But he flipped the script and came to see it as a gift to be explored. Being too calm and relaxed may result in a less dynamic delivery. A few nerves can serve a meaningful and passionate presentation. There is a way to achieve balance and convert anxiety into passion; use that excitement to project what you want to say musically.
The best approach is to learn to play under pressure, rather than taking away the pressure altogether. World-renowned violinist and distinguished professor Midori Goto (USC Thornton School of Music) encourages her students to do practice performances in front of peers and friends. She explains that playing for other musicians, especially those who know you well and obviously know the music, is a much more intense experience—which can make the actual performance that much easier.
Close to performance night, put yourself through several “dress rehearsals.” Visualize the audience. If you make a mistake, power through it. Knowing that you can carry on and improvise a solution will make you worry less on performance day. There’s a difference between your daily practice and practice that is geared towards performing better under pressure. Incorporate everything into these practice sessions. Gaze control isn’t something one would generally think about in the practice room, but it suddenly becomes relevant when performing on stage.
If you are unable to get your performance anxiety under control, don’t be shy about contacting a professional who can provide strategies tailored for your particular situation. Contact your primary care physician to talk about options and recommendations.