Stage fright is a state of nervousness or fear leading up to and during a performance. It is an exaggerated symptom of anxiety. The hands sweat or become icy cold, the body shakes, sometimes symptoms include nausea, an overwhelming sense of tiredness, a need to go to the toilet or shortness of breath, and there can be a frightening sense of disassociation; of playing your instrument from behind a curtain through which you simply cannot connect with what you’re doing.
Stage fright is a very common problem amongst performing musicians. In one recent survey 96% of the orchestra musicians questioned admitted to anxiety before performances. It’s common to see the backstage sign leading Stage Right enhanced with a cynical ‘F’, and this self-mocking comment is pertinent. To many performers stage fright represents a destructive personal shortcoming.
The physical symptoms are the result of a primal instinct known as Fight or Flight. This is the inborn physiological response to a threatening or dangerous situation. It readies you either to resist the danger forcibly – Fight - or to run away from it – Flight. Hormones including adrenaline flood into the bloodstream, the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase, the neck and back muscles contract, which means that if you try to maintain an upright posture your muscles shake violently, the digestive system shuts down.
It’s useful on a basic level to understand what is happening to cause the unpleasant physical symptoms of stage fright. It’s also worth knowing that everybody suffers from it to some degree or at some point in their life, no matter how successful or famous. Even Heifetz who was renowned for his perfect performances was apparently stricken with fear before he went on stage, convinced that two thousand nine hundred and ninety nine of the three thousand audience members had come to hear him play a wrong note.
It is useful to know these things but it is not, in reality, any help at all when you are in the grip of stage fright.
So what is the reason for stage fright?
The danger your body is reacting to is the performance. There’s a fear you won’t do yourself justice. The more important the outcome of the performance, the worse the anxiety will be. If the stakes are high, say you’re auditioning for an orchestra you’ve always wanted to play with, you’re broke and you need the money, you’re playing in a competitive situation where you know your performance is being judged in a critical way, even more adrenaline will release and the resultant anxiety can be paralysing.
Many instrumentalists, particularly those playing an instrument as tactile and personal as the violin, relate very strongly with their instrument. “I am a violinist,” becomes more than a job description. In situations like this, the identity of the self as a musician can seem to rely on the outcome of the performance.
There is also a genetic aspect. Some people are simply more genetically predisposed to strong feelings of anxiety than others.
Another aspect behind performance anxiety is the level of task mastery. The more comfortable you feel with your playing, the more confident you will feel. Our fears of unreliable shifting, stiff left hand, bow shake or dropping the violin are all founded in an unreliable physical reaction.
What has really happened in stage fright is that the positive aspect of music making, an overriding desire to communicate, has somehow become lost as the ego distorts the relevance of the performance. Stage fright is ultimately a product of self-regard in which the performance has become more about the performer than the music or the audience. The idea of giving; that in performance you are transmitting something greater than yourself; has been supplanted by the fear that you will be exposed as not good enough.
So what can you do?
Stage fright is essentially a problem of expression and preparation and there are many creative solutions to nerves. Here are some ideas to try.
- See the nerves as a positive thing, as a burst of energy. If you fight the energy and try to contain it, of course it will make you shake. Embrace the energy you have created and pour it into your playing. Don’t be afraid to feel enormous. There’s no advantage for you or your audience, in playing small. Look at it another way; your body has gone into Fight or Flight. The natural reaction is to repress this feeling, to label it as bad. Don’t. Instead change your thinking. Your body is, in fact, pumped up, primed for quicker reactions and in an optimum condition for performance. Enjoy the sensation of being at the top of your game. The feelings can frighten us because they are unfamiliar, but notice that the shaking in your muscles is actually pent up energy. Can you find a way to release this energy into your performance? If your bow arm shakes, move the bow more and use more bow.
- Play to the audience. Don’t imagine they aren’t there or that they’re a field of cabbages. Communicate with them. You never know what you might be giving to someone who’s open to listen.
- You have something to say. There are no spare parts in the world. Each person who has the desire to play music has something to say.
- Practice being nervous. The more experience you have of performing, the more you find ways to channel the energy and communicate with your audience. The point is not to overcome your stage fright. The point is to learn to move through it.
- Acknowledge the problem. Acknowledge it without blame so that you can begin to address it, but don’t necessarily talk about it at length. Sometimes talking about something can make it feel bigger than it is. It can work you up into greater anxiety and provide a scenario where you set yourself up to fail.
- Don’t take Beta Blockers. In a 1986 survey of orchestral players, nearly 30% said they took Beta Blockers to manage the physical symptoms of nerves, and this figure is thought to have increased. Beta Blockers stop the shaking, but they also take off the edge that allows you to communicate with the audience. You’re zoned out. They also, eventually stop working. Imagine a situation where you have taken your Beta Blockers and go into your performance, physically appearing calm with no symptoms of nerves, and mentally terrified with no means of an outlet. Numbing the problem with drugs, even on prescription, is not the answer. Long-term use of Beta Blockers effectively causes the mental muscles necessary for a flow state of consciousness to atrophy.
- Meditation helps. People say it doesn’t, and in a direct way perhaps they are right if what you’re expecting is just to feel more relaxed. Learning to meditate helps because it improves the ability to get in flow, or in the zone. Performing in flow is the mental state of operation in which you are fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. In essence, flow is characterised by complete absorption and a feeling of joy whilst performing. When we are caught up in anxiety, it is impossible to play in flow, so finding a way to access this deep state of concentration is a way to reengage with your reasons for performing.
- Use images when practising your piece. Creating a film inside your head whilst you play helps access the creative right side of your brain, which gives you a way to step out of critical left-brain thinking. One way to practice this when learning a piece is to create vivid visual stories to express what you want to say in the music. Create a movie as you learn the piece, and you can access these images in performance to get you back in your creative brain and away from the over analytical thinking which can trigger anxiety.
- Eat bananas. Or don’t. Some people believe that the potassium in bananas acts as a natural Beta Blocker. It may work, it may not, but what is important is to eat something that gives you the energy to perform without leaving you feeling sluggish. Egg sandwiches, doughnuts, whatever it is, you need blood sugar to counteract the burst of adrenaline.
- Prepare your performance. Practice musically, never mechanically and practice away from the violin too. Visualise yourself successfully delivering the performance. Imagine vividly how that feels.
- Notice your breathing. When you are playing sitting down, the breath sometimes gets trapped in the chest. Try to exhale fully and quickly, blowing out the tension.
- Most of all, approach your playing with joy. It is impossible to feel joyful and frightened at the same time.
Here is a short video from the Ted Talks about stage fright. It’s worth watching to consolidate what you know and ends with a helpful breathing exercise.