How To Combat Stage Fright, Part One
BY MEGHAN VANCE • JUNE 12, 2023
Stage fright can be a paralyzing thing, and many music students worry about it. The New Yorker reported that even professionals such as actors Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, and Stephen Fry; public figures Gandhi, Cicero, and Thomas Jefferson; and musicians Luciano Pavarotti, Ella Fitzgerald, Vladimir Horowitz, Barbra Streisand, and Adele all struggled with nerves in front of an audience.
Well-meaning loved ones can sometimes add to the problem by setting expectations that the student is either bound to succeed or bound to fail. Today’s Parent says that when dealing with stage fright, it’s best even to avoid statements like, “Don’t worry about it.” Instead, they recommend parents focus on “building up kids’ resilience and power to deal.” So, what’s the best thing to do before that dreaded moment onstage? Be prepared.
KNOW YOUR MATERIAL
If you haven’t prepared a song well, you can’t go into the performance feeling ready and confident. When practicing, focus on areas that could cause problems:
- Ideas that were difficult to learn or are still difficult to play. These are the spots students stumble. Since your brain knows where these are, it’ll naturally worry about them approaching while you’re trying to perform. If you’re confident you’ve fixed the problem, you can tell your brain it’s being silly.
- Similar ideas. These are the spots that cause students to get lost. It’s especially easy to get confused if idea A & idea B start the same but end differently – if you don’t focus on the points of divergence, you may get stuck in an endless loop playing only idea A.
- New ideas. These are the spots where students go blank. Don’t rely only on your muscle memory. Instead, test yourself: can you play the beginning of each idea in sequential order without the connecting material between?
- Transitions. These cause all sorts of problems. Whether tempo changes, key changes, page turns, or simply transitions between ideas, transitions are dangerous. They’re often spots where a student has practiced pausing or stopping.
Once you’ve focused on these areas, record yourself. Listen back to the recording while watching the music. Mark areas that need more focus.
SIMULATE THE PERFORMANCE
Once you know your material, practice performing. Test the variables ahead of time:
- Going on stage, announcing, bowing, and going off stage. Every part of the performance should be rehearsed. Tripping over your song title isn’t the most relaxing way to begin a performance.
- Performance space. If you can, practice in the performance room. Determine how the acoustics of the room work. Take along your trusty recorder and place it in different areas of the room. Tailor your sound towards the judge’s seat. If you’re not able to practice in the performance room, practice in a variety of different spaces. Think about what you may need to adjust based on the size of a room and how the sound rings.
- Clothes. It’s surprising how often students forget that clothes can make a big difference. A suit may look great in the mirror, but if it’s so tight it doesn’t allow you to move your shoulders, you may have trouble bowing your cello. A short skirt on a stage where an audience sits practically under you can be rather embarrassing. Make sure you’re comfortable in your performance clothes.
- Nerves. Synthesize an accelerated heart rate by running around the block right before you practice. Practice when you’re edgy or tired. Think about other things that make you nervous, and add them around you.
- Audience. Yes, audience. But start with a simple distraction: can you play while the TV or radio is on? Then level up: recruit a friendly audience. Family, friends, or nursing home residents are likely to be encouraging and appreciative. Once you feel comfortable with the easy audience, throw in more distractions: ask test audience members to move around, write something down as they sit directly in front of you, answer their ringing phone, or unwrap a cough drop as noisily as they can. Recruit your friends’ crying babies and antsy toddlers.
Vance Music students have the opportunity to perform every month. These practice recitals are designed to help students grow comfortable performing, and are great preparation for events such as music contests or college auditions.
Casting Networks offers this advice to actors, “The more prepared you are, the less likely you are to experience stage fright.” They also offer that old adage every musician loves: “Practice, practice, practice.” If you practice your material and practice performing, you’ll gain the confidence that comes from knowing you’ve prepared well.
In part two, we’ll look at ways to prepare on both the day before and the day of the performance.