Taming the Beast Called Stage Fright

Here are some tips that can help ease your nerves. For much more detailed information on handling stage fright and improving your live singing performances please check out my e-book Singing Live: The Performing Skills Guidebook for Contemporary Singers. 

It's your first performance—your palms are so sweaty that you're sure your strings will die within seconds, your heart is beating like a jack-hammer, your throat is cornflake-dry. 

It's your fiftieth performance—your palms are so sweaty that you're sure your strings will die within seconds, your heart is beating like a...hey, wait, wasn't this supposed to get better with time? Well, yes and no. Virtually everyone, from the very beginner to the seasoned veteran, has experienced some form of performance anxiety. And while it's true that nerves lessen the more you perform, they can still appear out of the blue after years of performing and cause all those awful symptoms: heart thumping, sweating, dry mouth, inability to move, and dizziness. Stage fright can close up your throat and tighten your diaphragm, making it difficult to breathe, a nasty feeling for anyone and a real drag if you are singing as well as playing. 

Luckily, there is a lot you can do to alleviate stage nerves. Here are a bunch of nerve-busting tricks I've gathered over the years. Everyone is different, so experiment and find out what works best for you. 

Preparing For The Performance 

Practice, practice, practice 
There's nothing like being well rehearsed. Guitarist-singer Jai Uttal once told me that he sometimes felt he had only 50% of his guitar dexterity on stage. I have felt the same way, so when I think I have a song down, I practice it even more, remembering that possible 50% loss of chops. On stage, if I start that first song and my mind is jabbering on about the size of the audience and why can't I breathe and what the hell is this song about, my well-rehearsed fingers and voice go on auto-pilot. 

Play "bigger" than you plan to be: 
Most performers hit with nerves lose a bit of dynamism musically and physically. if you know that you tend to freeze up on stage, prepare by playing more dynamically then you intend. If you "practice bigger" you can afford to lose a bit. Sing somewhat louder than usual. Sway your body to keep it loose (yes, even if you perform seated). Exaggerate any performance moves you usually fall into: hip sway, foot tap, whatever. 

Mental run-through: 
Imagine your entire performance, from taking the stage until you finish and hear the applause. Picture people in the audience watching you, what you say before you play, how you move during the song, and how you respond to the applause. Imagine everything going exactly as you want. Studies have shown that this technique improves performance skills. For some people it helps to spend a few minutes getting into a meditative state first. To do this, sit, eyes closed, breathing deeply and slowly for a couple of minutes. Silently repeat a calming word or phrase ("Amazing Grace how sweet the sound" works well), or move your awareness through your body, starting with your feet then working upward, relaxing each muscle as you go. Then visualize your performance. 

Get aerobic: 
I've found that getting aerobic calms me and gets me breathing deeply. I often swim laps as I mentally run through my set, remembering key points of songs and what I might say in-between. 

Just Prior to the Performance 

Move around: 
Do something vigorous like running in place—it'll help you off some of that nervous energy, and deepen your breathing. Swinging your arms or doing a mock hula will relax your diaphragm and help you get a fuller, calming breath. Or... 

Get still: 
I realize the previous technique and this one are polar opposites, so experiment and find out which works better for you. While either sitting or standing, do some deep breathing to center yourself. Mentally focus on either your breathing or your imaginary run-through. 

The "Ha!" : 
Force your abdomen in to expel air, like either an airy belly laugh or a dog panting. Try four "ha"s then an easy inhale, repeat. The vigorous movement can loosen your abdomen so you breathe deeper, which relaxes you. If you are a singer, doing this with your mouth closed lessens the drying affect of the extra air passing over your vocal chords, but even so, don't over-do it just prior to singing. You don't have to be noisy: I've done this surreptitiously (I think!) while sitting in the audience at open mic performances where there was no backstage. 

Whichever relaxation method(s) you try, make sure to set aside the time to do it. Don't go out to dinner with friends and race in breathlessly moments before going on stage. Give yourself time to get grounded. Don't worry if you're sharing backstage space with others; performers are used to weird pre-performance rituals.

© Susan Anders

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