Feb 7, 2017
Stage fright, you guys. When it’s bad, it’s really bad.
After years of performing on various stages, under different levels of pressure and standards of perfection, in front of a range of audience numbers, and filled with various types of people, I know this:
Stage fright is awful. It’s the absolute PITS.
I’m not alone in this sentiment, and neither are you. In her interview with Rolling Stone, Adele confessed to trying to exit through a fire escape, vomiting backstage, and even projectile vomiting on someone due to her extreme stage anxiety.
Jonathan Knight (of New Kids on the Block) walked off stage mid-concert. His band mates covered for him, but he didn’t get back on stage that whole night. Oh, and as if it couldn’t get worse, it does. Here it is on video for all of the world to watch again and again and again. *face palm*
Eddie Van Halen (and many, many other musicians) acquired a serious drug and alcohol problem attempting to conquer the fear of getting on stage and putting yourself out there.
I don’t encourage that solution. Collecting substance abuse problems is not even a solution. But here are some time-tested solutions to dealing with stage fright and stage anxiety.
A lot of times, it’s just a matter of embracing the nervousness and channelling it into anticipation. Ellie Goulding is a great practitioner of this technique.
After all my years of performing, I’ve learned that the times when I’m not at all nervous are the times when I should be nervous. I know that extra jolt of adrenaline actually helps me do my best!
When I spoke with Hal Grossman, an expert pedagogue and violinist, this was part of his advice too. Learn the ways your body processes this anticipation and use it to your advantage. You can listen to that whole conversation here.
For any of my students, they all have moments of feeling afraid of putting themselves out there — be it on a literal or metaphorical stage.
Sometimes a really great way to get comfortable with the fear (or at least as comfortable as you can be with it) is to practice performing in a myriad of environments, under even more circumstances.
Sometimes the stage fright stems from feeling out of control. When that’s the case, it’s really great to purposefully create scenarios where you know you won’t have as much control, so you can practice the way the whole thing feels, even the fearful part.
For instance, if you’ve only ever practised a speech in your bedroom. Try practising in the living room. Getting used to hearing your voice echo against a slightly bigger wall will prevent those variances of aural sensations from stopping you in your tracks on your big day. Then branch out. Maybe go to a different room. Maybe invite a safe and supportive person (spouse or siblings) to observe. You don’t need to hear their feedback, unless you want it. Sometimes just doing the performance in front of another live being is enough. Or maybe it’s setting up a bunch of picture frames in front of you. Try it out!
It’s OK to slowly and carefully change your environment and audience until the sensation of that fear becomes a little more normalized.
You don’t even have to do it slowly. Some folks might need to “rip the band-aid off” and normalize the fear at a faster speed. Dr. Thomas O’Grady, a brilliant mathematician and statistician, had a paralyzing fear of public speaking. After conquering this fear, his go-to advice is to completely remove yourself from your comfort zone. (He’s also not a big fan of Toastmasters for this reason.) I got to interview him for an episode of Bare Naked Bravery, where he goes into this reasoning in much greater detail. You can listen to that here.
Those are the go-to techniques from everyone, including me. Whenever that wave of butterflies go tearing through your insides, take a HUGE deep breath and center yourself. Here’s how I do that…
That works like a charm for me (and a lot more people just like me!)
Not every performance context will allow for this. (It might be a little expensive to bring your wife on tour or to that industry conference where you’re speaking.) But when you can, even when practising re-creating the fear, I encourage you to surround yourself with safe people who will protect you from some of these outside triggering scenarios, comments, and even yourself.
Having someone nearby, even via phone or text, is a great way to bolster your bravery while backstage. I know I’ve received several words of encouragement in moments like these. Sometimes they were the sole reason why I got on stage after a make-it-or-break-it moment of stage fright.
The times that I’ve had anxiety about appearing in front of people are usually the times when I’ve lost sight of my “Why.”
Usually it’s because I’ve started to think that my audience is coming to a performance for my performance. WRONG. I mean, yes, there is a small handful of crotchety people who can’t wait to have a miserable time criticizing everyone and everything. But those aren’t my people. When I take a step back, I remember that the people I show up for are my people, not the overly critical Scrooges who hate chocolate. (Who could hate chocolate?!)
My people come to my concerts for connection. They want to tap into the realness that I bring to the stage, NOT the perfection. They want to experience meaning, inspiration, and another perspective. They want me to sing them stories about brave people and brave moments. Those things can, and usually do, include imperfections and rarely include a robotic regurgitation of a song or piece of repertoire.
This is one of the reasons why I love performing house concerts. These small intimate shows held in fans’ living rooms make it easier to hold onto my “Why.” It’s easier to connect with and read my audience for all this.
But Barbra Streisand would hate performing in living rooms, she said as much to Oprah’s face. She is a heroic example of dealing with stage fright. After forgetting the lyrics to a song in a 1967 performance in Central Park, Streisand didn’t get back on stage for 27 years. TWENTY SEVEN YEARS!
She now uses a teleprompter to help her remember lyrics and what to say in between songs. She is a hero because of it. That’s because taking a break from performing is OK. Using a teleprompter to avoid forgetting lyrics is OK! Doing your career and your performance a little differently than everyone else is OK!
For me, (and probably Barbra too) the coffin-clenching circumstance of stage fright is attempting performances inauthentic to who you really are.
Emily Ann Peterson is a teaching artist who spent 17 years with her cello. It was her second voice until she was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological hand tremor. Refusing to resign to fate and genetics, she expanded her skills to include the piano and solo songwriting. This act of neurological defiance broke through her creative glass ceiling and then swept her up in the expansive limits.
Her podcast, Bare Naked Bravery, features conversations with everyday heroes about the quiet successes and loud failures required to do the brave things for which we know and love them.
Peterson’s mission is inspire a global resonance and magnanimous community through the marriage of art and whole-person development.
Her music is available everywhere music is sold online and at www.emilyannpeterson.com