- Studies show that amongst a general list of “greatest fears,” there’s one in particular that consistently takes the cake. Surpassing a fear of spiders, heights, and even death, the act of public speaking (or performance) leaves most people shaking in their boots.
“So, you’re telling me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than have to stand up and give a eulogy,” says Jerry Seinfeld.
So what is it about performing for a crowd that makes us so nervous we physically react? Shaking hands, dry mouth, stomach butterflies, sweating, an increased heart rate, the rush of adrenaline. You would think this fight-or-flight reaction would be in response to a rhinoceros threatening to run you down.
And yet, instead, all you’ll find is a group of strangers, colleagues, family, friends, and even your sweet grandmother happily anticipating your rendition of “Vocalise.” And check this out: 99% of them (unless you have very evil friends), are hoping–and knowing–you’ll succeed. No one wants you to see you fail.
The most common reasons for stage fright are a fear of failure or criticism, uncertainty, self-consciousness, and social phobia. Trouble is, most of us deal with some combination of these fears, desperately hoping to impress or please the people around us–strangers or not.
So while it may take a little more to cure you of your fear of failure (you might also try a few hundred hours of counseling), here are a few tips to battle stage fright and have a truly exceptional–and even rewarding!–performance.
1. Prepare and Practice.
If you’re afraid of biffing that difficult cadenza, don’t avoid it; instead, face it. Practice the most difficult passages to a point where you don’t worry about them anymore. There’s nothing worse than walking on stage knowing you aren’t prepared. You’d be setting yourself up for failure, which is the root fear that causes stage fright.
2. Be Confident.
Easier said than done, right? But seriously, give yourself some credit! Embrace your ego and let yourself feel strong and capable–because you are. Hours and hours and years of years of your hard work and experience have prepared you for success in this moment. Take pride in the skills you have. Be empowered.
3. Remember, No One’s Perfect.
In fact, the majority of the people in your audience probably have zero experience with your instrument. Some have maybe never touched a violin, viola, cello, or bass in their life. So if you’re fretting over your vibrato in that one phrase being less than perfect, remember that there are people in the audience who don’t even know what vibrato is. It’s like picturing the audience in their underwear as if you have something going for you that they don’t. Truth is, you do.
4. Don’t Dwell on Mistakes.
Along with remembering that no one is perfect, keep in mind that that includes yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. The “perfect” performance doesn’t exist. So if you stumble a little, don’t just stop and give up or stew over what just happened. Instantly move on and get back to the music. Dwelling on your mistakes will lead to making even more mistakes because you’ve lost focus. And speaking of focus . . .
In the performance setting, there are a lot of details to distract you from the task at hand: the lighting, who’s out in the audience, your accompanist’s polka dot tie. Tune all of it out and focus on what you’ve practiced. There will be time to talk to that cute guy or girl in the audience after you’ve taken your bows.
6. Perform Before You Perform.
Don’t let your big performance be the first time you’ve played for anyone besides your teacher. Take every opportunity possible to play your repertoire before the scheduled performance date. Play for your friends, spouse, family, strangers, or even your cat. Schedule a small house concert or go play on a street corner if you have to.
7. Dress Comfortably.
What to wear might be a concern before your performance, but once you’re actually playing, it shouldn’t be. Avoid tight corsets, uncomfortable shoes, strangling neckties, or hot tuxedos. Some people even perform barefoot! Just make sure your clothing doesn’t distract from your focus while you play. Try on and practice your program in your performance-wear beforehand to be sure shifting, moving, or breathing isn’t more difficult than it needs to be.
I remember before playing a house concert once, I went to the back room and screamed my lungs out to relieve my nerves. Do something to get the adrenaline out of your system: jump up and down, run in a few circles, shake out your limbs. And once you’ve done that, calm yourself down. Deep, slow breathing and some stretching also helps release the tension that’s been building up in anticipation of your performance.
9. Be Familiar with the Venue.
If at all possible, run through your program at least once in the recital hall, auditorium, or performance space where you’ll be playing. You don’t want any surprises on performance day, like blinding stage lights, no piano for your accompanist, or weird acoustics that throw you off.
10. Enjoy Yourself.
Remind yourself why you love music and what this is all about. Then go ahead and let yourself go. Enjoy the spotlight and the support of your audience. Have a good time! After all, isn’t that what’s it’s all about?