How do musicians beat stage fright? The lump in your throat, that sick feeling, those shaky knees and trembling voice. The sweat you can feel in your cold, pale hands. Trying to overcome that paranoid, anxious feeling, all because you are scared of making mistakes, looking like an idiot or failing the audition that you have worked so hard for. That voice in your head, either convincing you that you are going to be crap, or so distracting that for the life of you, you cannot concentrate.
'Am I in tune? Why aren't they dancing? I can see people talking, are they talking about me? The hard bit is coming up', and a billion more things that poison your mind like some deranged postman constantly delivering bad news into your consciousness. The quality of your performance is only as good as your potential minus interference, and even knowing this, it doesn't make it any easier to deal with. The good news is we are in good company. Here are some performers who suffer really badly from stage fright, it`s a pretty big list!
- Ozzy Osbourne
- Andrea Bocelli
- Katy Perry
- Rod Stewart
- Barbra Streisand
- Steven Tyler
- Donny Osmond
- Carly Simon
- Renee Fleming
- Edward Van Halen
The bad news is that it doesn't make our anxiety about performing in front of people any less real. There are many stories I have in my past where stage fright has been a psychological bully, tripping me up and rubbing my face in the dirt. One of my first gigs on guitar was in Liverpool. I was in a short lived band and one of our songs was 'Are You Gonna Go My Way' by Lenny Kravitz. I was the rhythm guitarist and rehearsals for our first gig were going well. On the big night, the lead guitarist came up to me and said 'I really struggle with the solo, so whatever you do, please don't rush the riff or I won't be able to keep up with the tempo'. I replied, 'No problem'.
Then, our band was called up onto the stage, the room lights dimmed, and the stage lights were set. I could hear the audience cheering. I thought 'this must be what it feels like to play at Wembley'. I walked onto the stage, took my place, and nervously tried to find the jack socket, I plugged in my guitar. My heart was pounding so hard it could have replaced the kick drum and the lights blinded me to so all I could see were silhouettes of my future critics. I looked at the drummer who counted me in as I looked down to see and struck the string for the first note. I played the riff absolutely fine, except it was about twice the speed of the original. The crowd were cheering as I glanced over at the lead guitarist. His jaw was now grazing the floor as the realization hit him that he would have to play the solo twice as fast as he could manage. I couldn't hear what he was saying to me while we were playing, but I could read his lips. He was using words that would be best reserved for a Quentin Tarantino movie on steroids, and they were certainly aimed directly at me, and if I read his words right, he was very creative. All the while giving me the biggest stink eye ever. We can laugh about it now. I can, anyway. There were many other times where this fear would be like a wild animal I couldn't control (the nerves, not the other guitarist), and knew if I didn't find a way to keep it caged up it would be the ruin of me. So I did!
...Potential - interference = Final Performance...
I could probably make a million points to help with stage fright, but here are the ones I think would help the most. I am going to assume you are practised up, well prepped musically and have done all you can on your instrument prior to the performance.
1. Make sure you eat (small meals rather than one big meal) or you will feel weak and your concentration will not be on top form, and you`re going to need it! And stay hydrated! Last thing you need is a mouth as dry as a sandy cracker.
2. Set yourself up with a reward after your performance, anything that you can look forward to.
3. Put the performance into perspective. You`re a musician, not a Dr or a dentist. If you make a million mistakes, you`re just going to hurt the audiences ears. If you make a mistake as a Dr or dentist you could seriously hurt someone. Making a few mistakes onstage is just not that bad, and most of the time they won't even notice!
...Most audiences won't even know you just made a mistake...
4. Embrace the nerves and accept it you`re human! It means you care and you`re not a robot! In fact, there are MANY times where the most successful in the entire world have messed up! It`s ok. Even top singers such as Adele and Christina Aguilera have made mistakes. Who cares?
5. Believe it or not, to put in the best performance of your life nerves can play an important part, they will allow you to deliver something you would not be able to do in the practise room. Something Rocky touched on in Rocky 5.
...Nerves Play An Important Part In a Great Performance...
6. Pretend you`re someone famous! If you`re a singer, pretend you`re Beyonce, if you`re a guitarist, pretend you`re Jimmy Page! We all did that in the past at some point anyway, we might as well make it work for us! Some people still look in the mirror and pretend they`re Richie Sambora, I reckon... (ahem…).
7. Allow yourself to make at least one mistake. Yep, give yourself permission! With a margin of error you will relax a lot more and you will be less likely to make a mistake.
8. Don`t place so much importance on this particular performance. Fast forward, this time next year it will be a distant memory and you will probably have done many more since. You`ll regard it as a “shoulder shrugger”, even if you nailed it!
9. Work from the smallest audience you can to the biggest you can, baby step your way through it. How? Start with your family in the living room, progress to all your friends and their parents. If you`re a singer, karaoke is great training ground. No-one has to know you`re a star in training. Then busk in the street, the first thing you`ll notice is that most don`t bother to notice! Progress to open mic nights, just do one song, stay for a bit, then leave. Come back the week later and play 2 songs. Always push the boundary, but only by a little, with the idea being you are always slightly uncomfortable but it`s manageable. And repeat this often, you will control stage fright faster. Experience is the key here. The problem with being in the comfort zone is nothing ever grows there.
10. If you mess up, smile! This takes away the seriousness of the situation. If you smile when you mess up, you`ll find the audience will smile back. A smile when you`re nervous can be powerful. Adele knows this, and uses it herself (I know I have already mention her, but she really is good at coping when things go wrong!)
11. Write your fear on a piece of paper, don`t show anyone. Fold it up, and leave it in your jacket in the dressing room, or side or the stage. Just not ON the stage. Say to the note, “I will deal with you later”. Afterwards, make sure you do pick up the note on your way out. This is important or leaving it in the dressing room won`t mean anything. You are giving yourself permission to have time off from your fear. It`s a good idea to repeat this a few times before the performance perhaps using your practise room so you get used to the ritual. I told this to someone who was an absolute wreck a fortnight before a music exam. On the day, he didn't need the note, and he got a distinction, and performing in front of people has been far easier since.
12. Take a few slow breaths. When you`re nervous, you can suffer “time distortion” and things feel like they move along a lot faster than they actually do. Make every effort to slow yourself down, even to the point of talking slower and moving slower.
13. Believe it or not, the audience are 100% on your side and want to see you do well. Why? Because they don`t want to feel awkward. When you think you`re messing up, just remember they are rooting for you, they want to enjoy the performance. They are on your side. Yes, they are.
14. Do NOT drink something with a high caffeine and/or sugar content before the performance. If you are nervous this type of drink will make it far worse.
15. The worst case scenario (which we often tend to focus on) might go something like this. You fell onto the stage, came in at the wrong time, with the wrong song, you swore and forgot you were holding the mic in front of you, you played out of tune, you forgot the words, the audience laughed and pointed and you fell off the stage and broke the chairs. You may not get asked to play again. Then again, you might. Are you still alive after that shocking performance? Probably. Will you get over it? Most likely. And this is the WORST CASE SCENARIO, which if we`re being honest almost NEVER happens. In fact, if all that happened to you then either you`re extremely unlucky and you need to work on your preparation/drink less alcohol on gig night or you should never be allowed near a stage. Or heavy machinery.
16. This one sounds a bit brutal, but it`s not always about you. The audience WILL survive even if you don`t perform at your best.
17. There is no such thing as failure, only feedback. Repeat that. There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.
18. Imagine the performance was great. Now play out the whole day but in reverse. You were celebrating with your friends, you have been booked to play for another 5 nights because you did so well, you absolutely killed those songs, you walked on stage feeling confident, you were driving to the gig listening to some positive music, you were getting ready, you were practising, you were having lunch, and so on, to when you woke up.
19. I would recommend the book “The Inner Game of Music” to every musician.
20. Do NOT give up trying to beat it. One day, you will.
These would be my top 20 practical things to do to beat stage fright, and I hope you find them useful. It would be a shame to let something like stage fright stop you from doing what you love. It takes many prisoners, don't let it take you too.