The promise of performing in front of others is a promise of experiencing that butterflies in the tummy feeling. That nervous tension, a nervous energy, a teetering on the edge, sometimes almost regardless of the size of audience, the nature of the audience, the size of the space.
And I think this is a good thing. It demonstrates that you care about what you’re about to do and share with others. You care enough that you want to show yourself in the best light, you care enough that you want to do justice to the wonderful music you’re playing, you care enough that you want your audience to enjoy themselves.
There is a fine line though to this degree of caring. Yes, a dedication to our craft is good, but not to the point where our “fight or flight” response completely takes over, demonising our mind and body and incapacitating us!
As I highlighted earlier in the week, a few of us from the CGSV Guitar Orchestra were sharing our thoughts about this subject following a successful performance. We were all of a similar mind in approach and in our experiences in dealing with stage fright, or performance anxiety or whatever you choose to call it. So I thought I’d summarise and share.
From my own point of view, leading up into the concert I was in no way concerned, or nervous. Really thoroughly prepared, could probably play a lot of the music without thinking about it. Until I got to about an hour or so from the performance and I noticed the heart rate picking up a little, a little light perspiration on the nose (yeah, I get that on the nose and not on the brow like most people!), that slight wobbly tummy feeling. Others in the group were also feeling this too.
Which is silly when thinking about it logically – what’s the worst that could happen to us in a church in Toorak playing Bach and Telemann for an audience of about 50 Bach-loving people with an average age of about 60? Let’s say our lives were really not in any imminent danger.
So in dealing with my own nerves, I gently reminded myself of this fact. I also reminded myself that I had done HEAPS of preparation and I could play the music quite beautifully in fact and to just trust myself, let go, play and enjoy the moment. I also told myself to just focus on playing with a beautiful tone and making beautiful shapes with the music.
And that calmed things down for me A LOT. The nervous energy was still there a little to a small degree, but I like a little bit of that – it heightens the senses, helps me get lost in the moment and focus on making a beautiful sound.
Trusting myself, letting go and enjoying the moment – this is the important bit in addressing stage fright for me. And my Guitar Orchestra colleagues were also expressing that they believe in the importance of letting go (even if it feels like going out on a ledge a little!), and have found themselves in other situations where they let the well-trained, almost subconscious process take over and quiet down the analytic part of the mind (which in these situations can just interfere with its incessant questions and doubts and get in the way!).
Trusting yourself and letting go can also be the bit most difficult to quantify and explain how to do also! I think it’s one of those things, however, that you just need to have a go at.
Commit to giving it a go in your next performance, accepting that it may not feel too different from normal (or previous situation normal), but is the first step, a leap of faith if you will, in a journey towards addressing your stage fright and performing at your best. And with most things the more you do it, the easier and the more embedded those neural pathways become.
Try these things for your next performance:
(i) Remind yourself of your environment and the situation– you’re playing music not completing life-altering brain surgery, you’re playing music for an audience of music lovers (most probably), you’re playing music for an audience of music lovers who are “on your side”. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Are you in danger? (If the answer to that is yes, you may want to look at the types of places you’re playing!)
(ii) Keep your breathing deep. When we get a little stressed our breathing becomes shallow which limits the oxygen flowing around the body and can cause undue tension in the neck and shoulder. Breathe deeply and slowly. This keeps the oxygen flowing round your body and brain and helps to relax you.
(iii) Eat something small an hour so prior to the performance for energy – a light fuel stop will help keep your energy levels up.
(iv) Focus on your tone, phrasing and shaping perhaps (or some other larger focal point) rather than individual notes. This will start the process of helping you to trust that you really do know what you’re doing.
(v) Anticipate that you’re going to enjoy your performance! If you’re not sure, a bit of “fake it till you make it” can actually work and – hey presto! – you may just find that you are actually enjoying yourself!