Most of the musicians I know went a year and a half without performing in front of a live audience. Our band The Long Hunt played last on March 7, 2020 – the weekend right before the pandemic was in full swing and everything was shut down. While we and many others livestreamed or recorded performances, it’s just not the same, is it? I think all of us experienced live audience withdrawal. There’s something about the energy of live performance that can’t be mimicked virtually.
Here we are now, dare I say “post-pandemic,” and musicians are getting back on stage in front of people. With some surprise, I’ve heard many seasoned performers express sentiments like:
- I was really nervous to get back on stage again!
- I didn’t expect to feel so rusty.
- I was shaking – and I never was like that before.
Experiencing some level of stage fright, or performance anxiety, is normal. With time and experience, even musicians with strong stage fright typically find ways to combat and manage it. For some, the sense of anxiety morphs into simply excitement. The more you’re exposed to the anxiety of live performance, the less it will affect you in most cases, but long stints without it may make you feel like you’re performing for the first time. Go-to techniques you’ve developed for soothing your performance nerves may be less accessible to you or just not work anymore.
Here’s a short, focused MicroMusicMind piece on stage fright. I hope it’s useful to you. While I love performing, I’m curious how I’ll feel at our return show in August – I’ll definitely be using some of these techniques just in case. Good luck in all of your upcoming performances!
What is Stage Fright
Stage fright, or performance anxiety, is very common.
- Stage fright is a subtype of social anxiety, but people who have stage fright may not have trouble in other social situations.
- Many people feel a little nervous or apprehensive with public performance, and some people are filled with dread and panic.
- Emotions associated with stage fright are: fear of being judged, embarrassed, or making a mistake; vulnerability due to exposure (being seen or heard, being in the spotlight); and worries about body image and skill.
- The fear of public performance arouses the autonomic nervous system which triggers a fight-flight-or-freeze reaction.
- Symptoms can include: dry mouth, nausea, stuttering, rapid heartbeat, changes in vision, tics, tremors, stomach pain, sweating, and shakiness.
- Performance anxiety and associated symptoms can arise days, weeks, or months in advance of the performance as well as right before taking the stage and during the show.
- Certain situations can make performance anxiety worse. Some examples: having a lot riding on the show, an unfamiliar setup or stage, crowd smaller or larger than expected, bad stage monitoring, not feeling prepared, not having played live for a year and a half, etc.
How to Manage Stage Fright
Managing stage fright, or performance anxiety, takes some work. There are lots of techniques you can use.
- Address any underlying negative feelings you have related to yourself and performance. Are you afraid of being vulnerable? Making a mistake? Being judged?
- Increase your self-acceptance through positive self-talk and affirmations.
- Don’t focus on yourself – what you’re doing. Instead, think about why you’re here performing and how you’re adding value to the world through your performance.
- Accept the fact that things could go wrong. You could mess up, look strange, fall.
- Visualize the performance going well and feeling great afterwards.
- Don’t avoid it. Perform in front of others as much as possible in any way you can. The more exposure you have to what’s causing you anxiety, the less it will affect you and the more power over it you will have.
- Read books and/or seek counseling to learn techniques for managing fear and reducing anxiety.
- Use breathing exercises (try some of the exercises listed here; Paced Breathing is my favorite).
- Use pressure points (try some of the points listed here; I use Hand Valley Point all the time).
- Do a power pose (learn more about power poses and confidence here; try the hands-on-hips stance and see what you think).
- Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, stay hydrated. This is important all the time, but especially the day of your performance. Not only does it help fight and manage anxiety but you will feel stronger and more confident in your body.
- Let go so you can get into the flow – you won’t (can’t?) be nervous once you’re in that zone. Focus on the sound of the music, the sensation of the sine waves from your cab, the lights… . Focus on one thing so your other senses can let go.
- Make eye contact with your bandmates – feed off of their energy and give them access to your positive energy, too.
- Make eye contact with your audience – they’re there to experience the performance and be part of it. Seeing audience members as individual people versus a crowd can be helpful.
- Be cautious with alcohol and other drugs. Surely alcohol and other drugs can take the edge off or put you into a preferred state of mind, but do you really perform better? Some performers will argue yes but audience members may disagree.
- Talk with your doctor about medications or natural remedies (best if used in conjunction with other techniques).
- Practice your instrument regularly. Muscle memory can be a performance lifesaver if you freeze mentally!
- Practice your set and your performance regularly. Use the same gear and setup during practice and shows. A different feeling or sound may throw you off.
- Visualize a crowd in front of you during practice.
- Reframe stage fright or performance anxiety as a challenge, not a threat. Make each practice – and each show – a chance to prove yourself and gain mastery over your craft.
Learn More about Managing Stage Fright
Friendly reminder: Of Music and Mind content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the assistance of qualified providers (such as some of those found on the Resources page) with any questions you may have regarding any medical conditions.