Performing and Stage Fright

Performing in front of an audience can be a nerve wracking experience. We can become tense even just thinking about being on stage in front of people let alone when we actually have to perform on stage. This is called Stage Fright and to give you a feeling for what it is like, here are some of the experiences that I’ve actually had on stage: something that you’ve practiced a million times suddenly escapes your brain and you can’t remember your part in a song and you are the one starting the song; you miss your cue to come in at a certain time in a song causing your fellow band mates to try to adjust on the fly and then you feel bad which causes you to doubt yourself opening you up for further mistakes; you experience muscle cramps because you are so tense which impact your ability to play; you stand still on the corner of the stage and don’t move at all and then think about how boring you must be for the audience making you feel worse; you feel sick to your stomach and want to throw up. 

This doesn’t sound very fun at all, does it? Then why would performer after performer state that performing in front of a live audience is one of the most exhilarating experiences you can have? I can tell you from personal experience that I play my best and have the most fun in front of an audience. The feeling of accomplishment that I feel during and after a gig feels just like you finished a huge paper in school and just passed it in knowing that you did really well, or finally passing your driver’s license test after several failed attempts. These feelings of accomplishment and triumph are some of the most intense feelings you can have. And if you can learn to master stage fright, you will find that you will want to perform live as much as possible. The feelings of accomplishment repeated with each performance will give you confidence in yourself which will help you out in key areas of your life. 

So what exactly is Stage Fright? Let’s take a moment and examine what it really is. When we are able to understand something, we become much better at handling it. Stage Fright is a result of the bodies Primary Threat Response – the “fight or flight syndrome”. Because you are afraid to go on stage and your body senses this fear, it puts you in defense mode and prepares you to protect yourself from an attack: it gives you a shot of adrenaline to give you extra energy to fight or run, your palms become sweaty, your vision narrows to focus on one thing (your perceived attacker), your body tenses up, your heart rate increases. As you can imagine, none of these responses are very helpful when you are on stage, especially when you need to be calm and relaxed to perform at your best. 

So how do you combat this? There are a number of techniques that performers use. Any one of them will work, however I find that using several of them works best for me. 

Be prepared. While you can still forget your parts on stage no matter how much practicing you’ve done, if you don’t practice you stand a much greater chance of forgetting them. Plus, if you’ve thoroughly practiced beforehand, you can go on stage with added confidence knowing that you are as prepared as you can be. If I have a gig on a weekend, I typically try to find time during the upcoming week to go over each song in the set list. 

Imagine what you will feel like afterwards. Before going on stage, think about how you will feel after you are done performing. You know that you will feel elated and relaxed and very happy. If you go on stage already having this feeling you will feel much better right from the start. 

Warm up. Before going on stage, practice a few finger exercises to get the fingers warmed up and ready to go. The finger per fret exercise works great for this one. Make sure that when you do these exercises you are practicing in a very relaxed state. Don’t be tense. 

Stick to the basics. When you start performing, concentrate on easy things at first – don’t try to do anything fancy, especially with the first few songs. After a while you’ll calm down and be more relaxed. We all perform better in a relaxed state. Many performers will start their first set with a couple of easy songs to warm up the band and get everyone feeling good about themselves. 

Use psychological tricks. The following techniques are among the best and help me out the most: 

Just smile – smiling before and during your performance makes you feel better about yourself and when your bandmates see you smiling it makes them more relaxed. Plus audience members always like to watch performers who appear to be having a lot of fun. 

Relax – Force yourself to take a deep breath and exhale and let your shoulders relax, even if just for a second. The act of relaxing disengages the fight or flight response that your body may be having, making you loosen up and feel and perform better. 

Imagine the audience in funny costumes – if you can look out in the audience and imagine them in ridiculous costumes like bunny suits or in their pajamas it can make the audience seem like less of a threat making you feel more relaxed. 

Imagine the audience as your best friends – if you think of them as a group of your closest, most sincere friends who only want the best for you, this can take the edge off. Also, in reality, every audience wants you to do well, so relax! 

Remind yourself that you’re not perfect – mistakes will happen and this is normal for every performer, even the most accomplished. So forgive yourself when this happens – and this is important – SMILE – and then move on. This one is a big secret from some of the best performers out there. If they suddenly smile for no reason, you can bet that a mistake just happened. Furthermore, 99% of the audience never even knows when a mistake happens, so just smile and move on

You can do it too – know that thousands of other people also perform live besides yourself. Your situation is not unique. If they can do it, you can do it too. 

So these are some of the finest tricks in the business about performing. See which ones work best for you. 

Performing live is an incredible experience and one that many people do not do out of fear. The secret here is that they don’t know what they’re missing. So embrace the wonderful experience of performing live and make your life more exciting and enjoyable!

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