Getting over stage fright is not as easy as imagining your audience in their underwear… it means producing a sea change in yourself.
For those of you who don’t know, I once had paralysingly bad stage fright. (I know paralysingly isn’t a word. Don’t write in, I like making words up…) It wasn’t enough to make me vomit, thank goodness. But I used to shake so hard I was in danger of falling over. And being onstage felt like a surreal dream where any awful thing was possible. For instance, offstage I was as rational as you are. But onstage, I consistently feared that an assassin in the audience would stab me if I sang a wrong note. All the advice I received was pretty useless – and I found myself feeling that I’d failed. What I didn’t realise was, that the advice was just plain wrong…
Stage fright – silence and myths
Some people assume that stage fright is inevitable or even desirable, and others that it’s not something you can do anything about. Many performers suffer in silence, dimly aware that they are more badly affected than those who just feel a healthy dose of nervous excitement before they perform, but at a loss to know what to do about it. They may feel inadequate and frustrated that they cannot give of their best. Others resort to beta blockers or alcohol or drugs to help them ‘loosen up’. As a near teetotaller who got over paralysing stage fright and loved performing (before physical issues stopped me doing it) I can tell you that no artificial substances are necessary.
Stage fright or ‘nerves’?
Some nervous excitement is normal. If you didn’t get a few butterflies in your stomach just before you’re on, you might give a very flat and low energy performance, but this shouldn’t last more than a few minutes and shouldn’t stop you giving of your best. If it does, you have a problem. If this is you, what you feel will vary on a continuum from ‘a bit hampered’ to ‘vomiting beforehand’ or ‘unable to breathe or stand up onstage’. The problem is, it is a continuum and therefore easy to ignore if it is getting worse. It is also easy to think, once you do have stage fright that you are only ‘cured’ once you never feel nervous, but this isn’t the case.
The first thing you should do
If you are experiencing a level of nerves which hamper you as a performer, the very first thing to do is to stop giving yourself a hard time about it. Just because you possess a great deal of technical skill, knowledge or a wonderful tone to your instrument, does not mean that you will be or should be a ‘natural’ who loves it onstage. The two are entirely separate and unrelated. So being nervous doesn’t negate your talent as a performer. That is the first thing to remember.
Onstage fright is normal - psychologically
Secondly, it is entirely normal for you to experience ‘fright’ in a situation which most human beings will never face in the course of their lifetimes. The condition of being given one shot at displaying an international level of skill in front of thousands, and sometimes recorded on media which can be played back forever, at a given and predetermined time and place, which is not necessarily purpose built, regardless of how you are feeling physically or emotionally, can hardly be called natural. Or even reasonable!
Onstage you’re in ‘dreamtime’
One particular frustration is that fears which seem silly offstage show up like assassins to ambush you once you’re onstage. My own personal belief is that the experience of being onstage, (under powerful lights with hundreds or even thousands of anonymous people staring at you alone, in silence, giving nothing away about themselves and their humanity and with the power at any moment to shame or ridicule you) is a situation in which any normal being would feel justifiably frightened unless they have been able to arm themselves in some way.
Put like that it starts to sound like an interrogation doesn’t it? Or some form of psychological torture. On a gut level, most people in supporting roles in the industry recognise the madness of the situation. And that is where their almost mystical sense of admiration for performers who can deliver in those circumstances comes from, and in turn, their unreasonable disappointment and sometimes a selfish panic when a performer is truly frightened. Their unconscious and faulty reasoning is that anyone who can face the live situation (as we have defined it) and thrive is superhuman. Therefore performers are superhuman. Therefore anyone that is talented but can’t conquer their nerves is not a ‘proper performer’. The idea that ‘naturals’ have an unconscious set of factors helping them to do their job, which can be learned and applied, doesn’t usually occur to them.
Performers enter a form of ‘dreamtime’ when they are onstage, whether they are performing competently or not. The factors I have described, not only resemble a police interrogation, but also the therapist’s couch. Most people know that therapy is deliberately set up to enable the client to project their worst fears or fantasies onto the emotionally anonymous analyst, enabling them to voice them in hopes of a ‘cure’. However, it doesn’t seem to occur to most people that the same thing is happening onstage, only with hundreds of emotionally anonymous ‘analysts’ and none of them offering help or bound by an ethical code! What seems to happen to the psychologically unprepared performer in that ‘silence’ and scrutiny, is that the fears in their psyche come to life, and are as ‘real’ and as keenly felt as any of us feel the horrors of our nightmares whilst we are dreaming.
What can you do about stage fright?
You can fight and conquer stage fright on three distinct fronts.
Practical approaches to dealing with stage fright
If you are onstage with godawful monitoring or playing to tiny or hostile crowds the problem is not really you. Sort these issues out on a consistent basis – whether that means bringing your own engineer or changing your venue/audiences. Performing has to be a positive experience and one which you look forward to. If it consistently isn’t, then you are conditioning yourself to hate it in a very powerful way, because the adrenaline released during a performance makes your subconscious mind regard it as a ‘significant’ event.
Psychological questions to ask yourself if you’re dealing with stage fright
If you suffer a great deal onstage, then it is likely that you have hidden attitudes to yourself and your work that are hampering you. You must deal with these first, or nothing else will stick. I’m using the example of a singer here – because that’s closest to my experience – but do apply these suggestions to your own craft.
- Are you a perfectionist? Have you come from a studio environment where you craft a vocal for months to a standard where it will stand repeated critical listening? That is NOT what is required for live performance. I used to think that this was a cop out, but I now understand that the psychological experience of the audience makes other things much more important. If your audience wanted a perfect rendition from you they’d listen to the record. I don’t mean you shouldn’t rehearse and make the performance as perfect technically as you can, but you need to understand that something else that’s very powerful is going on here.
When you form part of an audience, your focus and your silence cause you to enter a sort of light trance. In other words, you enter ‘dreamtime’ too. You do it when watching a film or reading or concentrating on some work as well. For the audience, what becomes paramount is their experience of the performer as a person. The emotional connection that comes from being in their presence overrides a lot of other detail for them. It is a common mistake to regard the audience as passive. They are actually working quite hard. The experience of live ‘magic’ is something that you create between you, not something which, as a performer you can create alone. The things which audiences bring to a performance are their focus and their excitement. Both of these heighten their sense of the significance of the event for them. The thing which you as a performer, need to bring, is technical competence and absolute focus to help them along. What they want from you, is a sincere insight into why you love your material, right down to the very note you are singing right that second. They are not musicians (generally) and they want to experience music through your eyes, so to speak. This is why you can have a voice with a tone like a vacuum cleaner and still give them a mesmerising and charismatic performance.
It is this that makes people want to listen to singers of all levels of ability and tone. This is the thing you must hold onto if you want to be confident and open enough to give them your own authentic voice. You must be convinced that whatever your shortcomings, what they are there to hear is your unique take on that material. A ‘friend’ analogy can help. Say your friend is interested in science and is explaining a few rudiments to you. Part of your pleasure in the interaction is the fact that you listening to the facts via your friend’s enthusiasm. That enthusiasm and the pleasure of sharing with your friend are what make it interesting for you. You don’t sit there grousing because they aren’t the leading scientist on that theory in the world. You don’t need them to be the best to enjoy it. Well, your audience want your enthusiasm too and authentic connection with you too. Yes, you. Even if you aren’t Maria Callas or Joni Mitchell or Christina Aguilera.
The other thing you should know is that the state the audience are in makes it virtually impossible for them to listen objectively and critically. Even after many years as a musician I have failed to hear duff notes in a performance by someone else and I know other good musicians who do the same. The likelihood is that the audience have not spotted your flaws, so carry on regardless.
- Do you feel like less of a singer if you make mistakes? What is your tolerance level? This is often a problem for singers who have come from a recording background. In recording, there is pretty much zero tolerance and for good reason. However, performances on record don’t happen ‘in the field’ or in ‘real time’. That inability in your audience to be as critical is what helps you here. Be realistic and aim to make a performance 80% perfect, not more. If you are falling below 60% then you have a right to be upset with yourself but don’t expect 100% every time. Your audience don’t need you to be perfect to be blown away. This is also crucial to remember if you have a cold or are under some other form of stress. Better that you have turned up and are really ‘present’ for them than that you cancel (unless it will hurt your throat of course). Be honest with them and they will love you for it. If you are a solo singer and have lots of fans out there remember, no one really wants a generic show. They want to know they were there on the night you had a cold or only just made it to the theatre. That’s what makes that performance unique to them alone. You are not a machine. That’s what makes you special.
If being critical about technique is a particular problem for you and your internal voices nag you about it in a performance, then try giving them something else to do. Set another sort of goal and write it down before you go onstage e.g. Be more informal when I talk to my audience between numbers, or be funnier, or display more passion whilst I sing, or make my diction better. Then you can rate your performance according to this goal and not technical perfection. It really helps to keep you fresh too.
- Do you imagine critical comments or fear actual danger from your audience if you make a mistake, whilst you are in the grip of nerves? This problem can often strike, seemingly out of nowhere in your late twenties and early thirties. The subconscious mind seems to harbour a number of time bombs from your childhood which only go off then. Suddenly, you may find you have life issues or stage issues which you never did before. Firstly, regard the voices, characters or comments as your friends, or at the very least useful information. They are signposts to exactly what the problem is. Chances are, it has nothing to do with performing at all, but, rather like when you fall asleep and dream, the experience of being onstage brings all sorts of other buried things up.
You may find it useful to write down exactly what is happening for you. What do your voices say? What do you fear will happen? What makes you shake? Or feel sick? What is going on for you internally? You will end up with a series of comments or even characters who haunt your audience, heckling you or even threatening you physically – as in the case of my ‘assassin’. It is crucial for you to understand that these characters who speak these lines are inside you yourself. Therefore they do not belong in your audience, but onstage with you, where you can dialogue with them or even fight them physically if necessary. If you have any actor or clowning friends, then ask them to help you to do some improvisation/empty chair work with your demons. Bring them up onstage with your friends for support and act their part and dialogue with them. If you need to fight physically with them, I highly recommend doing some stage fighting courses and then duelling with them or having a brawl. My assassin disappeared immediately, once I did this and I haven’t seen him since. Clowning or fooling courses can also be good places to get support if you tell the group what you are experiencing and ask them to help you work with it.
Psychological approaches to dealing with stage fright
Understand your audience
When I was younger, it was hard for me to understand the magic of live performance. It was just something I didn’t ‘get’. I used to listen to people talk about being transported by the performance of an artist, with a mixture of puzzlement and envy. The first stage of learning when you’re a singer is to get out there and experience how it can be at its best, as an audience member. At least then you know what you are aiming for and you have some good points of reference. Don’t worry too much for the moment about style and ‘never being able to do what they do, because you’re just not that kind of performer’. It is important that you feel transported and feel that magic for yourself as part of a huge crowd.
It is important to do this so that you understand your audience’s experience (partly to combat that unnatural and apparently hostile ‘silence’ I talked about earlier) and what they want from you. Do this whilst you are battling your nerves. Go and see other performers who are nervous (maybe at an open mic night or at a poetry club) and check your reaction to them as a member of the audience. Here are some truths about your audience for you to test out yourself as you do this.
- Your audience wants you to do well. How do you feel when you see a nervous performer? Aren’t you secretly rooting for them even though you feel helpless? Aren’t you disappointed if they can’t give of their best? The audience are almost always on your side, even as much as your best friend would be. They are generally not the impassive or even malicious ‘analysts’ or ‘critics’ you feared they were when you were onstage alone.
- Your audience’s role is a silent one. Therefore their only way of enjoying themselves is vicariously through you. Therefore you have to enjoy it as a performer first. As you know, ‘catching another’s feelings’ is common in everyday interactions. When someone else smiles, you feel like smiling back. When you see a couple gazing into each other’s eyes enraptured, you feel a bit soppy yourself. So, your audience are not really being critical (whatever your fears are). Even if some members are ‘cool’ critics apparently above being pleased, at their most human core, they actually need you to enjoy the performance, otherwise they can’t. By the way, cynics are secretly people who’ve been hurt and disappointed and are actually desperate for you to live up to their hopes. They don’t dare let this show in case you disappoint them again. Delight them and they’ll never forget it. As you sit in the dark as part of an audience, notice how relatively helpless you are.
- You are never more alone, open, vulnerable and human as when you are sitting in the dark as a member of an audience. Think about it. You are not conferring with anyone. Your reaction is yours alone and secret, unless you choose to share it briefly. Your experience of your connection with the performer for most of the performance is that of a one on one meeting. You are at your most childlike in many ways. You are free to cry or laugh and no one will think the worse of you. It is a very intense form of communication! The crucial thing to remember that is that this childlike state descends on almost every member of an audience as soon as the lights go down, no matter how exalted as a person they may be ordinarily. This is true for the MD of your record company as well as some megastar with a complimentary ticket. We are all children who long to be delighted. As a performer what you can take away from knowing this, is to talk to each audience, however huge, as if it were just one open, vulnerable, special person. This is the way to create charisma and intimacy. To check this, notice how you feel when a performer address you as a ‘crowd’, or doesn’t look at you, and how you feel when they appear to be telling you something special or intimate, as if you were their best friend. Notice how you feel when they appear to be vulnerable but not inhibited. Are you sympathetic? Delighted? Touched?
Experiential approaches to dealing with stage fright
Once you are armed with these basic bits of knowledge about the nature of audiences, you can make the experience you get work harder for you. As you move from being audience member to performer, there are some more things for you to understand about the change in focus that needs to take place.
- Remember you need to ‘transition’. Knowing how to be an audience member is automatic. When you are in the audience watching your favourite performer, you mustn’t succumb to that state to the degree that you believe that you can’t do it yourself. It is very tempting because you are playing being an audience member for all you are worth. You are silent and helpless as the action unfolds in front of you. Knowing this is particularly important if you are guesting with a band or at an open mic night, and are in the audience until your number comes up. Understand that you will feel that you can’t sing and could never sing and you don’t know why you ever promised to sing because it’s patently something you just can’t do. I always used to feel like this at that point. Don’t worry. When you cross that line that divides audience from performers, your abilities will be magically restored.
- Next, get some experience of performing where learning how to be, in front of people, is all you have to concentrate on. There is no need to make your learning curve harder than it is by giving yourself 50 things to get right at once. I recommend speaking circles as a way of learning to feel comfortable without script or props or any pressure to be an expert or to entertain. You can find them at www.speakingcircles.com . They develop your capacity for what they term ‘relational presence’ with an audience. This is a very low stress but high impact way to move forward especially if your stage fright is serious, but I also recommend it as a way of going back to basics and building a very firm foundation to your whole stage persona. Essentially, what you will learn is that your audience likes you, and wants to see you, even if you aren’t doing very much at all. That will stop you being inauthentic or trying too hard later on. I think this is important even if you seem to be a ‘born entertainer’ and habitually use lots of showy or noisy ways of getting your audience’s attention. There is no substitute for experiencing this and knowing it in your gut, for the rest of your life. It will give you confidence in social situations too.
- Be yourself. Get over the worry that comes from being able to ‘hide’ behind songs or a ‘diva’ or ‘rock and roll’ persona, and fearing that you can never show the real you. All of us are about seven years old inside. Sometimes we are much younger than that. This vulnerable little person we carry around inside is someone we must come to trust and love. Because however old you get, this is who you truly are, and you are never going to grow up. If you were raised with a very intellectual, perfectionist or even abusive model of the world, then loving and trusting this inner you will be very hard, and you will fear showing it onstage more than anything. What you must come to understand is that this inner you is the source of all your passion and energy and inspiration. That is why you cannot afford to ignore it. For this I recommend clowning or fooling courses. And therapy if necessary of course.
The clown particularly (but also the fool) trains so that they can regress back to a much younger self. The ‘stupid’ clown is typically about three years old. The ‘naughty’ clown perhaps about four, and the ‘know it all’ clown about six. In order to walk around onstage without a clue what you’re going to say or do next, truly being three years old, you have to have learned to be comfortable with that vulnerable self. The fool allows you to be inner selves of all ages, and is useful if you fear what will happen if you just let yourself go. If you don’t know ‘who is in there’ or fear what will come out of your mouth, this is the place to make peace with all those darker selves and to give them acceptance. My own stage persona was very serene and almost spiritual. It was disconcerting to find parts of my inner self that wanted to leap around onstage, yelling four letter words and laughing… But if I hadn’t learned to accept them, I’d have been afraid to be myself onstage and I’d be very ‘tight’ and inhibited as a performer. It takes only moments to write this, but years to learn it well. So get out there and make a start! Do it on a course or in private with a clowning buddy in a confidential setting, and not with your core audience. No one will ever know and it will make your stage presence much richer, freer and deeper. Don’t forget that you can practise singing as various characters in this setting too. This will help you when you get to the next step.
- Practice being onstage. Try to find non-pressured places to practice where you get some emotional support. This could be a poetry night, writer’s group or folk club. Talk to people in the clubs and make a few friends especially amongst the regular performers. Knowing they are there when you finally face that ‘rabbit in headlights’ moment is going to help. Eventually it will be your turn and to begin with, you will feel horribly nervous and not be able to do your best. Never mind. Keep going to the clubs regularly and getting up and doing something. Eventually, the novelty of the experience will wear off and your subconscious mind will decide that it’s no big deal. If your problem has been serious, this is only likely to happen if you have done all the foundation work though.
- Gather up the feelings. My final tip, for when you can face your local folk club audience or whatever, with your eyes open and no nerves and really show them what you love about what you’re doing is this. Memorise exactly how they look. Remember the good feeling coming off them. Store away the feeling of how it is to be sharing what you love with people that want you to do well, support you, compliment you, and feel like your stage friends. Now carry them away with you in your heart, and whenever you face a large or even a hostile crowd, as you walk onstage, close your eyes and see them out there in the auditorium (or field, or whatever). Call up their faces and their goodwill, and perform for them. They will give you strength, and remind you that this is what you were born to do. It will fill that huge ‘silence’ of the audience you are faced with and haven’t had a chance to get to know yet, and enable you to see the vulnerable, transported beings that they are, nevertheless.
This has been a long post because solving stage fright is complex and can take years. If you have a creative career issue why not try my creative career coaching service. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free coaching consultation to find out if I’m the right coach for you.