Ok, we’re going to talk about something we all deal with.  Stage confidence… or rather the lack of it that then becomes stage fright!  This blog post has been rolling around in my head for quite some time.  I want to talk about this because I see it so frequently and have dealt with it for years myself.  And yet it seems all the students and friends who tell me about theirs seem to think they’re the only faulty, broken one who suffers from it.  I’m so glad to tell you you’re not alone!  Well, really I wish none of us had to deal with it, but here we are.  Together.


Stage fright is the fear of rejection that comes hand in hand with the vulnerability of performing.  First, let’s talk about why we get it.  My theory is this:  Waaaay back in hunter-gatherer times, our ancestors were dependent on each other for survival.  If you were ostracized by your family/group, you would probably starve to death or get eaten or something likewise terrible.  Thank goodness we evolved the instinct to be accepted by our peers/family/fellow humans!  This instinct kept us alive and fed.  


Nowadays this deep need to be accepted means that every performance comes with the possibility of failure (and amazingness!  But we’re afraid of failure so let’s talk about that).  


What would it mean to fail?  When we look at it logically, you might miss a note, a chord, a verse, maybe even have to restart your piece.  On paper, that doesn’t look terrible.  So what?  The world will in all likelihood continue to spin.  So then why does your heart hammer when you take the stage like you’ve just accidentally poked a sleeping bear?  Because stage fright triggers the fight or flight response.


Fight or flight (according to wikipedia right now), “ is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival.”  Hmmm… interesting, no?  We get on stage and our bodies translate that into, “YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE.”  


A couple of things happen when you feel this way:

  1. Your body dumps hormones into your bloodstream that triggers an acute state of stress

  2. Your breathing becomes shallow and quick (Prepare to run!!  Or fight!  Whatever!)

  3. Your heart rate accelerates (You know, for the running and the fighting.)


So it’s good to know that this is a predictable response.  If it’s predictable we can expect it and prepare ways to mitigate it.  We’ll get to techniques on that in a minute.  For now let’s talk about pie.


Our minds are like pie.  Mmmmmm….  pie.  When we’re completely focused on the music, our whole pie is devoted to expression and we are experiencing each note, the quality of our tone, etc.  We are in a state of flow in which high demand is met with high reward.  We aren’t thinking about what ifs or predicting a dire future.  We are right here in the present moment, enjoying what we’re creating.  We might even be perceiving the audience perceiving our performance in what becomes a rewarding cycle.  This is a win-win.  The audience can only enjoy your performance as much as you appear to.  And if you’re enjoying it, even if you miss a note, it can still be a pleasurable experience because your focus doesn’t waver.  


When you start cutting up pieces of your pie and you give some to, say, worrying about a passage that’s coming up - guess what?  You have less pie to give to the present moment (which is the only moment in which we have any kind of control).  Suddenly you’ve only got 80% or 70% (or less!) of your brain devoted to what’s going on right now and that’s when the mistakes happen.  


Think about how many screen there are in, say, your living room.  TV, phone, ipad, video game.  Think about how many signs you see driving down the road.  Flashing, neon, cardboard signs being twirled about by someone in a statue of liberty costume waving at you.  Our attention is a commodity in this world and everything and everybody wants a piece of your pie.  


And anything can steal your attention away during a performance if you let it.  Fear of failure, of ridicule, someone’s cough in the front row, anxiety about whether or not the audience is enjoying your performance.  I’ve even worried that my chosen piece is too long and tried to figure out ways to make it shorter while I was performing!  


And so your mind-pie is a fraction of the whole and you miss a note.  That’s not the bad part.  A missed note is just a forgettable missed note.  I might miss a note and then my monkey mind jumps around to how I should have practiced more.  Or I might forget a section of memorized music and then immediately my inner voice begins berating me.  The mistakes aren’t the problem, it’s the way we feel about the mistakes.  Mistakes are amoral, neither good nor bad.  They just are.  How we perceive them and move on is what’s important.  


And here’s the good news.  Perception is malleable.  I’ve seen it time and time again.  The two weeks before a recital, I am more counselor than music teacher.  In fact all year long, if you’re in lessons with me, we’ve talked about this.  We can change the way we feel about things and this is incredibly empowering.


Once, in a group class recital, one of my students was having an off day.  He missed notes he normally never struggled with.  It was a blessing, though, to other students watching.  He just laughed, shook his head, and kept playing.  He didn’t waste any time worrying about the notes that were already gone.  He just continued in the present and kept going.  My other students saw him make no big deal out of it and continue to enjoy playing.  That’s powerful stuff.


It takes practice to focus your attention like a laser.  It takes practice to be selfish with your attention-pie and not give it away to anything less than a real live crisis.  Even if the building catches fire, how long -really- until it reaches the stage?  


“Great!” you say.  Now I understand why my heart tries to jump out of my chest and run down the road when I perform and that I must stay focused on the present moment.  But really.  How do I deal with this?


Everyone is different and it takes trial and error to figure out what will work for you.  Here are some tips that can help:


  • Accept your performance as it is in this moment.  I like to tell my students that I’ve been performing now for 27 years.  I stopped being nervous 3 years ago.  I finally changed my thinking from “Oh goodness, what if I miss a note?”  to “I am definitely going to miss at least one note!”  For some reason that mental switcharoo made all the difference for me.  I could quit worrying that I might mess up and just practice a lot and then roll with it.

  • Practice relaxation.  Many of my students (adults, especially) carry a lot of involuntary tension while they play.  I work with them to relax as they play.  And you know what?  Their sound always improves.  Once you’ve achieved relaxation in practice, it’s easier to translate that to performance.

  • Deliberately take deep breaths.  One of the effects of the fight or flight response is involuntarily short breaths.  Take over control.  Breathe slowly and deeply several times before beginning.

  • Avoid caffeine before a performance.  I wish I had figured that one out much sooner.  Seriously, caffeine helps nothing about my performance unless I want to play everything spiccato.

  • Practice staying in the moment.  Pay attention to each note when you practice.  Don’t let your mind wander.

  • Practice slowly.  Practice as slowly as you can stand, and then go slower.  Get bored?  Get distracted?  Good!  Go back to laser focus and continue.

  • Play publicly often.  All of this takes time to master.  Be patient with yourself.  Play in nursing homes, on street corners, in coffee shops, wherever.  Practice getting nervous and getting calm.


So if performing music can be so terrifying, why do we even bother?  It takes time and effort to develop stage confidence and it’s a hard-won prize.  What keeps us mustering up the courage the thousand times before it’s easy?  


Because we need to.  Because applause stimulates wonderful, addictive chemicals in our brains and it’s great.  Because this form of communication is powerful medicine, people.  A meaningful, beautiful or funny performance can make people cry or laugh or do both at the same time.  Because this world needs beauty and you’re part of that.  Because obviously we’re driven to share these moments with each other and seriously, how cool is that?  

Because a good performance is a connection with the people you’re playing it for and with yourself.  So you’re simultaneously giving them a gift while they give you the gift of their attention.  That’s community-building.  That’s affirming.  That’s worth your time every time.  

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