Stage fright: seven steps for musicians

Musicians, parents or teachers, how do you cope with anxiety? Here is our seven-step roadmap to better understand and tame it.

Stage fright: seven steps for musicians
©Leonard Mc Lane/gettyimages

Don’t feel guilty

Stage fright is a natural reflex. It’s our brain’s reaction to a situation interpreted as dangerous. Throughout evolution, this natural environment’s survival mechanism has transferred into our contemporary context, with a more psychological, abstract and lasting stress. But its expression remained the same.

Our body responds with a series of physiological manifestations supposed to protect us or allow us to defend ourselves: tremor, sweaty palms, blurred vision, dry mouth, stiff limbs, and the list goes on. Did you know, for example, that hand perspiration allowed us to better hold our grasp on trees while fleeing a predator?
Everyone has it, even though the manifestations may vary in intensity.

Bring some perspective

It’s not because we are nervous that we are worse than any other, on the contrary, it’s because we are far from incapables that we are nervous. Great musicians have suffered from this ailment: from Frederick Chopin, Vladimir Horowitz, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul McCartney, Maria Callas or Barbara Streisand, they all experienced it. And it is very likely that just about everyone who precedes you, follows you, or is by your side on the stage, feels the exact same way. Mind you, stage fright does not spare orchestra musicians, quite the opposite!

Know thyself

Analyse your stage fright symptoms and anxiety-inducing situations to be able to work on them more efficiently. Make a list, try to understand when and how they affect your performance. Do you suffer from physiological manifestations, like Jacques Brel, who used to vomit from anxiety just before going on stage, or psychological manifestations, like blackouts, which have long troubled Alexandre Tharaud? This will allow you to find the method that best suits your stage fright. The pool of possibilities is vast: meditation, sophrology, psychoanalysis, homeopathy, Alexander or Feldenkrais methods or hypnosis. Faced with stage fright, each person is different and there is no miracle recipe.

Make time your ally

You will not be able to change anything overnight before an audition. Stage fright must be worked on during preparation time, backstage before performing as well as during the concert, or even during your training. Managing your stage fright can be taught! Setting yourself long-term goals and taking every opportunity to perform in public are tiny steps closer to getting rid of this fear permanently. 

Talk it over 

There is no point in trying to hide your anxiety or trying to fight the symptoms by any means. The more you actively hide it, the more contracted your muscles will be, leaving you very little energy to pull yourself together. By talking to others, you will realize that you are not alone, you might even get some good advice. For some people, joking about their condition just before they start can be a true relief!

Switch from fear to trust

Accept yourself as you are, with your own strengths and weaknesses. Do not compare yourself to others, do not fall into competition trap. Concentrate on the message and emotions you want to convey in your performance and the rest will follow. Jonas Kaufman reports that he suffered from terrible stage fright in his youth, but once he felt as one with the repertoire he sung, his professional career took off. Great joy replaced fear and the stage fright was gone.

Be positive

Stage fright can become your best friend. As unbelievable as it may sound, if you can tame it, the adrenaline rush it releases can take you further than you think. If you multiply the opportunities to perform in public and perform with others, you will definitely get out of your comfort zone. Don’t worry about what to say, make the most of the joys which come from sharing music!