By Dr. David Lee Fish, associate professor of music at Catawba College and author of “The 5-Day Stage Fright Solution”
Performance anxiety – or “stage fright” as it is more commonly known – can strike even the most accomplished musician.
It’s also something that impacts people from all walks of life. Public speaking engagements, just like music performances, can cause stage fright or performance anxiety.
Stage fright brings with it a range of symptoms that can be more than distressing and actually undermine your performance and even affect your wellbeing. Some even consider it like other anxiety disorders doctors will diagnose.
Your fear keeps you from performing at your best and can make walking on stage a big ordeal. It can even rob you of a standing ovation and be the deciding factor in how well you do during an important audition.
It’s crucial that you learn the tactics that will work best when overcoming performance anxiety. Fortunately, there is a surprisingly simple, proven approach for doing so.
Let’s begin with some good news.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with you if you become nervous when performing in front of others. The symptoms you experience – an increase in heart rate, a dry mouth, muscle tension, and more – are just a stress response created by your autonomic nervous system reacting to a perceived threat.
Your autonomic nervous system orders a rush of adrenaline that prepares your body for fight or flight. This is an essential response to a physical threat, but is counterproductive for performing artists who have to carry on with trembling hands and a quivering voice.
A perceived threat stands at the heart of performance anxiety. Sometimes it can be subtle. Other times the danger represented by a performance is clear and quite understandable, like before an audition for entrance into an important conservatory or school of music.
The stakes at such a moment are high, with the audition likely representing your only chance for entrance into that institution. Your hopes, ambitions, and all of your hard work rest on this single performance.
Whether stage fright is natural or understandable, you cannot afford to let it undermine you. If you’re like most of us, you’ve tried tackling your anxiety on your own in various ways.
Maybe you’ve tried to convince yourself that getting nervous doesn’t help. Maybe you’ve tried to follow the advice of some self-appointed expert. Maybe you’ve tried taking beta blockers. Maybe you’ve even tried imagining the audience in its underwear.
Whatever you’ve tried, it probably hasn’t helped much. You still get nervous, and there’s a reason – becoming anxious when you perform is as natural as becoming angry or sad.
In the same way you can never completely banish anger and sadness from your life, you cannot completely get rid of stage fright. In therapy, they refer to this as a dead man’s goal because it’s something only a dead man can achieve – don’t waste your time trying to pursue it.
While you may not be able to banish your stage fright, you can find your way beyond it. How?
Accept rather than fight it. As crazy as that may sound, acceptance represents the surefire way to escape the clutches of your fear. You can learn to do so through a process known as mindfulness.
Here’s the great part – mindfulness is not only effective but also quite easy to employ. Plus, you can start to enjoy its benefits almost immediately.
What exactly is mindfulness? It’s the process of concentrating your attention on what you’re doing while accepting any extraneous thoughts or feelings that get in your way.
This simple but powerful formula comes from ancient traditions like Zen Buddhism and tantric yoga, and is quickly gaining scientific validity in our own century. It has inspired a range of organizations including Fortune 500 companies – and even the United States military – to adopt mindfulness in a big way.
Imagine you’re throwing a party for your friends. Everyone is having a good time until your smelly, foul-mouthed neighbor decides to crash the event. Try as you may, you just can’t keep him out.
Worse, as you try to confront him you spend your concentration on him instead of enjoying your party. The answer to this dilemma is to let your neighbor in. When you stop fighting him, you’ll likely find out that he’s maybe not so bad, and you can go back to enjoying your party.
Imagine stage fright as the unwanted party guest in this story.
If your autonomic nervous system perceives some sort of threat in a performance, you are naturally going to become nervous. When you do, don’t try to resist your anxious thoughts or feelings – simply return your concentration to the performance each time it strays. It may be necessary to do so repeatedly when your performance anxiety is severe.
Achieving mindfulness is more than just thinking about it. Just like with meditation and yoga, employing tested breathing techniques are proven to calm your nerves almost without fail.
You breathe in through your nose, and collect the air in your stomach. Then, slowly let the air out of your mouth.
Before trying this mindful approach, some people can’t believe the simplicity of its recipe for finding your way beyond stage fright. “That’s all there is to it?” some people ask.
The answer is yes, and that’s the best part. You can try employing mindfulness even in your practice room or space – just imagine the audience is there, let yourself get nervous, then practice the tactics I’ve outlined above.
It’s like the old adage about the question of which is the best camera – it’s the one you have with you. The best method to beat performance anxiety is the one that is easiest to call upon when you need it the most.
To be clear, mindful acceptance will not make your anxiety magically disappear.
However, you will experience release from it as its grip on you loosens and your nervousness fades into the background. The increase in concentration you experience also serves as a gateway to the state of flow closely associated with peak performance in music and many other endeavors.
Try this then the next time you find yourself getting nervous on stage. Just accept your anxious thoughts and feelings and return your concentration to your performance, repeatedly if necessary. As you do, you will discover the way beyond your performance anxiety to better achieve the artistic results you work so hard to achieve.