Walking the Plank – Coping with Stage Fright

Happy Flute Friday and Happy Halloween! Today’s blog post is devoted to the subject of Fear (*cue blood curdling scream).

Stage fright has kidnapped the best of all of us at one point or another. We may practice for hours, days, weeks, and months and still find that when the lights hit the stage our stomachs hit the floor. Self-doubt and panic take the place of rhythmic stability and beautiful tone. The music seems foreign as the audience peers at us through the darkness. An empty audition room suddenly seems like an invisible prison cell. We imagine our loved ones fidgeting in the audience, uninterested or, worse, judgmental of our playing. The voice in the back of our head whispers convincing lies suggesting that our playing is a representation of who we are as humans. Wrong notes are an indication of weak character.

This, of course, is nonsense.

Unfortunately by the time we realize the silliness of our thoughts it is too late. The curtain has been closed.

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There are a number of ways to mitigate stage fright to guarantee a stronger, more comfortable performance that accurately displays our talent and level of skill. Below is a list of a few simple solutions that I have found most effective over the years. I have touched on some of these briefly in previous posts but having a checklist like this somewhere handy before a performance or audition will easily help you confront your fear and transform anxiety into power. Performing does not have to be scary but it should always be fun (or at least personally rewarding).

  1.  Eat a banana. Besides the obvious benefit of eating something healthy and not performing on an empty stomach (which is never advised), bananas are a natural source of beta blockers. According http://www.healthextremist.com, “Beta blockers are prescribed to treat anxiety, reduce blood pressure, or heart conditions. Beta blockers prevent adrenaline from binding to beta receptors which results in lower blood pressure and pulse rate, which normally skyrocket when experiencing anxiety and under stress.” I attended an audition several months ago where we were supplied with bananas in the greenroom before the first round of auditions. Musicians live by this time honored tradition. Eat a banana half an hour before your performance and another during intermission. Your heart will stop racing and your breathing will return to normal enabling you to return your focus to the music and away from your physical discomfort.untitled (34)
  2. Hydrate. Seems obvious but we often momentarily forget about what is good for us when we are nervous. Drinking water helps us to correct dry mouth (which interferes with our ability to breath properly) and replenishes tired muscles pre and post performance.
  3. Meditate. If you have never taken a meditation class, sign up immediately. In its simplest form, meditation is the practice of shutting out the world by focusing exclusively on your breath. Find a quiet place prior to your performance and either sit cross-legged or lay down  on the floor. Inhale and exhale while you mentally scan your body for any tension or muscle discomfort. Direct your inhalation toward these areas and mentally revive the area with new energy. A decent mediation lasts for 10-15 minutes however you may download longer guided meditations online or on IPhone apps such as Calm. YouTube also offers select meditations however I find that the Calm app offers much for flexibility and control over time limits. Regardless of the method you use, mediation will help you ease stress and redirect your focus back onto the music using relaxed concentration. untitled (35)
  4. Breathing Bag. I have discussed uses of the Breathing Bag in previous posts but I find that simply breathing in and out of the bag prior to a performance quickly calms the nerves and widens breathing patterns. This is why people suffering from panic attacks breathe into a paper bag. The sensation of breathing in one’s own air opens up capillaries and sends oxygen straight to our brains (where we need it during a performance!). Don’t have a Breathing Bag? A paper bag will do. Along those same lines…
  5. Take a few finger breaths. Create the shape of an “L” between your index finger and thumb on your left hand. Place your lips wide against the lower side of the “L” where your index finger meets your thumb and breathe deeply. I sometimes refer to this technique as “Grizzly breathing” as the sound you will make as you inhale should be low and loud. Performing 4-5 finger breaths before and between pieces will immediately help correct any shortness of breath and send oxygen back into our brains to help us regain focus.
  6. Give yourself permission to be nervous. When we experience stage fright it is often magnified when we feel that we are the only ones around in a state of terror. We are afraid to be nervous and ashamed that we cannot “get it together,” as the saying goes. Our inner dialog screams at us to NOT BE NERVOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and that only makes a bad situation worse. Face your anxiety and accept your nervousness. Use your fear as motivation to change your response to the stage. Let whatever happens happen and stop trying so hard to be perfect! images (12)
  7. Think “head up and forward.” As I discussed in my previous post on Alexander Technique this is referred to your Primary Direction. Posture has been found to directly influence your state of confidence. Placing your head up and forward is a powerful stance and allows one to retake control of their immediate environment. Try this the next time you take the stage and notice how your confidence changes just by directing your head up and forward.
  8. Lightly bite the tip of your tongue to combat dry mouth. This will help your mouth to produce a small amount of saliva enabling you to breathe a bit more comfortably. images (13)
  9. Enjoy the show. Music is a process. Do not think about how much you just want to get through the performance but rather listen to every note, brush off any mistakes and smile at the audience no matter what happens. You have worked hard. No one moment in time defines who we are as musicians or as people. And finally…
  10. Accept that mistakes may happen and learn from them. Pay attention to the types of mistakes that occur when you are nervous. Do you rush the slower passages? Do you forget to count the rests? Make a note of these items and focus on ways to correct these tendencies on your next performance. Learn something new about yourself every time you perform and improve each time you take the stage.

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Do you suffer from stage fright? How do you calm your nerves before a performance? Have any of the above tricks worked for you? Please comment below!

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