by Jenny Leigh Hodgins
HOW TO HANDLE STAGE-FRIGHT
Throughout my music teaching career, my music students have either asked me how to overcome stage fright, or have been nervous enough to warrant a discussion on the topic.
Getting performance jitters is a common experience among performers. I have personally experienced it, so I understand the concern!
When I first starting performing as a solo pianist/vocalist in my twenties, I used to get so nervous I’d throw up before a performance. Onstage, my legs and hands felt like they were shaking so hard I feared people saw me gyrating! Playing piano for performances, my right leg and foot shook like a hyper-active sewing machine pedal. Performing as a vocalist was similar. My heart beat so loudly, I thought it would fly out my throat the moment I started to sing.
Fortunately, I learned to tame the stage-anxiety beast.
I have four suggestions that worked so well for me, I wound up as a professional solo pianist/vocalist for 25 years! I also taught and spoke for many years in front of global audiences from 50 to thousands. Of course, I’d still sometimes feel nervous before a performance or presentation, but I employed the four suggestions I’ll share here to help you completely win over stage-fright.
RINSE, REPEAT, OFTEN!
My first suggestion is to get as many performing opportunities as possible and frequently! Desensitizing to the scenario, performing frequently, takes the sting out of it. Find a way to play for family, friends, church, spiritual groups, libraries, schools, meet ups, anybody, and anywhere!
If you can’t find someone to perform for, video or audio-record yourself and pretend it’s a performance! Ignore any mistakes and continue on without stopping. Later, watch or listen to your performance for tips on sections where you may have tripped up. Analyze why. This is also a great way to evaluate your practice routine! Making mistakes is usually due to lack of thorough preparation.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
This leads to my second suggestion; prepare well. In hindsight, most of my nerves were due to lack of confidence in my performance because I simply had not prepared well enough. I tackled that aspect with a vengeance in my practice routine, determined to master every note of a performance.
I especially practiced any particular section where I did not feel fully confident, because when nervous, I’d lose it on those sections! I practiced enough to memorize every detail of a piece. Any section that I was even slightly unsure of was what I went after with a gusto—until I knew the music inside and out!
I NEVER relied solely on finger memory for a performance. I made sure to memorize everything, including key, scale, harmonic analysis, form, melodic phrasing, fingering, dynamics, patterns, etc. If I did not know the piece fully inside my mind away from the instrument, I knew I was not prepared well enough to perform it.
I visualized myself in the specific performance scenario. Even better if I could actually practice in the performance venue. This eliminated the element of surprise and created a familiarity (back to ‘desensitizing’).
I practiced performing while envisioning it as the real performance, including as much detail as possible. I imagined the people there, the color of the walls, the lighting, the aromas, my piano, the stage, and that the audience was loving the performance. I especially imagined feeling confident, enjoying the music, and performing successfully.
I practiced this kind of visualization while playing the music repeatedly, until I felt a sense of assured mastery over the music. Once I had prepared well, practiced consistently, memorized entirely, and used imagery, I knew I had tackled the music enough to perform.
FIND THE TRUE PURPOSE
Lastly, I shifted my focus away from myself and directly fixated on the music for the audience’s benefit. To me, nerves simply indicated my ego. If I was focused on judging my musical ability, that was my vanity or ego, which is completely irrelevant in musical performance.
Why? Because for me, the musician is only the middleman, the vessel, or messenger, of a much greater purpose; the MUSIC reaching the audience’s hearts. Once I learned to shift my attention away from myself, I could center all my being on bringing the power and spirit of music to life. The purpose of the music became connecting with or giving something positive to the heart of another human being.
I reminded myself that performing music has less to do with the performer than it does with human connection. It doesn’t matter whether there may be several, or a hundred, or a thousand human beings in the audience--it all comes down to heart to heart communication brought alive through the universal medium of great music.
FIND THE BIGGER PICTURE
Whenever I concentrated this way, I humbled myself sincerely to achieving the task of sharing the great power of music with another heart. Focusing on this true purpose of musical performance took every ounce of my sincerity and effort, leaving no room for vanity or ego to get in the way.
I’m a Soka Gakkai International - USA Buddhist, so I still chant before every performance (or when I compose or write) to use my best life-state in harmony with the music as a tool for uplifting the audience, and to spiritually communicate human potential. This has never failed me.
Prayer of any kind shifts one’s heart toward a greater purpose, and to view things from a perspective different from ego. Any performance I have witnessed that truly moved my heart or life was one in which the communication through music was the focal point--not the performer.
NERVES ARE GOOD ENERGY
One last comment; I’ve taught music/choral/piano students never to be afraid of or attempt to escape nerves—because that incredible energy can be transformed into an exciting, moving performance. Nerves are GOOD because they make you alert and aware of doing your very best!
SLOW YOUR ROLL WITH BREATH
Even a seemingly negative thing like nervousness can become positive when you choose to direct it. Use your nerves as a wonderful sign that you care about doing a good job! Turn that sincerity into exciting energy for a performance that inspires with vigor.
Breathe deeply and slowly while keeping the above points in mind to help control the physicality of excitement. Be intentional as you practice these four suggestions to transform stage-fright into supportive energy for your successful performance!
Share your victories or tips on how you handle stage-fright in the comments below!
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