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 started 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! When I played piano on stage, my right leg and foot shook like a hyper-active sewing machine pedal.
Performing as a vocalist was similar. My heart would 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.
The following suggestions worked well for me. I wound up as a professional solo pianist/vocalist for 25 years! I taught and spoke in various capacities 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 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 by frequent performance 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 without stopping. Later, watch or listen to your performance for tips on sections where you may have tripped up.
Analyze why. Revisiting your performance as a spectator is also a great way to evaluate your practice routine! Making mistakes is usually due to a lack of thorough preparation.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
This leads to my second suggestion. Prepare well.
In hindsight, most of my nerves were due to a lack of confidence in my performance because I had simply not prepared well enough. I tackled that aspect with a vengeance in my practice routine, determined to master every note of my performance.
I intently focused on practicing any particular section where I did not feel fully confident. When nervous, I’d lose it on those sections! I practiced enough to memorize every detail of a piece. I went after any section with gusto where I was even slightly unsure. I practiced this way until I knew the music inside and out!
I NEVER relied solely on finger memory for my performance. I made sure to memorize everything. That included the key, scale, harmonic analysis, form, melodic phrasing, fingering, dynamics, patterns, etc. If I did not know the piece thoroughly inside my mind away from the instrument, I knew I was unprepared to perform it.
I visualized myself in the specific performance scenario. Even better if I could practice in the performance venue. Being in the performance venue eliminated the element of surprise and created a familiarity (back to ‘desensitizing’).
I practiced performing while envisioning it as the real performance, with as much detail as possible. I imagined the people there, the color of the walls, the lighting, the aromas, my piano, the stage. I believed the audience loved my performance. I especially envisioned feeling confident, enjoying the music, and performing successfully.
I practiced this kind of visualization while repeatedly playing the music 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, my nerves indicated my ego. If I focused on judging my musical ability, I knew I was distracted by vanity or ego. Ego or vanity is 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 with the 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 achieve the task of sharing the positive 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 strategy 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
Nerves naturally speed up your heart rate. Nerves can cause physical tension. Countering this natural state with focused breathing puts your body back under your control.
Breathing deeply and slowly before and during a performance helps lower your stress and calm nerves. Being aware of your breath also helps you control the tempo of your piano performance. Slowing your breath also puts you in touch with your physical connection to the piano and aids mindfulness.
Even a seemingly negative thing like nervousness can become positive when you direct it. View your nerves as a 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 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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In my PIANO blogs, you'll find ways to overcome boredom, get past musical and mental blocks, explore the creative process with piano, and improve musical progress through piano teacher recommended best practices and effective piano practice tips.