Stage fright is the mentally tyrannical side of playing music and it is a fear that affects most of us. Whether we are getting up on stage at Carnegie Hall or in front of our friends at an after school concert, the adrenaline rush can make us feel like we are terrified of playing.

A lot of people say that stage fright will always affect us, but I’ve come to realize that isn’t true. If we can manage to rewire our thought processes then we can diminish stage fright’s power over us once and for all.

1. Rationalize Your Fear

Performing anything in front of people, especially when it means something to us, is scary. But what are we really scared of?

Orchestra playing on stage with blurry background

Feeling those flighty nerves when we are first getting on stage are perfectly normal, it is in human nature (for good reason) to try to pick up on potential dangers.

We can applaud the workings of our bodies, if we translate this back to our caveman times this heightened awareness, that we now call nerves, was a bodily instinct that may have meant the difference between survival and death.

But we are not dealing with life or death on stage, and that’s a good place to start when it comes to rationalizing our fear.

What’s the worst that could happen? And what effect would ‘the worst’ have on our lives? Do we really believe that we will be struck down by some kind of music god if we play a sub-par concert? Will we be ostracized for playing some wrong notes? or forgetting half of a piece?

If we really believe these things, maybe we should take a look at the kind of people we are hanging around with, the figures we hold as idols and the narrative of our teachers.

2. Expect ‘The Worst’ & Plan Accordingly

Now, if we have a little time before our performance it might be wise to create evidence for ourselves that we have no reason to fear.

Let’s start with a few things that might be making us nervous about our upcoming performance, perhaps it is a previous bad experience of shaky hands, pins and needles, or most commonly the fear of memory slips.

Control

We must examine ourselves. Think back to your last concert where you encountered a control problem, was there something you can remember doing that was abnormal before you started playing?

My main experiences of light headedness and lack of control came from actually breathing too much for fear that I had previously not been breathing enough!

Pins and needles, or “paresthesia” occur when the body responds to a lack or excess of oxygen in the blood by conserving the blood flow to the internal organs and therefore partially cutting off blood supply to the extremities, i.e the hands and feet.

When it comes to performing, the main trigger moments for this may be right before you walk on stage when you are trying to calm the feelings of adrenaline in your stomach by breathing deeply, or during playing when you are hyper aware of keeping your breathing steady, when previously you have been holding your breath during difficult passages. So, how can we remedy this?

The most useful way of tracking your breathing is by having something else do it for you!

No matter how relaxed you believe you are, or how much you think you are keeping your breathing going there are probably passages where you aren’t but your concentration on breathing is side-tracked by how difficult something is.

I highly recommend purchasing a breath builder like the one below.

Breath builder

That way, when you are playing the pingpong ball dropping will track your breath for you. Don’t be put off by feeling faint during your first time using it, this is perfectly normal. 10 minutes a day of playing your pieces while tracking that you are still breathing will do wonders for your control. Take responsibility for what is going on in your body, nothing just happens.

Memory

For those of us who have not been graced with amazing aural skills, memorization of a whole piece (especially music where the real content is in the harmony) is not as easy as playing something through enough times to be able to remember it.

If we leave the memorization up to our fingers we may be in for a surprise when it comes to showtime!

Imagine walking through a city you are not familiar with, and then having to repeat that journey the next day (both times without a map). What are you looking for? Monuments, perception of distance in relation with the whole journey and perhaps when things get complicated you may be putting energy into remembering a literal direction — e.g ‘Third exit at the roundabout and then second left’.

Classical guitarist memorizing a piece

Imagine that you have fifteen minutes to memorize a fragment of a piece that you will then play for a jury. Search for the rational things in the music that you can cling on to and then hang the rest of the music around those points.

Perhaps part of that will be an arpeggio, rhythm or melody that you recognize mentally or that you recognize in the motion of the hand, other things may be more complicated, in which case you might have to literally remember something, such as a series of notes — ‘E-flat, C, F D’ , and all this in the context of the fragment’s structure and chronology. That way even if you lose a few notes along the way, you will be ready at the next junction to pick it back up again!

If we learn music with memory in mind, we will not be worrying in or before a performance if we know something or remember what comes next, we will be sure that we do!

To learn more about how to securely memorize a piece, check out tonebase’s lessons on memorization taught by Thomas Viloteau and Bahar Ossareh!

3. Collect Concert Experiences

Most things that have a certain degree of pressure attached are stressful until we have tried them.

Everybody is scared of playing badly in a concert, until you play badly in a concert and realize that the outcome of it really isn’t so bad. You will manage.

Collect as many concert experiences as you can, not only to train yourself through different experiences, or to learn how to control your mental attitude or tension problems, but also to reassure yourself that concerts can go well, and that you are in control of that.

Once you have had a few concerts you have felt comfortable playing that will pave the way for feeling comfortable walking on stage for every concert!

4. Adopt A Few Rituals

I usually wouldn’t recommend developing rituals, as if you cannot perform them you may become stressed. However, adopting a few rituals that you know you will definitely be able to do at every concert can help to make you feel at ease.

A couple that I suggest are resting all of the fingers of your right hand on the third string before starting playing, or taking a breath in and then starting playing on your ‘out’ breath. Train yourself to understand that these are your conditions for a successful performance, just like you can click train yourself to think happy thoughts.

Our brains are complex, however, our brains are also painfully influenceable.

Take charge of the chemicals in your brain, prepare happy thoughts, convince yourself that you can do this, trust your capabilities.

Mostly concerts will go well, whether you feel that you are in control or not!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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