It’s recital season! It’s the perfect time to talk about stage fright and performances gone wrong. Chances are there are a certain number of performers and students right now that have just went through a rough performance and are feeling terrible. Even if this isn’t you right now, anyone that performs eventually has to deal with a moment where they’ve frozen on stage and have been unable to play something.
Over the years I’ve seen partial fails and spectacular fails. When the performer doesn’t manage to recover and it turns into more than a momentary bump, it can be traumatic and cause the student to never want to perform again. It is always my goal to prepare my students so they avoid a bad experience (especially as their first!) but also teach them to be resilient enough to handle it if it happens and keep it in perspective.
Some people will only experience stage fright occasionally while others struggle with it constantly. When stage fright is chronic, it can be much harder to overcome. The reason is simple, the behavior becomes practiced and creates a self-fulfilling loop that can be very difficult to break out of. Certain personality types can be more prone to stage fright than others. Building positive experiences around performing early and often allow even those that might not have a disposition naturally compatible with performing able to make it an enjoyable part of their life.
Although the reasons people experience stage fright and how severe it is might be different, what happens in the brain is pretty much the same.
What happens in your brain when stage fright kicks in? The brain has different areas that take primary control depending on what is needed. The amygdala is a part of the brain that is designed to take charge in an emergency allowing quick fight or flight response. When this happens, other parts of the brain are disengaged sending all resources to the amygdala allowing speed and reaction that could be life-saving. Imagine the captain of a starship who has encountered a threatening vessel. “Redirect all non-essential power to the weapons (or engines)!”
In an emergency, there isn’t time to deliberate over how serious a threat is which is why fear can cause a response that is out of proportion to the trigger. When a performer gets stage fright, the amygdala has kicked in even though the threat is not life-threatening. The performer can not access memory because all non-essential functions have been shut down. They face a blank slate as they try to recall well-known information. When this happens, it can really undermine a person’s trust that their own mind is working the way it should. Guess what? It is functioning EXACTLY the way it should. Rest assured, you’re brain is totally ready to save your life. Now that you understand that, we need to get to work making sure that you learn how to keep your amygdala from being set off every time you perform.
How to Avoid Stage Fright
Learning how to get rid of the FEAR that allows the amygdala to kick in is the best strategy for battling stage fright. There are strategies to still be able to perform through stage fright but that isn’t ideal because you’re operating on suboptimal mental efficiency. Ultimately, you want to be able to not only perform well but also ENJOY it. At the very least you want to not have it be gut-wrenching torture every time.
Build and Utilize Muscle Memory. Muscle memory is an automatic function that is also necessary for fighting or fleeing. Often times performers may be able to keep on going while they’re frozen in fear as long as they allow muscle memory to take over. If a performer has to think about what their body is doing in order to play the piece, they haven’t programmed the muscle memory needed to allow the body to go through the motions automatically.
An important part of utilizing muscle memory is getting and staying in the right frame of mind to allow muscle memory to do it’s job. I always compare it to running up a flight of stairs. Most people have built the muscle memory to run up a flight of stairs easily as long as they trust their muscle memory and let it work. However, if you think about the steps or motions required to run up a flight of stairs as you are doing it, you will always trip. I’d say try it if you haven’t but I don’t want to be responsible for anyone falling down a flight of stairs so maybe just trust me on this one.
Practice performing under pressure. Record yourself. This naturally puts you in a self-conscious state without actually being in front of an audience. You can also perform in front of just a few people at a time making the stakes lower. Just the act of performing more regularly can help desensitize you. This will also help you:
- See how performance ready you are BEFORE going in front of a big audience. Learn how to judge what level of preparation needs to happen in order to perform smoothly nine times out of ten. Notice areas that are slow or not as smooth while you are hyper-aware. When you are lost inside your own experience of doing something on your own, you perceive time differently than in a setting where you are aware of others. Our perception of time can speed up or slow down when internally focused but in music time needs to happen steadily.
- Build confidence that you can get through performances successfully. If you are confident that you can perform successfully consistently, you will probably stop feeling terrified. Being terrified of performing can cause you to perform badly, therefore confirming that you should be terrified creating a loop that’s hard to break out of.
Remove the expectation of perfection. Before the recording age, performers and listeners didn’t have the expectation of perfect performances. As people got used to hearing recordings where every nuance of the performance was the same time after time, there became an unrealistic expectation that people perform like machines playing back a recording. Musicians spend hours to craft and edit perfect recordings. They rarely happen the first time through which is what you are expecting in a live performance. Live performances are never exactly the same which is part of their beauty but also means that sometimes things go better than others.
Practice getting and staying in a state of “flow”: One of the most difficult skills that performing music requires, is marrying automatic functions with guided thinking. Trusting muscle memory while also making conscious choices need to be balanced perfectly in order for great performances to happen. This balance is a state of mind that many athletes and performers will refer to as ‘being in the zone’. It has also been referred to as ‘being in the moment’ or ‘flow’. Chances are if you’ve ever had a perfect moment where you are lost in the doing of music you’ve experienced this. Performers need to practice getting and staying in this state.
Put performance in the proper perspective. Ask yourself the following questions.
Who dies if you fail? That’s right! No one. Music is about emotion and expression. Music performance doesn’t have life or death consequences unless you’re in that scene from the ‘Goonies’. In case you don’t know it, the kids have to read notes and play them on an organ in order get past a booby trap. If they hit wrong notes, chunks of the floor drop out from below them. Too many mistakes and they plummet to their death! Luckily, this doesn’t happen in real life.
Are you strong enough to survive a failure? Life is full of failures and are part of how we learn. If you want to be good at things or try new things, it’s important to take failures in stride and learn what you can from them.
Possible things we might learn from performance failures:
- Piece Not Committed to Muscle Memory
- Weren’t Prepared Enough
- Mental Focus of ‘keeping in the zone’ Needs Practice
- Unrealistic or Unhealthy Perspective is Adding Unnecessary Pressure
- Need to Build Confidence
- Need Practice Performing Under Pressure
- Need to Perform More Often
Don’t make performance more important than it is. When you give something too much importance it can become a nemesis that looms over you feeling impossible to beat. It’s good to care about the quality of your work but caring too much can cause you to lose perspective and cause unnecessary anxiety. Develop a mantra that makes sense to you and tell it to yourself when you start to get anxious. Recognize what is getting in your way and stopping you from relaxing and enjoying it. For me, I can get caught up in worrying about being perfect or living up to other people’s expectation of me. As a teacher, I feel like people expect me to be perfect and that I should set a good example. Now, as soon as I get to the good example thought, I remind myself that being a good example means showing grace under pressure by picking myself up and carrying on even when I’m not perfect. I also remind myself that I LOVE being immersed in music and sharing it with others. When I’m focused on what truly motivates me to do it, I’m able to let go of the other stuff.
Why perform at all? Not everyone needs to be a ‘performer’ to have music in their life but it is beneficial skill to learn that can be used in lots of other areas. The opportunity to share what we love is satisfying. It’s also great way to set deadline oriented goals and showcase our progress. Exercising the self control, focus, healthy perspective and discipline of preparation that performance requires certainly makes us better versions of ourselves.