What is stage fright?
A straightforward definition of stage fright can be found in the other term widely used for this condition: performance anxiety. Simply put, it is fear leading to nervousness before – or during – appearing and performing in public, whether it is as a singer, instrumentalist, or public speaker. Stage fright has numerous presentations which can be (but are not limited to) sweating, trembling, dizziness, dry mouth, increased saliva output, and tachycardia.
When a person becomes anxious and fearful, the sympathetic nervous system triggers the “fight or flight” mechanism. In turn, this leads to a physical bodily response and constricted blood vessels, and the above symptoms begin to be manifested in varying degrees by the performer. There is another part of the “fight or flight” syndrome known as “freeze” and some artists will not be able to even begin their performance – or will stop and freeze in the middle of it.
With an increase in blood pressure, and racing heart, accompanied by erratic nervous breathing, the singer can become quite dizzy and light headed, or struggle with breathing through longer phrases, sometimes breaking in the middle of notes or words. Another manifestion of stage fright or performance anxiety often seen in singers is often referred to as “borrowing”. Most people have witnessed this at some point. “Borrowing” is the use of clothing, props, or body parts, in an effort to glean a feeling of comfort and security. Rolling up of clothing, tapping together of fingers, clasping music or hands, licking lips, pulling at hair, or even raising both arms slowly are all types of borrowing.
How do we conquer stage fright?
Firstly, I always remind my singers that excitement can easily be mistaken for stage fright. With excitement, as with fear, the body produces adrenaline and this can be mistaken for nerves or anxiety. The subsequent concern about it leads to some degree of performance anxiety. Are you nervous, or is it excitement and anticipation of performance? Learn to recognise the difference, and to manage your response – through a deeper understanding – to the effects of adrenaline in the body. Remember – excitement lends brightness to a performance, and a little anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing because it can have the same effect. There is nothing worse than a lacklustre effort on stage.
Don’t try to outrun the ghost!
Recognise your anxiety instead of trying not to feel nervous. Trying not to feel nervous is like trying to outrun a ghost. Accept that you are anxious, and face it. A little self advice is valuable now! Be strong, and remind yourself, “I have prepared. I know my song. I am doing what I love.” Channel fear into a powerful and emotive performance.
Nothing compensates for a thorough rehearsal of all facets of the performance! From stage entry through to exit. If a singer is under-prepared, performance anxiety is a normal, healthy reaction to knowing that there is scope for error. However, if you have prepared well, accept that mistakes do happen with the best of singers, and audiences are very forgiving. Don’t stop singing, don’t change your expression or give your mistake away because no one may have noticed! This leads us to the power of “resilience”. Every good singer, like every good athlete, is resilient. We have good days, and better days, and some that – well, were not our best day! I have had props fall over, sundry items of costume fail or surrender to gravity, sound systems die, music fall off the piano, you name it…. in the end, no one dies – unless it is an opera! And even then, they come back on for the curtain call. Be resilient.
Focus, remain calm prior to performance.
Sometimes, singers who have prepared well, “talk themselves out of it” while waiting in the wings or backstage. Be focused and positive about your performance. Do not fuss over whether or not you will remember the lyrics, especially while someone is on stage playing a different piece! I have seen singers go into a complete panic trying to remember lyrics when a different song is being performed by another singer or choir. This is the time to talk about trust. A lot of performance anxiety is tied in with a lack of trust, in yourself, your accompanist, and fate. It is the “What if?” scenario that will undermine your presence on stage. Don’t buy into that. TRUST YOURSELF! Focus. Take some deep breaths and still your mind. If you are really nervous, do some breathing exercises, deep and controlled, and holding for the count of four before exhaling. During that count, let the tension flow away from you.
Warm up prior to arriving at back of stage.
Walking on stage is not the time to realise that you have not been singing today! While you are waiting backstage or in the wings, some tension release exercises can be beneficial. I have spoken more about these in the notes on tension – a few light stretches and shoulder rolls, facial exercises, are very helpful to some singers who are anxious.
Be confident in yourself, and your technique.
Prior to arriving for performance, you have prepared well, so be confident in your ability. Remember your technique and posture. These will give you good grounding and confidence on stage. There are notes on posture on this site. Walk out with confidence and position yourself where you can clearly hear the accompaniment. Inability to clearly hear the accompaniment is a disaster in the making, and can be the cause of performance anxiety. Do not be afraid to stop the accompanist or band if necessary. If you are performing in a concert hall or on stage with a piano, do not position yourself so far from the piano that that the accompanist cannot see you. A good accompanist plays with the singer, watching their breathing. If you are singing on stage with a band or backing, ensure that you are correctly positioned in relation to foldback, and if possible, at all times, be there earlier for a sound check. If you have been studying singing technique, be confident in your knowledge and execution of that technique.
I will add here… please be confident in your accompanist. Always choose to sing with the best instrumentalists available. Professional accompanists will be reliable and will work with you. Remember you are a team out there!
If you have been studying vocal technique, you will understand that correct breathing is the basis of sound technique. It will also serve to keep you calm on stage. Think of the regular flow of the tide, and sing with deep and focused diaphragmatic breathing. Erratic, high, light breathing will not serve you well.
Live your song on stage!
We can talk all day about breathing and tchnique, but if you are not committed to your song, and to your lyrics, on stage, then you will not carry that commitment through to your audience. And you will feel unfocused on stage. If you are committed wholeheartedly to telling the story, you will feel less anxious. Live your song on stage, and let it soar!
Performance anxiety happens most commonly when you focus on yourself instead of your song.
If you are a very nervous performer, try starting out in a choir or group, or even a trio or duet. Alternatively, aim for small steps with small audiences, performing as often as you can. Some singers will have a hiatus between performances and this can lead to anxiety. Sing at charity events, for family, for friends, for children. Build up to singing at bigger events slowly. “Fake it ‘til you make it!” Look happy, look confident, and your audience will believe in you. Eventually, you will believe in yourself.
This is often overlooked. If you are suffering a great deal of performance anxiety, is it possible that you are trying to work in a genre that is beyond your present level of ability, or in one that you don’t enjoy. It’s a worthy question to ask yourself. No one is at their best if they don’t like the song, find it too difficult, or don’t believe in the lyrics. if you are very anxious, or have been asked to sing at short notice, or are relatively inexperienced, please do not choose the most difficult song you can find! It is always better to go out and sing an easier song well than to obviously labour through a turgid rendition of a song that is beyond your capabilities.
Remember why you are there!
Chances are that it is because you love to sing! Carry that love on to stage with you, have fun, and see the difference that it makes!
*Lastly, if you love to sing, but are really struggling endlessly with stage fright, it may be worth checking with a counsellor or psychologist to see if there are any underlying problems or trauma that are holding you up from delivering your performance with confidence. There are people who never overcome extreme performance anxiety, and often can be found in choirs, or working in another field of music such as teaching. No one says you have to get out there. If you are overwhelmed, overcome, and hate it, please do ask yourself the honest question as to whether you truly – in your heart – want to engage in public performance.
Most vocalists will find singing lessons help them to overcome stage fright. Try taking some lessons. The following exercises can be used to improve technique, or as warm-ups prior to performance. http://helencolemansinging.com.au/product-category/exercisefiles/
©Helen Coleman 2016