The curtain rises, the lights brighten, your palms sweat and your heart races. Suddenly you forget your words and your feet become frozen to the floor. What do you do? Below are some tips to prevent, control and recover from performance anxiety.
1. PREPARE AHEAD
The best way to tackle the on stage jitters is to get ahead of them with strategic preparation. You want to be able to recover should a flub happen onstage. To accomplish this, after learning a piece of music, you should plan to practice in two ways: for fluency and for accuracy. To become fluent in a piece, you want to be able to play it through without stopping and starting, repeating measures, apologizing or freezing if you make a mistake. This is a underrated skill to practice among students but it is vital-the ability to recover. Make sure you spend some time each practice session running through a piece to completion, no matter how many mistakes you might make. The second way you will want to practice is for accuracy. Accuracy means being as close to perfect as possible with your performance. To do this you will want to target and practice areas in a piece of music which are common stumbling blocks for you. Don’t go any further than this section, save playing the whole song for when you decide to switch gears and practice for fluency.
2. HAVE A RELAXATION STRATEGY IN PLACE
If you know your nerves are going to be a serious issue for you should think about trying some visualization or breathing techniques before you go onstage. This might mean doing some deep breathes in through your nose and out through your mouth, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualizing a relaxing scene, for example, a beach. Try some strategies out before your practice sessions or lessons and figure out which works best for you. Vocalists should definitely come up with relaxation strategy before performances because their breathing and the function of their vocal chords may be affected by strain and anxiety, and managing breathing is important for their success onstage.
3. VISUALIZE SUCCESS
Before you go onstage, visualize your performance in reverse. Start by thinking of ending your performance on a stellar note, the audience whooping and cheering you on, a perfect success. Then rewind your mental tape, and imagine the steps it took you to get to that point, how you executed difficult runs or scales, how you maintained your composure. Take this image with you as you go onstage.
4. BE PRESENT
Once you are performing it is important to be present in your body as much as you can. If you find that your mind starts to wonder about how your performance is being received or you are beating yourself up about a note that didn’t go your way, or you begin to worry about an upcoming measure, you need to redirect your attention to the current moment. Performance is tough, you have to juggle many different things at one time. Don’t make it harder on yourself by bringing your inner critic into the equation. Just focus, moment by moment on the task in front of you. Regular meditation can be a helpful exercise in preparing your mind for this level of focus and body awareness.
5. BECOME SOMEONE ELSE
Not literally-this one mainly applies to vocalists. Every song has a story and every story has a leading man (or lady). Try to think about who yours might be in the weeks before you have your performance. Imagine what they would look like, what their mannerisms would be, what they are feeling during the song, what age they are, ect. Really get in depth, crystal clear image of this person. When you sing your song, give yourself completely to this character. This character would not be feeling nervous (usually) so what are they feeling instead? Likelihood is it that they are also singing alone or to one person. If they are singing to someone else, imagine that person too. Become the character and experience what they are feeling instead of experiencing your stage fright.
6. FIND A FOCAL POINT
Another one for vocalists. While you sing to the audience try to find a focal point right above the audiences head to sing to and direct your sound, to keep your pitch and breathing steady when nerves strike.
7. PLAN FOR THE UNEXPECTED
Get plenty of sleep, drink water and take care of yourself. Use common sense. Do not eat immediately before going onstage. Nerves tend to play a nasty role on the digestive system. In fact, if you are singing you should not eat for an hour before going on stage because the food may have a “sticky” effect on the vocal tract. Never drink alcohol or smoke before a performance (and vocalists should never smoke at all!). At the other extreme, not eating the day of a performance is risky too-you want to stay standing on both feet! Water should be consumed one hour before a performance so your body has a chance to hydrate itself properly. Finally, wear comfortable clothes and shoes tie your hair back out of your face and always always carry spare music in a binder!
8. CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE
A wise professor of mine once told me that biologically speaking, nervousness and excitement are exactly the same emotion. In both situations, our heart rate and breathing speed up, palms sweat and mouth gets dry. The only difference is our perspective-whether our brain decides this is a positive (excitement) or a negative (nervous) emotion. Challenge yourself to feel excited before a performance. Pump yourself up by saying “I’m so excited to show everyone what I can do. I’ve worked so hard!” rather than “I hope I do well. Hopefully I don’t trip or mess up at all. There are so many people!” You are in control of yourself. No one or no situation can make you feel nervous if you don’t let it. Choose excitement instead.
These are just a few ways to cope with stage fright. Remember that no matter what, the show must go on and that we all occasionally have difficult days as performers. Some things are beyond our control. In these cases, we learn from it, laugh about it, and let it go.