by Daniel Weiskopf
So you have stage fright–many people do! I happened to have pretty bad stage fright for many years. The way I dealt with it was forcing myself on stage because I have long had the ability to force myself to do things I didn’t want to do and just deal with the consequences. The effects of stage fright can be crippling. It is often easier for a person with stage fright to begin performing in groups like choirs, but that still doesn’t remove the crippling anxiety of solo performance. In this blog post we will address what truly does.
How do you deal with it? Yes, we have to work with our stage firght instead of against it. I worked against it when I forced myself to perform, and the result was terrible performances where I felt dizzy/disoriented, made a number of errors sometimes forgetting full sections of songs, and shook a lot (which poses a problem for vocalists the most). There are positive aspects to stage fright that people without stage fright experience like butterflies, adrenaline, authentic performance, and even deep focus.
The worst experience I ever had of stage fright was not even my own. I was attending an open-mic in Seattle where a singer-songwriter came to perform in public for the first time. It was so painful to watch. On the one hand you have to applaud the woman for facing her biggest fear, but on the other hand it made it uncomfortable for the entire audience. She was shaking so violently and her voice was so weak and awkward from her head space that we all had to vicariously experience it for 10-15 minutes. Afterwards we all felt the shame she felt when she came to terms with what she just put everyone through. The thing is, humans interpret external phenomena through empathy. For example, when you listen to a vocalist sing , your voice muscles mimic motions that they are making through your personal interpretation. So when someone is presenting a show of stage fright, everyone in the audience is feeling it viscerally, as if it were their own. You know, like watching a video where someone on a skateboard hits a rail hard. Ouch! We have to get over our stage fright secondarily for ourselves and primarily for the audience we are subjecting to it.
What can we do? Well, from my experience, and that of others I have worked with or seen, the person with the most stage fright often has the most talent and heart to offer. They are usually perfectionists who judge themselves way harder than anyone else does. More specifically with vocalists, they know that their voice and presentation is not where they want it to be quite yet. That is OK, take your time, there is no rush to the stage.
I had to face my stage fright long and hard before I overcame it. Worse yet, after I had been force-performing with my band for so long, I got a video of my performance and it was cringe-worthy! (I look/sound like that?!). Here is the cure to stage fright, and by cure, I mean reduction to the positive effects of performing like adrenaline which eventually becomes addictive and leaves you buzzing the next day.
Get it together; bring your expectations, reality, and preparation into lockstep.
For a Vocalist, the best way to overcome stage fright is to train and master your voice with a great teacher. Not only will a balanced bridging instructor mold the most beautiful and effortless sound your instrument (body) can produce, you get to hear your voice transform over a series of recordings. Most people hate the recorded sound of their voice because it doesn’t sound the same as it does in their ears when they are singing live. Why? Because your bones rattle! The average human has only heard their voice combined with bone-rattle since birth while everyone else has only ever heard your voice the way it sounds on home videos and recordings. If you are training long term, you will hear your recorded voice and become accustomed to how it actually sounds. Also, your fears of vocal mishaps will be obliterated by intensive training and exceptional skill.
Don’t forget how you look, either. As a performing artist, your looks and presentation are inextricably linked to your artisty and the show experience. Sing in front of a mirror. As you are doing so, imagine what YOU would like you to look like while singing that song as if you were sitting in the audience. Power Poses and theatrics are part of musical performance. It’s the WHOLE package. Figure out the clothing for you and your fellow musicians to support the style of your music. Play with your looks, too. You don’t have to be a runway model, you just have to love and accept yourself and bring that love to the stage. I highly recommend placing full size mirrors in your rehearsal space. Have you ever seen a docudrama of a famous musician or group? They ALWAYS have scenes where they are rehearsing their moves in front of a mirror. Even if you play an instrument while you sing….DO THIS! Choreography makes everything better, even if you are a folk rock band.
Reduce the number of responsibilities until you are comfortable. I know you are the songwriter/composer/singer/guitarist/pianist/saw player/percussionist/etc. Let some of that go for live performance. Recordings are another matter, but unless you are comfortable being a gymnast/contortionist on stage, have a friend or pro play that part for you. Remember, you are a perfectionist and might dwell on mistakes, so reduce the likelihood of mistakes via out-sourcing and “stripping-it-down.” The live performance carries a helping energy that recordings don’t, so don’t worry about that kick-ass layering you achieved in the studio overdub; your excitement and rawness makes up for it!
Bounce back, let that mistake go. After years of self-conscious live performance, I can tell you people don’t notice your mistakes unless you alert them to it. You fumbled on a line, great!–what’s next? Do what’s next as if nothing ever happened. I made the rookie mistake of making jokes when I screwed up a line or mixed up words on stage. People don’t know your song as well as you do. They will only notice if you fall apart because you dwell on the mistake as if everything was banking on that one note/line. Very few, if any in your audience, will have a discerning enough ear to pick up on your mistakes in that song, and those same people are most curious to see if you recover, and will praise you simply for recovering more than if you never made a mistake at all.
That’s really all there is to it. Know your stuff, prepare your way to confidence, know exactly how every move you make looks from the outside, fall in love with your own voice through recordings and proper technique, and let go of mistakes.
STAGE FRIGHT, BEGONE!
P.S. if you still have crippling stage fright after all that, become a studio engineer or something…