Confronting Stage Fright

“Confident performance isn’t an elusive feat
but involves knowledge and skills that any musician can learn.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 133

When I talk to musicians who wrestle with stage nerves, I find that many hold a common belief.

They think that they lack a trait that confident performers possess, so they worry that they might never break free from their anxieties.

Fortunately, their dilemmas don’t stem from a lack of talent but from a correctable deficit of knowledge and skill.

Performance Skills
When we acquire specific performance skills, all of us, with few exceptions, can become fearless performers (the exceptions include people with psychological disorders that require specialized treatment).

That’s not to say that it’s easy for rising musicians to become adept concert artists.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts about performance anxiety, to take charge in front of audiences, we have to know how to select appropriate music, master our material, deal with concert venues, fortify our self-esteem, and handle the nuts and bolts of being on stage.

Plus, we have to face our fears, which is the subject of this article.

Performing and Stress
Let’s begin by clarifying what a performance is. In my book, The Musician’s Way, I differentiate between performing and casual music making: “In a performance situation, there are stakes involved in how well you play or sing” (p. 154).

As those stakes rise, so can stress – an out-of-town audition or a pricey recording session will exert greater pressure than a jam session with friends.

Added to that, our perception of what’s at stake drives our stress levels.

As an illustration, if musicians align their self-esteem with every note, treating errors as personal shortcomings rather than as opportunities for learning, they’ll be jittery even when performing in laid-back circumstances.

Nonetheless, whether the stakes are real or self-created, it’s how we react to performance stress that largely determines whether we feel excited and creative on stage or, instead, fearful and nervous.

Fearless vs. Fearful Musicians
What’s the main distinction between the musicians who are undercut by nerves and those who aren’t?

The Musician's Way book coverPsychologist Stephen D. Curtis says, “The most important psychological contributor to the onset of performance anxiety is a performer’s concern for, or fear of, the outcome of the performance: that is, the performer’s thoughts become focused on an imagined negative outcome or failure” (The Musician’s Way, p. 135).

There you have it. Anxious performers focus on negative outcomes. Fearless performers embody positive thoughts and emotions.

Why are fearless performers so positive? Because they prepare thoroughly for shows, have assimilated performance skills, and love performing.

As a result, they can trust in their abilities and enjoy sharing music – the energy of being on stage fuels rather than impairs their creativity.

In contrast, underprepared musicians – or those who are ambivalent about or have little experience with performing – rightfully become uneasy about how their performances will go.

For example, if musicians commit to appear on professional-grade concert series yet are unaccustomed to performing under pressure, or if they choose music that’s over their heads, then they should be concerned.

Confronting Your Fears: An Exercise
Regardless of whether musicians’ on-stage problems arise due to technical or psychological factors, by bringing their fears into the open, aspiring performers can embark on the path toward fearlessness.

So, to help you become the artistic performer that you’re meant to be, I offer the following exercise.

1. Open a Word file, and list 2 or 3 things that you most fear happening on stage – mainly note things that have happened to you before. Many musicians write, “My hands will shake. I’ll have memory slips. My tone will break up.”

2. For each item you listed, write:

a. How it affects your performances
b. How you typically respond on stage
c. How you feel afterward

For shaking hands, a player might write “Effect: It makes me inaccurate. Response: I become tense, sweaty, and scared. Feelings: Frustrated and sad.”

3. Study chapters 7-10 of The Musician’s Way, and then, for each item you listed in Step 1 above, jot down three things that you’ll do this week to address your fears and build up your skills. A musician plagued with memory slips might note, “Today, I’m going to choose a simple excerpt, memorize it according to the guidelines in Chapter 4, and schedule two slow-tempo practice performances.”

4. After completing the actions in Step 3, review the items you noted in Steps 1 and 2. If your security grew, well done! You’re moving in a constructive direction. If you aren’t seeing improvement, seek assistance from a qualified teacher.

*  *  *

Acquiring the know-how of a fearless performer takes time and effort. But the rewards for doing so are immense: few things rival the pleasure of performing for a rapt audience.

No matter what sorts of performance challenges you’ve faced, I urge you to go forward with enthusiasm. Apply the strategies delineated in The Musician’s Way, get help when you need it, and contribute comments and questions here.

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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5 Responses to “Confronting Stage Fright”

  1. Geraldine said:

    Jun 09, 10 at 00:54

    I also think that part of it comes from the entourage of the performer. If somebody practices a lot, and is playing appropriate repertoire but has a teacher that keeps telling them week after week for a few years that it’s not good enough, the performer will most likely become more and more fearful of the performance, while their level and readiness keeps on improving.

    Sometimes also, it is about how high the stakes are. The same (appropriate) repertoire played multiple times in different places in front of different people can bring a varying level of fear in the performer.
    If the first few times are in front of a music lovers while the last time is in front of a few select managers, the performer might be suffering from more excessive stage fright than for the first few performances.

    Sometimes also it can be about an unexpected problem on stage, such as a loud squeaky piano bench, a shaking stage, a draft of air on the performer, etc.

    I wrote a post on how to deal with the physical aspect of stage fright:

    But for sure, being prepared and picking the right repertoire are the first stepping stone towards handling stage fright!


  2. Erik K said:

    Jun 18, 10 at 17:13

    I have to agree with the idea of preparedness affecting stage fright. I know from personal experience that when I feel ready for a performance, I feel much less anxiety towards that performance.

    I think for this reason it’s important as educators that we always provide positive feedback towards our students and not get caught up on perfection. I remember reading a post of yours a while ago about perfection, and I think the two ideas are related. We need to remember to educate young musicians that music is more about the experience and the enjoyment, and not just perfecting technique.

    Great post as always!

  3. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jun 18, 10 at 17:24

    Thanks, Erik – well said. A positive attitude is truly indispensable.

  4. Fiel Sahir said:

    Jun 11, 11 at 22:25

    I’m going to implement this ASAP, this is a great article, thanks for resharing it.

    Anyways, I’ve got a few suggestions, would it be possible for you to have a FB like button and sharing button at the top to make it easier instead of people having to scroll down and find it?

    Just saying, oh and maybe you should do some youtube for vlogging and playing purposes haha. I’ve tried to look for your guitar playing online but couldn’t find any!

  5. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jun 18, 11 at 15:47

    Hi Fiel – Thanks for the comments and suggestions.
    I’ve installed the like and share buttons.
    I’ll post videos sometime in the future – I appreciate your interest!