Many top artists seem natural extroverts and supernatural performers, but severe stage fright is more common than you may think. Eddie Van Halen, David Bowie, John Lydon, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Rod Stewart, Adele, Ozzy Osbourne and Rihanna are just a few platinum artists who have confessed to debilitating stage fright. What is it? And how do you conquer it?
What is “Stage Fright?”
“To say that I suffer from pre-show nerves is like saying that when you get hit by an atom bomb it hurts a bit.” Ozzy Osbourne, in his 2010 autobiography, I Am Ozzy.
“ Stage fright” (or performance anxiety) is now considered by many psychologists to be a genuine phobia. Nervousness, or “butterflies” in your stomach, is a natural human response to public performance – be it playing music, a sports game or public speaking. Your body’s naturally-produced adrenaline can make you perform really well.
However, more severe cases can produce more noticeable biological reactions. Your muscles may contract, and your body may have sporadic bursts (and saps) of energy. Blood vessels in your extremities may constrict, resulting in tingling and numbness. An increase in heart rate will make you sweat. Sound at all familiar? You’re not alone.
“I have stage fright every single concert I've ever done… It's absolute living hell.” Brian Wilson
“Stage fright” can be considered a human’s body’s natural alarm response to what a performer has judged an emergency situation. But why do so many entertainers – clearly with talent to perform for others – respond as they would an emergency situation?
“I'm scared of audiences,” the singer Adele told Rolling Stone in 2011. “I get s***ty scared. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile-vomited on someone."
Musicians are complex people. They (we!) have a gift – at the higher echelons of ability, a rare gift – but musicians are believed in numerous psychological studies to be more prone to: self-doubt, drug abuse, confidence problems and a “fight or flight” reaction to daily events.
Like everything in life, the scale of your musical task is key. Consider these scenarios.
- Composing and playing on your own? No fear, as you remain your own judge.
- Auditioning for a band? That’s tougher – you want to both be yourself and please others who do the same thing (play music) as you.
- A solo coffee shop show? Yep, that can be hard – you’re on your own.
- A new live show, plus the stress of time/facilities/travelling? – that’s also tough.
- The “red light” pressure of studio recording, where art can be compromised by time and money? Ouch!
It’s no surprise that musicians feel pressure. And public criticism is an increasing pressure for most musicians. The rise of social media means now everyone can report their opinion on your music, whether their opinion is positive, negative or simply “meh.”. Audience reviews are a double-edged sword, of course, but in 2013, you need balls of steel to take to the stage.
Tips For Dealing With Stage Fright
“Your brow is sweatin' and your mouth gets dry / the moment of truth is right at hand.” Lyric in “Stage Fright” by The Band.
That lyric conveys a familiar feeling to many performers. But most psychologists and performance coaches agree there are certain things you can do to minimize stage fright.
1. Learn To Breathe Better
To feel calmer you may even need to “learn” to breathe properly – from your diaphragm. You might think you already know everything there is to know about breathing, but maybe not. Simply search online for “breathing exercises” to get a slew of different techniques.
2. Think Physically
Playing guitar is a physical thing. And you’ll always feel less stressed if you physically warm-up. That can be hand-exercises or more general body-relaxation techniques. As above, yoga and/or meditation can help control your breathing. Ginger and peppermint tea are both widely-believed to soothe a nervous stomach. Or simply chew some gum or suck on a mint – “rumination” can help calm your nerves.
3. Don’t Play In Isolation
It’s easy to “navel-gaze” when playing live, especially if you are not the frontman/frontwoman, and you are already scared. But you may conquer initial stage nerves by simply acknowledging your audience. If they clap, salute their applause. Make eye contact. If someone shouts, you can always call back to them… politely, of course. It will help you feel calmer when you realize your gig is a communal experience. Sulking scared in a corner, even with perfect licks, will only increase your fear. And, you shouldn’t need reminding, interact with your bandmates as well. You’re in this together.
As with 3, interaction with your audience will help calm initial stage fright. You have the “cojones” that most of your audience doesn’t, remember? I’ve seen many a solo artist (no names!) completely mess-up a song due to fear, and then say, “Sorry about that, I’ll start again.” Do they get booed? Rarely. They often get applause for their honesty.
A no-brainer. Know what you are going to play. Have a setlist. Don’t try and “wing it,” unless you are very comfortable doing so. Being in a “jam band” can come later. If you are unsure what songs you’re about to play and their order, no wonder you are dreading your show.
6. Don’t Drink Too Much
“When I started playing in front of people, I’d get so damn nervous,” Eddie Van Halen told Esquire. EVH relied from early-on on pre-performance cigarettes and alcohol (stimulant vs depressant). “For so long,” Eddie said, “it really did work.”
But it won’t work, long-term. All drinkers know that a small tipple can ease inhibitions and make you feel more relaxed. But there’s a line. Drink too much before a show, and you’ll play sloppy as alcohol depresses your mental and physical ability. Over-reliance on alcohol will also, over-time, increase your anxiety.
Amy Winehouse , despite her obvious talent, suffered from terrible stage fright. She didn’t deal with it, sadly. So just to get by, she’d drink before, during, and after her shows, to excess. And we don’t need reminding how Amy Winehouse’s life ended.
7. Keep Your Gig In Perspective
You may feel the whole audience is looking at you constantly. They’re not! They are there to enjoy the whole experience of live music. Sometimes, they’ll be chatting to buddies, other times heading for the bar… that’s fine, they have their own lives beyond your show. Try not to stress about the comings-and-goings of an audience as your show progresses. It’s a tough admission, but remember: your show is not of the same importance to an audience member as it is to you. If people leave, it’s not necessarily because of your music. Focus on entertaining those who remain.
8. Embrace Your Anxiety
It’s quite normal to have fear when stepping onstage. Remind yourself: this is normal. Play one or two songs well, and your fear will likely dissolve. Gibson-playing singer Ellie Goulding admits, “I’m not afraid anymore. It’s gone past that point now. I get scared before shows, but it’s like an adrenaline nervousness excitement. I really am starting to not have a fear, but in a good way. I used to get really paralyzed by nervousness. It wouldn’t be good for my performance, but now I feel pretty good.”
It may not fit if you are in an extreme metal band, but everyone should know that smiling is contagious. If you smile, other people smile. If you appear to be having fun, others will have fun. And smiling releases your own endorphins, chemicals that make you happier See 3 and 4.
10. Re-Invent Yourself
Not a tip for everyone, but being “someone else” can help. We are pretty sure that Chaim Witz (Gene Simmons) and Stanley Harvey Eisen ( Paul Stanley) were never wallflowers, but their KISS alter-egos (The Demon and Starchild) let them do whatever they wanted on-stage.
David Bowie is a master of character invention. Of his Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie says, “I’m not particularly a gregarious person. I had an unbearable shyness. It was much easier for me to keep on with the Ziggy thing, off stage as well as on. Who was David Bowie and who was Ziggy Stardust? It was motivated by shyness.”
It certainly worked. But now 66-year-old Bowie has no way of resurrecting Ziggy, he’s pondering whether he can play live again. Reported reason for his current reticence? Bowie still suffers from acute stage fright. Go figure.
As always, please Disquss your own ways of dealing with stage fright or your pre-show rituals in the comments below. But most of all, enjoy your show. If you do, your audience will.