The cold sweat that won’t quit.
Those flutterflies in your tummy pit.
The dry mouth and the quivering breath.
A heart that races towards its death.
IT’S STAGE FRIGHT!!!
Most everyone has experienced some degree of performance anxiety in their lifetime. The pressures of performance, whether singing, acting, dancing, athletic competition, leading a meeting/class, giving a speech, talking to strangers, or for some, even the simple act of placing phone calls can be fear-inducing experiences. Our doubts manifest in less than desirable forms. Some struggle with crippling fear that can be so powerful, it forces them stop performing altogether. Others may experience it in milder doses, while some internalize performance stress without even consciously realizing it.
Whether extreme, moderate or lurking below the surface, this type of anxiety can wreak havoc on our bodies, minds, emotions and craft.
THE LONG HAUL
Overcoming the anxiety associated with performance takes time and persistence. Learning to become conscious of habits, tendencies and tension is the first step. Awareness is the precursor for change.
Stage anxiety invokes our sympathetic nervous system. You may have heard about this bodily response by its more common description: “Fight or Flight”. This process releases adrenaline into our system, giving us the tools to save ourselves from impending doom. Your body may not actively know the difference between the peril of taking the stage to that of an impending shark attack! It responds to the fear of performing as if your life is at stake. This repeated pattern will not only soil your stage savvy, but the long-term effects can cause serious damage to your health.
I have included a series of exercises below which help atone this process by summoning the parasympathetic nervous system. This system encourages the body to “rest and digest” which will restore functionality internally. This aids recovery and helps to prevent future frenzy. The more you practice these exercises in daily life when NOT provoked by panic, the easier it will be to access them when ol’ “Anxious Annie” rears her ugly head. Try to devote a few minutes a day to this series. On performance days, allow more time, as nerves will be intensified.
-Find a quiet space where you will not be disturbed. Keep cellphones, computers, and other distractions out of this area. Let your spouse, partner, family member, or roommate know that you can’t be interrupted (with the exception of emergency, of course).
-Sit in a comfortable, upright position. I tend to choose armless chairs that have backs and aren’t too squishy or a yoga mat.
-Find a gazing point either on the floor just ahead of your feet or straight ahead. Allow your direct sight to get a bit fuzzy and let your peripheral vision become sharper. Once you have settled yourself, allow the eyes to close.
Begin taking long, slow inhales and exhales through the nose. Focus on making the breath identical in both directions. Let the inhales and exhales be the same in length and intensity. Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest to connect with yourself and rhythm. Become aware of your natural tendencies and patterns when it comes to breath. Work towards evenness and symmetry.
*There are a plethora of effective breathing techniques. Feel free to contact me at: email@example.com to help find the methods that work best for you.
Meditation isn’t thinking about nothing. It is the process of allowing thoughts to run their course and actively be released. As you ride the wave of your breath, begin to notice what thoughts arise. Surrender them on the exhales. Repeat this pattern as new thoughts arise. This applies to both negative and positive thoughts. This is the time for clearing and cleansing, not consideration. Don’t let yourself get distracted or discouraged by what comes up. Return to the breath, and bring mindfulness and compassion to the process of letting go.
Begin to actively consider a situation that gives you unease. In this case, it will be performance. Using your imagination, actively create a scene in your head that involves an upcoming performance. Become super detail-oriented when envisioning the situation. Involve all your senses in the creation of the scenario. Then begin to imagine the scene with its most ideal outcome. Hear the clapping and roar of the crowd. See the smiles on the faces of your audience members. Feel yourself being cool, calm and collected and giving the performance of a lifetime. Then embody this positive emotion that you create in your mind into your body through conscious breath and active positioning.
Journaling is a great way to practice affirmation. Writing down feelings of positivity, reassurance and confidence will manifest into our performance. You can also, practice saying them out loud, but I find journaling to be the best introduction. Fill the pages with quotes, sayings and general encouraging thoughts.
Check out my article on "Mindfulness for Vocalists" HERE!
MAN IN THE MIRROR
I often suggest that my students practice regularly in front of a mirror. Having an external perspective to witness ourselves can be intimidating, but after the initial awkwardness subsides, there are a wealth of benefits.
Often, performance jitters stem from a fear of how we will be perceived by others. Practicing in a mirror enables a safe place to test out body positioning and gives us a tool to create awareness of where and when we hold tension.
In this age of technology, using devices to capture audio/video of ourselves vocalizing or performing is infinitely helpful, as well. It’s gives us a degree of objectivity concerning ourselves which is essential in navigating our patterns.
Remember, practice makes progress. We must willingly examine both our strengths and weaknesses without judgement in order to move forward.
PRE- PERFORMANCE PREP
-Moderate your caffeine and sugar intake during the day of a performance. Steer clear of these and other stimulants just prior to taking the stage.
-Resist the urge to check your cellphone prior to a performance. Not only does looking at emails/social media send your psyche spiraling, but receiving last-minute cancellation texts from well-meaning pals can turn tranquility into a train wreck.
-Exercise is always useful on performance days. It allows release of the body/mind and subsequently prepares us for what’s to come. Try something not too vigorous, like walking, yoga, or light cardio.
Ok, you’re prepped and primped and ready to hit the stage. Here are a few things to remember during showtime:
Don’t Avoid Eye Contact
While this can seem like a horrifying proposition, I find that making eye contact with an audience encourages union instead of division. The point of performance is to connect with other humans. By engaging in eye contact, we create a comfortable atmosphere for our audience which enables us to relax, as well.
If this concept seems too intense, begin by flirting with the idea of eye contact. Instead of keeping your eyes closed the whole performance, take a few moments to look beyond the audience. Find a gazing point just above their heads. This will create the air of connection without the intensity of eye to eye action.
Don’t Over Think
Don’t plan too much before hand. If we script out too specifically what we want to happen, we’ll get easily frustrated if something or someone truncates the plan. Pre-orchestration can be also perceived as boring or trite by an audience.
Trust your natural inclinations on stage. Do not over-analyze. Do not over-anticipate. Leave rehearsal in the past and live within the present moment.
Do Not Call Attention To Mistakes
Too often, I see people on stage attempt to recover from a hiccup by pointing it out or apologizing. This is a major no-no! An audience is there to be transported. 9 times out of 10 they will barely notice if you go up on lyrics or licks, but by shining a spotlight on it, you are dimming their experience AND dumbing yourself down.
If you do falter, attempt to regain your footing on the next phrase. If this fails, take a moment to fully inhale and exhale. This will assist you in regaining your composure and keeping your listeners engaged. In other words, “Chickety-check yo self before you wreck yo self!”
Keep in mind that our mistakes teach us more than perfect execution might. Take the opportunity to learn and improve. Instead of beating yourself up, panicking or throwing in the towel, test your recovery skills. You’ll be surprised how much they assist in everyday life, as well.
Part With the Prospect of Perfection
Audiences attend live performances to be part of an experience in real time. Flaws are unavoidable and ultimately exciting and stimulating. Go with the flow and expect with certainty that things may go awry. If we accept mistakes as an inevitability, we won’t spend so much time fearing their potential arrival.
Presence, Persistence, and Poise = Power.