I’ve never been a ‘natural’ performer. Even talking in front of five or six people who I know well, at the pub or wherever, makes me flustered and nervous. This makes playing music in front of people difficult. My knees shake, my hands clam up, my vision goes blurry and my belly feels like it it contains the squadron of choppers from Apocalypse Now.
There are many tried and tested coping mechanisms for stage fright. Most of them seem like nonsense for one reason or another; most of them probably are nonsense. But as with finding your own writing style or playing style, you are best trying out loads of approaches and eventually you will find one that works for you.
Here are the findings of my empirical research in the field as a scaredy-cat/performer:
1) Get prepared. Most of the fear of performing comes from the alarming thought that uncontrollable elements of chaos might creep into your carefully ordered + meticulously rehearsed performance. These can range from the unreasonable (worrying about whether your trousers will spontaneously fall down as you play) to the reasonable (how well can I play with sweaty/clammy hands?).
Do everything you can to reduce chaos: if you are worried about the flamboyant outfit you have planned to wear on stage might malfunction, maybe you should think about wearing something you feel comfortable in? If you’re nervous about playing with sweaty/clammy hands, then rehearse with sweaty/clammy hands.
Get rid of all the ambient anxiety over little, peripheral things, so you can just concentrate on your playing. Even if this means being ritualistic, eccentric and/or odd about pre-gig preparation: Brian Wilson likes to sit in the empty venue to let it ‘soak in’. Liverpool footballers slap the Anfield sign when they come out of their dressing room and onto the pitch. Nigel Tuffnel likes to prepare a reasonably-sized sandwich before a performance.
2) Stage fright creates anxiety which creates adrenaline which in turn affects small muscles more than the large muscles.
If you are a death metaller chomping out power chords on a Flying V then your stage fright will probably not affect your playing. For string players, though, technique is often be based around intricate little, small muscle movements. Up on stage, your bow arm will be fine because it is powered by your (large) shoulder muscles. Your fingers, with their small muscles, might be less responsive when you are chock full o’ adrenaline and performance anxiety, making vibrato more difficult than usual. Bear this in mind as you practice and try to alter as much of your playing technique as you can to be large muscle oriented to lessen the effect of fear on your playing.
3) Everyone gets nervous before the performance and you are not alone. This kind of nervousness is what motivates us to practice and improve, and is also what makes playing live an electrifying experience. As John Cale says, ‘fear is a man’s best friend’. Just don’t let it get the better of you; stay in control of your fear.
4) Remember that your brain is basically a stupid dumb machine. I know we all like to think we are sentient beings and ‘special’ and unique and whatnot, but your brain is basically just a biological organ that has reflexes and responses like any other biological organ. You can trick your brain into being unafraid as easily as it tricks you into being afraid. If you convince yourself that everything will go wrong, then it most likely will because that is what you are expecting. Well done, you have just sabotaged your performance so that you can prove your brain to be right.
I am cringing as I write this (I promise I’m not a hippy), but if you visualise yourself giving a good performance it will help you immeasurably to do just that: you’ll trick yourself into self-confidence and self-belief, into expecting a great performance.
So stand up tall and give it all you’ve got. Who knows, you might just pull it off.