Can you conquer stage fright by changing point of view? Or are the physical sensations of nervousness always going to get to you in the end? This is my story of how I came to realise that between physical sensations and thought patterns, thought patterns are the more destructive agent when it comes to performance anxiety.
When I was young, everyone was certain I was going to be a musician. I played flute and recorder. Recorder was my true love of the two instruments (and still is). I played in the school recorder ensembles and bands. I was always off to some rehearsal or another. I was pretty good – in spite of the fact that I never learned how to practice effectively – and was keen to go to a music school in the Netherlands to further my recorder career.*
So why didn’t I go? How did I end up where I am today?
I couldn’t cope with the nerves. Particularly before solos, my heart would race, my hands and knees would shake, my blood would pump so loudly in my ears that I could barely hear. But worse than that were the fears of getting things wrong, of disappointing people. I spent much of my time before every performance in the grip of a forecast of doom. I was convinced that my performance had to be note perfect, and that anything less was a failure.
I quit. There’s only so long that anyone can take that sort of pressure. At that time, in that place, I couldn’t conquer stage fright. It conquered me.
When I say I quit, I need to be more precise. I quit music. I didn’t quit performing. When I went to university, in addition to all the sensible courses, I enrolled in Theatre Studies for a bit of fun. It became my passion.
I loved the academic approach to theatre, but if I’m honest, I loved the acting and directing the most. And I never suffered stage fright. In fact, I didn’t really experience negative nervousness at all. Not once.
Did I feel my heart go faster before I went onstage? Yup. If anything, it went even faster. I can remember waiting backstage before one performance and wondering what the fastest heartrate recorded might be, as I thought mine at that moment probably rivalled it!
Did my hands and my knees shake? Yes. Definitely yes. When I was in Samuel Beckett’s Play, in which the three actors are encased in urns, mine could be seen vibrating!
But it never bothered me. I was having too much fun.
Now I look back and I can see that, logically, there is little difference between standing in front of an audience wearing a fake beard and carrying a sword, to standing in front of an audience with a recorder mouthpiece between my lips. But at the time, the rules and stories I told myself about each activity were very different.
Music = getting it right, being perfect, being in control, trying to block out the audience (who were ‘against’ me and judging me), getting things wrong and beating myself up for failing
Theatre = experimenting, having fun, having a sort of conversation/interplay with the audience, getting stuff wrong and trying to find a nifty way out of trouble
Some of the ideas within these categories may have been picked up from other people and places, but I was the one who held them together and believed them. I created paradigms that made one activity (music) a kind of living hell, and the other (theatre) a paradise of playtime. If FM Alexander had been around to see me, he would have said that he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are a major part of [her] difficulties.” **
One of the unexpected joys of studying the Alexander Technique for me was that the “mental rigidity” (FM’s words) that had fossilised my ideas about music was broken up, and my fear of playing or singing in front of audiences conquered.***
So if you want to conquer stage fright, have you considered whether your ideas and attitudes about the activity of performing might be a significant part of your difficulties? Is there a similar activity that causes you no problems at all? What is the rule that makes the difference?
And it isn’t just stage fright that can be helped by looking at hidden rules and preconceptions. Go hunting, and you may be surprised what ideas you have that rule the way you operate/behave in everyday activities.
Yes, we can conquer stage fright. And sometimes looking at how we think is the first step on the path.
* The Netherlands is one of the major centres of recorder teaching, and early music in general.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.294.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.123.
Photo of Jen in a fake beard as Face in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, 1993. Photo by Rex Bunn.