Four words to conquer stage fright

As I write this, I have less than a day before I take to the stage area of a local church and perform a lunchtime recital with my recorder quartet. If I were counting (which I’m not), I’d tell you that I’m to be walking out and playing my first notes in 22 hours’ time. And once upon a time, just the act of typing that sentence would have caused within me a paroxysm of cold fear.

I’ve always loved playing music, but I never enjoyed performing. I hated – no, loathed – the act of walking out onto the stage. As the years went by, it became harder and harder to function as a musical performer. This fear, combined with the debilitating pain I suffered in my arms, put a stop to any desire I had to share music with others.

But not any more. I am a recovering stage-fright sufferer.And the Alexander Technique has been the most powerful tool I have possessed in advancing that recovery.

For me, part of the process of studying and teaching the Alexander Technique has been a methodical re-examination of the rules I have made for myself around issues such as performance. So often I see articles in the press and online that stress the physical aspect of this work, as if it was limited only to physical movements such as sitting or standing. But the scope of the Alexander Technique is so much broader than this. My colleagues and I often say to students that it is a physiologic fact that we can’t have a movement without some sort of thinking preceding it. If this is true – and it appears to be so – then we must draw the conclusion that what we think is of vital importance.

This means that the ideas and beliefs that we have about certain activities may be the very things that are holding us back from performing those activities as well as we would like. This is certainly true in my own case, and from the experiences I have teaching, seems to be true for my students too.

Based on my own experience of stage fright and that of my students, these are the major issues that I believe cause the problem:

Lack of preparation.

This is possibly the biggest issue amongst my acting students. This is how it works: I know that I have not practised enough and do not have the music/speech/whatever completely under my belt. So I worry about messing it up. Then I worry about messing it up – in public. ‘What will they think of me?’ My head is now spinning so much that I have little or no chance of remembering my music/speech/whatever.

Perfectionism.

I place pressure on myself by expecting myself to be perfect and to give a flawless performance. I also know that this is pretty much impossible. So I also berate myself first for expecting perfectionism, and second for the mistakes I am certain to make. Now we are back to ‘What will they think of me?’

Etiquette.

People expect performers, especially amateur performers, to display nervousness prior to going on stage. It becomes good manners to oblige. By extension, it is bad manners to appear calm and confident!

Misunderstanding the physical.

Most people experience certain physical sensations pre-performance:¬† ‘butterflies’, shaky knees, etc. We are conditioned to think that these are bad and will disrupt our performance. What if these are simply side-effects of pre-performance adrenalin – the same adrenalin that sharpens our instincts, our senses, and speeds up our thinking processes…

So, how do we get around these issues? With four simple words! And to help you remember them, they mostly begin with P!

Here are the three Ps and one G:

Preparation.

There is only one way to know something really well, and that is to do the preparation. We all hope and dream that there is some kind of shortcut, and that talented people don’t need to do the long hours of study. Actually, they do. That’s why they are so talented.

Perspective.

Does it really matter if we make a mistake? Realistically, who is going to notice? And even if they do, will one or two little mistakes really outweigh all the good things about your performance? Of course not!

Process

As soon as we start thinking about the audience and wondering what they are thinking/feeling, we have lost our train of thought. We are no longer doing the process of performing, but wondering about the after-effects of it. In traditional Alexander Technique language, we are end-gaining rather than sticking with the means we have chosen in order to achieve our goals. In my experience, when I am staying within the process of singing or playing a piece of music, note by note, phrase by phrase, I don’t have the time to worry about the audience. And my performance, I am told, improves radically as a result!

Goal.

It’s often overlooked, but… What are you trying to achieve with your performance? Do you have a goal? Having a goal in mind for your performance can make a big difference to the way you approach things. For example, my recorder quartet recently performed at a local music festival. Our aim was to test one of our pieces in a hall acoustic, to check whether all the notes could be heard clearly on the instruments we had chosen to play. Because we had a specific goal in mind, nerves weren’t an issue.

So there you have it – three Ps and 1 G towards conquering stage fright, based on my experience. I hope they’re of help. And if you catch up with me on Facebook, I’ll let you know how the concert goes!