If you happen to suffer from stage fright, you’re certainly not alone. It’s very common amongst musicians, actors, athletes and public speakers.
Stage fright takes the enjoyment out of performing. It disrupts the natural flow of a performance and causes debilitating physical symptoms. But it’s more common than many musicians realize!
I know what it’s like to experience a wave of unpleasant emotions––being fearful of what might go wrong at a show. Fortunately I have learned to transform my perspective, and I practice mindfulness techniques that help me feel calmer, happier and more confident on stage.
In this article I’ll be sharing with you some ways to help you manage and overcome performance anxiety whilst playing music both live and in the studio. Let’s dive right in!
- Understand That Music is Not a Competition
Music is perceived by many to be a competitive environment. You might argue that only the most popular and prolific musicians achieve worldwide success. But it isn’t all about pure ability. Music is art, and it’s subjective.
Music is an amazing source of entertainment, and it is definitely not a sport. People attend concerts because they want to be entertained; and to experience the sounds and energy of a real, live performance.
Understanding that music is not a competition will help to relieve some of the pressure when performing live, and can allow you to enjoy the experience more without as much fear of failure.
Sure, competition can definitely be a good thing; it helps to fuel our progress and makes us practice with discipline. Wanting to be a better musician is incredibly motivating, and hard work does pay off. But it’s important to understand there are no challengers to beat and no real ‘winner’.
As mentioned before, music is entirely subjective, and no song or musical performance has ever been claimed to be unanimously good or bad!
- Prepare and Warm Up Effectively
Delivering a stellar performance requires a disciplined approach to practice. If you are well rehearsed and confident with your material, then you have nothing to worry about when it’s time for the show!
It’s best practice to make sure your instrument is in tip-top condition beforehand. Install fresh accessories such as new woodwind reeds and guitar strings ahead of time, and ensure your equipment such guitar amps and bass drum pedals are functioning correctly.
Additionally, whether you are a vocalist or instrumentalist, an effective warm-up routine is crucial to delivering your most consistent musical performances. Developing a good warm-up routine will relax and warm up muscles to help you feel more comfortable on stage.
- Trust In Your Own Ability
The greatest tennis players to grace the court are completely in the zone, engaged in a state of relaxed concentration. They exude confidence, and the way they play is fluid and instinctive. They don’t need to think about where to hit the ball correctly.
If you are well prepared for a musical performance, you won’t need to think about how to move your hands on your instrument. Practice and repetition builds powerful muscle memory that the innermost self remembers very well.
As long as you are sufficiently prepared, this quiet, inner confidence exists without you needing to find it. That means you can enjoy yourself on stage knowing you already know exactly how to play at your best, without needing to remember what to do!
This is something I learned from Timothy Gallwey’s book titled The Inner Game of Tennis. It’s a revolutionary book from 1974 that recognizes that winning is very psychological, and trying too hard is counterproductive.
- Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously!
When it comes to show time, it’s completely normal to be experiencing a whole range of emotions, even uncomfortable and painful ones. The truth is that you can’t stop these negative thoughts and feelings, but you don’t have to take them seriously.
Feelings are merely physical sensations. Even uncomfortable feelings – they cannot hurt you. And what about thoughts? Most of the thoughts we have are not deliberate or intentional. And I’m sure you do not want to have worried or anxious thoughts live on stage.
Try to see these thoughts as simply random mental occurrences. They are not important. There is no need to give them power by expending emotional energy fighting them. And most of the time they’re pretty funny how ridiculous they are!
The same applies for feelings. Uncomfortable feelings that result from nervousness are simply sensations we experience in the present moment. They are only temporary and not dangerous, no matter how uncomfortable.
- Practice Mindful Breathing Exercises
Mindfulness meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. Through mindfulness practice we are able to experience the present moment free from judgment. It is scientifically proven to offer a wide range of benefits!
Self-doubt, nervousness and lapses of concentration are all a result of typical thinking behaviour. Through incorporating mindfulness into a warm-up routine we can stay relaxed and focused in the present moment.
Taking 10 deep breaths is a great breathing exercise to do backstage. Gently focus on each inhalation and exhalation of the breath, bringing a deliberate focus towards all of the sensations you can feel. The aim is to bring a curious mind to all of the changing experiences without placing judgment.
When the mind becomes distracted, we simply let our thoughts come and go without chasing after them, as if they are like passing cars.
This is a very basic introduction to mindfulness, but it is a valuable skill that can help us to experience greater levels of calm and enjoyment from playing music live.
The likelihood is that you won’t overcome stage fright instantaneously, and perhaps not completely at all. Even the most experienced musicians, actors and athletes still feel butterflies before performing backstage or in the dressing room.
But it is through changing perspective that you will be able to learn to enjoy yourself more on stage, and better control your nerves.
The reality is that the audience does not pay to scrutinize you as soon as you make a single mistake. We aren’t robots, and no performance is ever going to be absolutely perfect.
As long as you are prepared, you can trust in yourself to deliver a great performance. Through dedicated practice and repetition we build valuable muscle memory, and it’s instinctive. In fact, we as musicians need to get out of our own heads in order to unleash our true potential.
Gideon Waxman is a London-based drummer and music educator. He holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of Westminster and is fully qualified to teach mindfulness based stress reduction programs. You can find more of his advice at Drum Helper, which is a free online resource dedicated to helping drummers achieve more from their playing.