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Future of Music

Stage Fright: Managing Fear Without Beta Blockers

Stage fright is a reality for all performers. For some of us, there’s an inner voice that says things like “don’t mess up” or “you’re not good enough”. Then comes the flood of adrenaline through your body.

Performers must learn to deal with being nervous. It is simply part of the job. Even the most talented, experienced musicians have moments when they almost meltdown due to performance anxiety.

While there are many psychological barriers that performers face, this article addresses how to deal with the physical symptoms of stage fright.

Stage fright symptoms:

  • Sweaty hands/palms
  • Dry mouth
  • Shaky hands, feet, knees, voice, and lips
  • Upset stomach and nausea
  • Irregular/rapid breathing
  • Heightened sensory response

While some choose to decrease these symptoms with things like beta-blockers, marijuana, alcohol, and illegal drugs, there are natural ways to cope with performance anxiety.

Adrenaline is a natural performance-enhancing chemical.

Completely suppressing the body’s natural response to adrenaline can result in having a fear of adrenaline itself.

Dealing with the physical symptoms of stage fright

Adrenaline is a huge factor in most of the symptoms associated with stage fright. We can utilize this natural chemical to perform better, instead of eliminating adrenaline altogether.

However, instead of eliminating adrenaline altogether, we should learn to control it.

Ways to manage performance anxiety:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Reading
  • Reduce caffeine consumption
  • Eat healthy foods free of preservatives, colorants, and excess sugar
  • Regular exercise
  • Visualization of success
  • Create a performance routine
  • Laughing

Find which of these tips work for you by experimenting before your next performance. Some of these require more discipline than others. However, you’d be surprised at how effective laughing can help you relax.

stage fright

Deep Breathing Exercises

One of my first cello teachers introduced me to breathing exercises when I was a teenager. At the time, I didn’t think that I needed to focus on my breathing. However, as bigger performances and auditions came, the intensity of my stage fright increased dramatically.

Why breathing?

One of the biggest problems with stage fright is decreased/impaired concentration. For some, stage fright results in the inability to remember lyrics and music.

I have actually been on stage and felt like I was hyperventilating because my breathing was so shallow. So instead of focusing on the music, my attention was turned to not passing out.

Another reason to focus on breathing is so that the other symptoms of stage fright do not escalate.

Benefits of deep breathing?

  • Improves blood flow
  • Helps normalize digestion
  • Increases energy level
  • Improves concentration levels
  • Lowers stress levels

Regular Exercise

Performing on stage is physical. It requires both physical and mental stamina. However, due to late nights, travel, and busyness, many musicians struggle to find time for exercise.

Now, I do not believe that you must be in the physical condition of a marathon runner. However, being totally out of shape will cause problems.

Furthermore, regular exercise can greatly reduce anxiety symptoms like sweaty palms, nausea, and dizziness.

Exercise ideas

In general, it is good to mix cardio with a bit of strength training. This can look like a 2-mile walk/run one day and situps, push-ups, and light weights the next day.

I have way more physical stamina during concerts when I am in good physical shape. In short, I like to sweat for 3 days a week at minimum.

Reading to reduce stage fright

In the past few years, I have realized that reading produces benefits for performers.

On performance days, I like to spend the morning reading. Afterward, my mind is always at ease and looking forward to making music. In 2009, cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis found that reading reduces stress levels by 68 percent.

Dr. Lewis conducted the study at the University of Sussex and discovered multiple effects of reading. After only six minutes of reading, participants had lower heart rates and decreased muscle tension.

I supposed the type of content being read contributes to the amount of stress relieved. Either way, I am sure there are benefits whether you are reading Tolstoy or Steven King.

Chill out on the caffeine

I love a good cup of coffee (especially Kenyan or Ethiopian Sidamo)! Many musicians fall into the trap of consuming stimulants all-day. While I have been guilty of consuming 3 cups of coffee in a 24-hour period, this should not be a regular occurrence.

There are several benefits to coffee in your diet and I am not suggesting that you eliminate caffeine altogether. However, being dependent on caffeine (or stimulant/depressant) is a slippery slope.

Effects of over caffeinating:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Muscle spasms
  • Stomach pain
  • Dehydration
  • Increased heart rate
  • Headaches

If you have a fast heart rate, muscle spasms, and headaches performing is going to be difficult. Adrenaline will only compound existing health issues, not help them.

Laugh away stage fright

A few years ago, I saw a video of violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma just laughing their heads off just before a concert with the Chicago Symphony orchestra.

Laughing releases endorphins which can greatly reduce the symptoms of adrenaline

I thought this was very intriguing since most of the classical musicians are mostly serious before a concert. However, there it was, two of the best musicians being silly before playing Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello.

Watch this clip to see Yo-Yo Ma’s explanation of how being light-hearted helps their performance.

Studies have shown that laughing can relieve muscle tension for up to 45 minutes. Also, when you laugh your body releases endorphins which can greatly reduce the symptoms of adrenaline.

Visualize success, not stage fright

stage fright
Carnegie Hall

I am not expert on visualization. However, I know several musicians who use this technique help them focus before a big performance.

In 2016, I was asked to do the opening speech for a concert at Carnegie Hall. I personally do not like to do public speaking, but there I was in front of 2000+ people! To get through that short speech, I actually used visualization.

Backstage at Carnegie Hall is a life-size image of the stage view that looks out into the audience. I stood there for about 10 minutes reciting my speech before we went out.

As I envisioned the room; I could see all of the people, hear the sounds of coughing, a few late-comers, etc. Finally, visualizing that whatever happened on stage, everything would be just fine.

This was the first time I tried this technique and honestly, it worked great! I felt calm and was able to recite everything that I had planned to say beforehand.

Eating the right foods

The food you put into your body is extremely important. The temptation to buy food that is fast and cheap is always present. It is even more tempting to binge on your favorite junk food. However, no one wants to look like they eat ice cream for dinner–every day.

Boosted confidence

Food affects the way we feel and the way we look.

I know so many excellent musicians who have self-confidence issues primarily because they do not like the way they look. Walking out on stage can be terrifying if you do not think that you look great.

To be honest, I do not care what a musician looks like as long as they make music that reaches the heart. However, we all know that the world can be cruel.

The good news is that a lot of our appearance really does come down to what we allow in our bodies. Another important aspect of our diet is how much we eat.

There is no point in buying the healthiest foods from Whole Foods to overeat on a regular basis.

Healthy body and mind

When we eat foods that are whole grains, high in fiber, and free of refined sugar, we function better.

Constant travel and long working hours can have a negative impact on your health. Therefore it is imperative that you make sure that you are eating the right foods.

Food that helps concentration:

  • Fatty fish
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Flax seeds
  • Avocados
  • Green tea
  • Dark Chocolate
  • Nuts

Food that helps control weight

  • Leafy greens
  • Whole eggs
  • Lean red meat
  • Chicken breasts
  • Fatty fish
  • Oatmeal (rolled)
  • Chilli pepper
  • Grapefruit
  • Whole grains

Sleep and prepare for the stage

Have you ever notice that you are more anxious when you are sleep deprived?

Take some (or all) of these tips and incorporate them into a routine that helps you become a consistently impactful performer. According to a study at Harvard Medical School, “Concentration, working memory, mathematical capacity, and logical reasoning are all aspects of cognitive function compromised by sleep deprivation.”

Literally, there have been nuclear accidents caused by people who were simply sleep-deprived. What makes you think you can walk on stage and perform at your best if you haven’t had sufficient sleep?

It’s okay to pull a few all-nighters here and there to meet deadlines. However, these periods of sleep deprivation should not happen while you are busy with performances. That is if you want to play your best.

Create a performance routine

One thing that all great performers have in common is performance routine. Whether it be the entire day or simply minutes before they walk onto the stage, there is some sort of routine that is helping them bring consistency to the stage.

The point is, you must do what works for you. No one can create a routine for you.

What my ideal performance routine looks like?

  1. I wake up when my body naturally wakes up (no alarms)
  2. Do some form of exercise, usually push-ups and lightweights
  3. Drink water
  4. Pray and read the bible
  5. Eat breakfast (usually cold cereal, sometimes eggs and sausage), with a cup of coffee
  6. Shower
  7. Then I will spend 30-minutes to an hour reading
  8. Light stretching
  9. Practice scales and arpeggios (with a drone)
  10. Slow practice through repertoire (no more than an hour)
  11. Go do something relaxing (walk, have an interesting conversation, see something new, etc.)
  12. Eat a huge lunch!
  13. Watch something on YouTube that is funny or talk with a funny person
  14. 3-4 hours before the concert, I nap for about an hour
  15. Get dressed
  16. Go to hall/venue
  17. Warm-up
  18. Concert

My routine has been very similar to this for years and it is what works for me. Of course it varies when I have a lunchtime concert, but for the most part, it always includes most of these things.

Gain confidence with adequate preparation

Knowing your music well and being able to play with ease is one of the best ways to reduce performance anxiety. A lot of people have stage fright due to inadequate preparation.

The goal with preparation should be that the audience should never be distracted by how difficult your music is. In fact, the untrained ear should not be able to tell what is “difficult” at what is easy. You need to direct the listener’s attention to the music and performance at all times.

Dealing with “mistakes” and “imperfections”

It took me years to realize that most people who are coming to hear live music are not listening in the same way we are. They are there to experience a feeling. To forget their problems.

Most times they will not realize when you play an unintended (wrong) note. Even if they do recognize the mistake, how you react to it is what matters most.

Reacting to mistakes and obsessing about perfection can quickly draw the listener’s attention to the technical aspects of your playing. Before you know it, there will be very little distinction between you and a highly-skilled circus act.

Focus on communication

When I was a kid, I rarely got nervous on stage. I think this has to do with that fact that I was less aware of “imperfections”. Instead, I was focused on making the audience love the music as much I did.

Decide with every song/piece and concert how you want your audience when they leave your concert. This can help you set a goal that is higher than technical.

Amazingly, the less you focus on technique and more on communication, the better everything becomes. The technique is there as a means to more effective communication.

Solidify your technique

I spend a great deal of time on technical exercises simply because I want to be able to do whatever the music calls for with the greatest of ease. Not to merely display my great cello playing skills.

In fact, my goal is for the audience to talk about the way I made them feel and not “how well” I play the cello.

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