“Do you ever get nervous?”, “Do you still get stage fright?”
These are questions I heard regularly on the road. After doing thousands of shows, being on stage certainly gets easier, but the honest answer is yes, I do still experience stage fright. When I was a senior in high school, my music teacher, Stan Harris, said something to me that really struck a chord with me and has stuck with me ever since. I had just auditioned for a high school play and when I got off the stage I was so nervous I was shaking. When I expressed this to Mr. Harris, he smiled at me and told me that it’s ok to be nervous, and that we feel nervous when something is really important to us. It was a simple statement, but it helped me to realize that being nervous isn’t necessarily a bad emotion and it doesn’t have to be crippling. It comes from a place of pure intention, where we’re passionate about what we’re doing and we truly want to succeed. It’s helpful to recognize that and work through the emotions. Here are a few secrets I’ve learned along the way that can help to calm the butterflies that come when you step in front of an audience. This is written from the perspective of a musician/entertainer, since that’s where my experience has been, but the same principles apply if you are a motivational speaker, dancer, or performing at church and local events.
The first tip I would give is to prepare. Practice, practice, practice! Play your song or practice your speech until it becomes second nature. When you get on stage and there are lights and a sound system and an audience, everything feels and sounds different. You need to be able to perform that number in your sleep, so that you’re not having to remember what comes next. There are obviously exceptions to every rule, and our band would occasionally play a brand new song with success, but in general, practice the heck out of everything. In our rehearsals, we would completely dissect a song. We’d slow the metronome waaaay down, then play the song faster than normal, and then work it back down to the right tempo. We would rehearse in a circle, then in a straight line, and then we’d play the same song while walking away from each other. Practice how you’re going to start and how you’re going to end. Start the song from the middle instead of the beginning. Rehearse the transitions between songs. Determine what things you’re going to say and when you’ll say them. Practice unplugged and plugged in. Practice in front of a mirror. Practice with your eyes closed. Run through your chords and solos in a dark room so that you can play without looking at your instrument. Get creative! The better prepared you are, the less you have to focus on remembering lyrics and chords and the more you can pour yourself into the music and the message you’re trying to convey.
Get in the zone!
It is so important to prepare yourself mentally and get in the right space before you step on stage. Most artists that I’ve known or read about have a pre-performance ritual of some kind. Some people have a lucky bracelet they wear on stage. Many people say a prayer or meditate before they hit the stage. You need some kind of anchor you can rely on to help shift you out of whatever has happened throughout the day and into show mode. There’s a huge difference in how I’m able to perform when I’m able to take five or ten minutes and prepare myself mentally for what I’m about to give to the audience vs. the shows where I’ve gone from walking around the fair or nursing my baby, straight onto stage. My pre-performance ritual usually involves vocal warmups and a prayer. Whatever it is for you, there needs to be a separation from the rest of the day and the moment that you walk out on stage.
Similar to getting in the zone, it’s helpful to visualize your success. See yourself on that stage. Hear the applause and experience the audience’s reaction to you. Are they laughing at your jokes? Did you make them cry? Feel how it feels to be totally in control of the stage. Visualize how the end of the night looks. Did you get a standing ovation? Experience the buzz that comes from a performance that you totally nailed. It might seem silly, but visualization is a powerful tool. You project how you see yourself onto your audience. If you are feeling insecure, they will feel insecure about you. If you are feeling confident, they will feel secure enough to let go and allow you take them on a journey.
Another aspect of visualization that can be helpful is to go to a happy place. Envision yourself singing on your favorite mountain top, hiking trail or by the ocean. Imagine that you’re singing to someone you love and trust. Some people talk about imagining your audience in their underwear. Whatever it is that helps you to loosen up and sing from a place where you feel comfortable, be in that space. For me, it’s helpful to see my kids or my husband in my minds-eye and sing to them, because it allows me to let down the walls and just be myself.
Love your audience
The final secret I’ll share, and this may be the most important principle, is to love people. It’s easy when you’re nervous, or even just after having done 100 shows, to go on autopilot. There have been shows when I was really tired, or it was the 20th show on the same stage, or I was super nervous because of the venue or whoever was in the audience, and I would just zone out. Before I knew it, the show was over, and I hardly remembered going from point A to point B. When I would go back and see footage of those shows, I usually played the songs way too fast, spoke 100 miles an hour and didn’t really connect with my audience. The shows that were most powerful and memorable are the ones where I was able to look out at the audience and truly love them. I would focus on one person at a time and try to put myself in their shoes and sing specifically to them. Those were the shows where people laughed and cried and came up afterwards and became friends. As harsh as it may sound, stagefright is really a form of selfishness. I’m not saying that anyone who feels stagefright is a selfish person, but hear me out. Just over a week ago, I got to be part of a writers-round-style concert. There were some really talented singer/songwriters there and when I got up to sing my one song, I was nervous. All these thoughts ran through my head as I was sitting up there fumbling through my guitar intro. “What do they think of me?”, “Should I have chosen a different song?”, “Am I off pitch?”, “Is this guitar in tune?” The common theme to all those thoughts is “me”. I was totally caught up in my own head. The key to overcoming stagefright is to get outside of yourself and really love people. Perform for them because you genuinely care about them. Your nerves will dissipate and your performance will be stronger and more meaningful.
In the words of Dr. Seuss:
We each have someone unique to offer the world that no one else can give. Put in the work to prepare, get in the right frame of mind and love your audience enough to let go of your insecurities and let the magic happen.