Playing Scared

Performance anxiety (the psychological term) is a widespread problem, especially for singers and instrumentalists. According to research, almost half of all musicians are struck by varying degrees

If you were asked what Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, and Joan Armatrading have in common (or had, in the cases of the late Messrs. Burton and Olivier), you'd probably say something like, “They're all rich and famous showbiz folk.” But at least one other thing has united them at some point in their careers — they all had a serious problem with performance anxiety, more commonly known as stage fright.

Performance anxiety (the psychological term) is a widespread problem, especially for singers and instrumentalists. According to research, almost half of all musicians are struck by varying degrees of incapacitating fear while performing. That makes musicians the largest subgroup of sufferers among performing artists.

French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli once quoted Maurice Chevalier as saying, “If you don't get stage fright, you're not a performer.” That might not be completely true, but many, if not most, performers get moderately nervous before a gig. Just take a look at the ritualistic preshow behavior of many musicians; often, their actions reveal a need to keep nervous excitement from becoming crippling fear. Even as unlikely a sufferer as former Deep Purple and Black Sabbath legend Glenn Hughes insists on being left alone to meditate for at least five minutes before a gig.

Just Dealing With It

Some performers simply accept that stage fright is something they'll always have to live with. Singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading is one of them. “I am always very nervous when I have to go onstage, and it doesn't get any better as time goes on,” she says.

A performance in Holland in front of 30,000 people was especially traumatic for Armatrading. “I was nervous before I walked out, but when I did and I stood on the stage and I looked out and saw all those faces, I started to really shake.” At the time, Armatrading regularly wore a key draped around her neck, which she would flip over her shoulder before performing so it dangled down her back; that way, it wouldn't hit her guitar while she played. “I was so nervous, I became obsessed with the key. I swung it around to my back. Then I had to make sure that I had done it right, so I did it again. On the second swing, the key became entangled in my hair. I then spent much too long fiddling with this key trying to get it out of my hair. The poor audience could do nothing but watch and wonder what on earth was going on. After what certainly seemed like an age to me and must have been a lifetime to the audience, I started the first song.

“Usually I get over being nervous as soon as the first song strikes up,” says Armatrading, “but on this occasion, I was thinking about the mess I had made of just walking onstage, putting on a guitar, and adjusting a key. It took me at least three songs to settle down.”

Hiding From Success

Serious onstage jitters aren't the exclusive province of the famous. Performing in front of an audience can be a nerve-jangling experience for anyone. For some — like Rachel, a singer from Canada — anxiety problems can leave a career in tatters. Blighted by nerves, Rachel hid from the spotlight of a solo career and, for many years, confined herself to studio work. At one time, her fear forced her to quit singing altogether.

“I would panic for two hours on the train, get in the studio, and be just fine,” says Rachel. “Needless to say, I was not at all comfortable onstage. I felt like a fish out of water. But still, I did it a time or two, in a couple of attempts at starting bands.” Unfortunately, Rachel's anxiety eventually got the best of her, and she quit. “I would let people hear me sing; then, if it looked like things were going to take off for me, I would retreat. So I've had a most frustrating and erratic career — if you can even call it that.”

Rachel was inordinately worried about how the audience perceived her. “I used to be afraid to open my eyes and look at people when I sang,” she says. “I was afraid that people were thinking ‘Who the hell does she think she is?'' when I was onstage.” Her self-consciousness affected all parts of her performance. She had trouble talking between songs and moving naturally onstage. She dared not handle the mic, singing with it on its stand all the time.

Finally, Rachel formed a musical partnership with her boyfriend, and they booked some gigs. He sang lead while she took the harmonies. “But it was really me hiding,” she says. “That way I didn't have to be in the spotlight, but I could still be in the game.” After years of struggling with her problem, Rachel finally sought professional help. She has since toured Canada.

Despite her success Joan Armatrading has never fully gotten over her stage fright.

Photo: Kate Garner

Focusing on the Emotion

Les Taylor has been a classical musician for 30 years. He experienced performance anxiety for the first 15. “I got nauseated and shook like a leaf before, during, and after nearly every performance,” Taylor says. Ultimately, he realized that the harder he tried to be perfect, the worse the stage fright became. “If I tried to achieve perfection, I was scared half to death and a poor performance followed. If, on the other hand, I concentrated on the message or the feeling that the composer intended to convey, I was sometimes transported into realms of ecstasy. If I tried to share what I loved in the music with the audience — without getting my ego involved — all was well.”

Some performers develop stage fright after they've been playing for a while. Occasionally it can creep up after they've had career success, even though initial experiences have been nothing but positive. It can also occur in specific performing situations. Julian Carter, a U.K. guitarist and vocalist, never experienced problems when he started out. He has only recently realized that nerves undermine him when playing with “more-talented people or in front of knowledgeable audiences” — for instance, when demonstrating gear in a solo performance at a trade show such as the Frankfurt Musik Messe, where the audience is composed of industry pros. Like Taylor, Carter found that the key to alleviating his nerves lay in changing his way of thinking about the audience and about making musical mistakes.

The Audience is Your Friend

Music, like any art form, is all about uninhibited self-expression and entertainment, so it's easy to see why stage fright is such a soul-destroying problem. Many choose to keep under wraps so they won't risk tarnishing their reputations. How can sufferers be helped? With so much at stake, it's surprising that so few music education programs give formal guidance on the psychological aspects of performance. Art Nefsky spotted a need for a dedicated advice service, so in 1987 he opened the Stage Fright Help Centre in Toronto. Although Nefsky advocates individually tailored help, general advice is apparent in his approach. He emphasizes the importance of learning how to communicate with an audience. He instructs his students to get into the people, not the art.

“Focus less on what you're doing and more on who you're doing it for” is one of Nefsky's concise tips. A case study on his Web site advises: “Don't hide behind your talent. Don't put yourself under the pressure of having to perform. Look at the people and concentrate on making as many friends as possible.” Nefsky highlights the importance of eye contact. “There's a difference between looking at someone and watching them watch you back,” he says. “You have to acknowledge their existence. It could be a smile, a wink, or a nod. Even if only mentally, you are saying, ‘How's it going? What's happening? Having a good time?''” Those things are meant to help performers forget themselves and, in the process, feel less like the center of attention. They become more attuned to emotional feedback from the audience.

Nefsky's approach resembles cognitive-therapy techniques, which concentrate on changing how anxiety-provoking situations are perceived. Most stage-fright sufferers have unrealistic expectations — both positive and negative — before a performance. They might have grand visions of total perfection or pessimistic thoughts of absolute doom.

The best strategy to combat such fear, says psychological wisdom, is to be positive and realistic at the same time. For example, recognize the likelihood of minor mistakes but don't exaggerate their importance. How do you do that? The key is to create simple, memorable statements that reinforce that belief. Remind yourself that even your favorite artists make mistakes. In the mental fog of panic, a fixation on errors (What if I play in the wrong key? What if I get lost in the middle of a tune?) often goes hand-in-hand with a fear of audience ridicule. Anxious performers should think again about what an audience is and why the people in it are there. Always remember: these people have gone out to enjoy themselves and be entertained. They want you to do well, not badly.

An audience should also be perceived not as a single mass, but as a collection of diverse individuals with varied tastes. “They” are not an “it,” but a group of people. Apart from the fact that audiences are more forgiving than we think, Carter says, “Performers should be aware that most mistakes go unnoticed by the audience unless the audience is full of musicians. But most of us play only to nonplayers and can get away with more than we think.”

Breathe Easy

Another key to overcoming fear lies in the way you interpret the physical symptoms of nervousness. Remember that people can't see your heart pounding. And that surge of anxiety just before a performance does not signal imminent disaster; it's just a perfectly natural peak that will ease once you hit the stage. Remind yourself of these facts daily until they're ingrained in your thought processes. Writing them down or playing them back to yourself on a recording will also help make them stick.

Another effective way to counteract stress is through exercise, which helps develop deep-breathing skills and stimulates the production of certain brain chemicals that help to reduce tension. It's obviously not practical to engage in vigorous aerobic activity when symptoms occur onstage — unless perhaps you're Angus Young — but it is a good idea to spend some time limbering up or doing a little light exercise during the build-up to a performance. Singer-songwriter Nerina Pallot strategically places pieces of paper around the stage emblazoned with the word breathe in capital letters. That helps her avoid the shallow breathing patterns that are characteristic of the stress response.

British guitarust Julian Carter got especially nervous when other musicians were in the audience.

Photo: Courtesey Julian Carter

Controlled Substances

Psychologists agree that a lack of control often leads to anxiety or fear. For example, bomber crews in World War II experienced much higher levels of anxiety than pilots, because they weren't the ones flying or controlling the planes. Musicians can gain a greater sense of control by devising structured routines around performances so that each one feels more predictable and familiar. Activities could be anything from always cleaning your instrument or warming up exactly one hour before a gig to putting on the same underwear (freshly washed, of course) on each occasion. The routine itself isn't necessarily important; what is critical is the fact that you do it — the same way — before every performance.

The performance environment is also a factor. Continually coming into contact with unknown venues is an occupational hazard, but if you learn their basic details in advance — capacity, stage dimensions, layout — you can remove some of the uncertainties that fuel anxiety.

Image Consciousness

Other valuable sources of help that shouldn't be overlooked are your fellow band members, who share the common goal of cultivating an onstage image. In creating a strong group identity, people can be protected from anxiety by the social cocoon of playing a role. A classic experiment carried out by social psychologists illustrates that phenomenon. A group of prison inmates was divided into two parts, one playing guards and the other, prisoners. In reality all were prisoners, but in the simulation, the convicts acting as guards were so transformed and emboldened that the test had to be stopped to protect the others.

If you're in a group, your onstage image is partly an issue for the whole band. Whether you perform solo or with a group, don't think that creating an identity has to be an unimportant or purely commercial exercise. Its significance helps explain the paradoxical performers who are able to ooze confidence onstage yet come across as shy elsewhere.

It's easy to overlook the fact that a moderate amount of tension is perfectly natural; a slight case of nerves can actually enhance your performance and provide the spark that is the hallmark of a musician playing at the optimum level. That alone is sufficient reason to avoid the temptation to ingest large amounts of alcohol or other controlled substances to eradicate nervousness. If you practice the right psychological techniques to control your nerves, the only thing you will want to intoxicate yourself with is the audience's applause — the best drug of all.

Onstage Hotlink
Art Nefsky's Stage Fright Help Centre.

Tips for Reducing Stage Fright

Don't be afraid of the audience. Remember that people want you to do well.
Remind yourself that it's normal to make small mistakes and that most will go unnoticed. Also remember that a little anxiety is normal.
Make eye contact with the audience. By acknowledging individuals in the crowd, you'll feel less like the center of attention.
Engage in structured preshow routines (such as warming up, cleaning your instrument, and reviewing the setlist) that you do in the same way, in the same order, for each performance. Doing so will give you an increased sense of control, thereby lessening your anxiety.
Practice deep breathing or exercise lightly before a performance. They can help stimulate brain chemicals that reduce tension.
Avoid using drugs or alcohol to combat stage fright. They can impair your judgment and adversely affect your performance.
Visit or learn about new venues you'll be playing at well in advance of shows. Advance knowledge of the physical characteristics and layout of a venue can help reduce the stress of performing there for the first time.

Robin Poultneyis a psychologist, writer, and musician with an interest in all aspects of learning and performing music. He holds a master's degree in a applied psychology and is a Graduate Member of the British Psychological Society. He's also a former student at the Guitar Institute in London.