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4 minutes reading time (846 words)

Mind Matters: Stage fright on my mind

Stage fright is on my mind for various reasons. I have spent my entire life dealing with it since my first memory slip at age six, and it has continued to arise in my career as a performer and subsequently as a psychotherapist. Stage fright is not a topic that is easily discussed or admitted, because shame is an embarrassing component of this anxiety which forces the topic into the mental underground.

Experiencing stage fright poses a paradox for musicians who are talented, intelligent, good problem solvers, practice hard, and love what they do. A logical solution would seem to be "just do it" after hours of practicing. But stage fright defies logic, betrays good practice habits, and diminishes love of playing an instrument. The onset of stage fright can be anticipated but not predicted. It occurs in some situations and not others. A performer can be exhausted and play wonderfully. The same performer can be well-rested and play unconvincingly (usually experienced as a terrible failure by the disappointed performer).

Performers often feel lonely with this so-called affliction. They assume others do not suffer with it, or if they do, have found more effective ways to conquer their stage fright. It feels like a flaw to admit being nervous to the point of fear and dread. But there is a high price, paid emotionally,to keeping a "stiff upper lip" (especially for brass and woodwind performers) and remaining verbally silent about one's fears. Many musicians just practice longer and harder, as if that kind of workaholic magic will eliminate or reduce anxiety on stage. Practicing intelligently is necessary. Digging in to avoid nerves is not productive, and often is counterproductive. (Consider the added liability of physical injury when practicing intensely under mental duress.)

All of us have read books and articles and blogs that address this topic. Various sorts of help are offered—exercise, psychological theories, therapies, diets, exercise. All of us want that magic bullet. The magician therapist or teacher who can give an answer to end our suffering would be out of business in no time. I see this fantasy as akin to wishing to play perfectly in every situation, and never being debilitated or overwhelmed by the strong feelings that are called performance anxiety.

Many musicians feel alone with their intense emotions, and also in their quest for answers. Some even give up and stop playing altogether. High anxiety also affects personal relationships and self-image, which typically include feelings of incompetence. The "chicken-egg" question is pertinent to consider here: does having debilitating stage fright make you feel incompetent? Or does a poor self-image (feeling incompetent) contribute to your stage fright? Why is this an either/or question at all? I suggest the question and the answer involve a "both/and" approach.

My many years of experiencing and treating stage fright finally prompted me to write more than short blogs and longer articles. My book, Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers, addresses these serious questions and offers multiple ways to understand this demon that is unwanted and unwelcome. I do not promise magic answers in my book, although I offer many suggestions for teachers and performers to consider and to discuss with students and among themselves. I do hope that if you read what I have to say, your personal performance journey will be enhanced, and you will better enjoy the entire process from start to stage. 

I conclude here with some thoughts to ponder and tips to try for yourself and with your students. I hope you will find some helpful ways to think about performance anxiety.

• Normalize performance anxiety. Make the lesson a safe place for you and your student to talk about stage fright as part of music making.

• Listen to what students say. Do not try to convince them they should not be nervous.

• Help students become aware of what they think, feel, and say to themselves about performing. Point out self-defeating, conflicted, and negative self-statements.

• Talk about performance anxiety with students individually and in studio classes.

• Teach how to use anxiety effectively as a cue to coping. (Use examples about school, home, friends.)

• Invite students to be "performance coaches" for each other.

• Let students know that it is "cool" to talk about what they feel in a safe environment of lessons and studio classes. (What is said in class stays in class!)

• Invite students to offer suggestions about what makes the studio class a safe place to speak.

• Emphasize and discuss with students that there is no such thing as a perfect performance.

• When you or your students feel "stuck" (and you will from time to time), use your feelings to problem-solve creatively.

• Do not judge yourself as "good" or "bad" if you experience stage fright—it is how you deal with it that counts.

Remember, you are managing your stage fright over the long haul; you may not realize the progress you are making from day to day. It all adds up if you keep adding. 

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Letter to the Editor: September/October 2017


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