By Mike Romero
What do adults find scarier than financial ruin, sickness, death, or flying on an airplane? Public speaking. At least according to one 1994 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
The fear of standing up in front of people to give some kind of performance – whether that be a speech, a play, or a concert – is a normal biological response, and absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It’s hardwired into the brains of the majority of human beings.
Why? Think about it. When you’re in front of an audience, you are wildly outnumbered. If that crowd, for any reason, were to turn unpleasant or violent, then… you’re dead. Is that irrational? Absolutely. Most concertgoers are looking for a safe, exciting, fun time. They’re not out for blood – they’re there to be entertained. Still, we have thousands of years of biological evolution that tells us otherwise in some of the most annoying ways (dry mouth, anyone?!).
So it’s 100% natural to feel some icks before you get on stage – even seasoned performers still get symptoms of stage fright. That’s because stage fright occurs when your body’s fight, flight, or freeze responses activate in response to stressful situations. It’s an entirely involuntary response dictated by your amygdala. Whenever you encounter a stressful situation, your body floods itself with specific hormones to keep you alive. Understanding the 3 kinds of responses and their associated symptoms can do wonders for improving your live performance.
In fight mode, your body prepares itself for a physical encounter and does everything it can to prepare you to win. Symptoms include:
- A tight jaw
- Grinding or clenched teeth
- A knot in your stomach
- The urge to punch, kick, or “blow off steam”
- Irritability with bandmates, the venue, or the audience
In flight mode, your body prepares itself for a losing battle and does everything it can to help you escape. Symptoms include:
- Feeling fidgety, tense, or trapped
- Constantly moving your legs, feet, and arms
- Blood rushing to your core instead of your extremities, leading to a feeling of numbness or coldness in your arms and legs
- Dilated, darting eyes
- Needing to use the bathroom
The freeze response is the most paralyzing of the three. It is usually brought on by extreme fear and sensory overload. Some scientists posit that the freeze response is related to the ancestral tactic of playing dead, which dissociates us and shields us temporarily from overwhelming pain or trauma. If you’ve ever seen a chicken go limp before execution, that’s the freeze response in action. It’s pretty tragic. Symptoms include:
- A sense of dread
- Pale skin
- Feeling stiff, heavy, cold, and numb
- A loud, pounding heart
- Decreasing heart rate
- Forgetting words or lyrics or being unable to speak
What To Do About It
The number one thing you need to do is realize that having stage fright is okay. Every performer has it to some degree. The sooner you accept that it will always be around, the better. That way, instead of wishing it would go away, you can expect it and plan to counteract its effects.
Next time you perform, pay careful attention to your body. Everyone experiences stage fright differently. Write down how you feel physically. When you go back and revisit your notes, come up with solutions for the next show and build a pre-show routine. If your hands get cold, bring a hoodie or a blanket to keep them warm before showtime. If you get dry mouth, make sure to bring plenty of water. If you get fidgety, either lean into it by bringing a stress ball or fidget spinner, or plan breathing or mindfulness exercises to help calm yourself. I also can’t stress this enough: plan a bathroom break. The urge for go time before show time is almost universal.
Mentally and emotionally, one of the best ways to help yourself is to train your mind to see the audience as friends to share value with instead of enemies to beat or foes to win over. We enter the fight, flight, or freeze modes in response to predators. Get to know people at shows before and after. Learn to love them. Not only is this good for business, but it will help you feel more confident and comfortable onstage.
Finally, always remember that things will go wrong. Even for the greats, perfect shows are very few and far between. Picks will tear, fly out of your hand, or fall into the sound hole of your guitar. Cables will go out. Sticks and strings will snap. Tracks will crash. Microphones may shock you. The stage may be smaller than you expected. You’ll forget some words.
So bring extra picks and sticks and strings and cables (including power adaptors). Ask the sound guy to turn off phantom power to the dynamic microphone if it’s shocking you. Learn to play in different setups and configurations – acoustic, full band, in a trio, with tracks, without tracks, etc. Set words out on the floor next to your set list, get good at stage banter, practice making things up on the fly. Play games in your downtime to develop these skills.
If you follow all of these steps and still experience extreme or uncontrollable dread when it comes time to perform, reach out to a doctor. If you’re having panic attacks or extreme discomfort, these may be signs of an anxiety disorder, and medication may help.
No matter what, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t quit. Avoidance may bring temporary relief, but it will never solve the problem. It especially won’t help you realize your dreams of becoming a professional musician. When you have a bad show, take notes and address them in rehearsal. Consistent practice – including affirmations, visualizations, and mental and emotional work outside of music – will work wonders for your live performance.
You got this.