by Will Barrow
When you see a performer doing their thing, in the flow, in the zone, fully connected to what they are doing, you are experiencing their artistry in the way it was meant to be expressed. And that performer is experiencing connection to something beyond their mind and physical abilities—something transforming, even divine—they are a vessel for the channeling of an energy coming from a place beyond themselves, expressed in their own unique voice. Stage fright, in whatever degree, takes the performer away from this sacred space and into a realm of self-consciousness, fear and loathing, distraction and discomfort. It is something that affects musicians, actors, public speakers, preachers, even visual artists who are afraid to show their work to the public.
There are very practical, effective ways to overcome stage fright, if one is willing to work at understanding what is causing it and if one undertakes a course of action designed to develop another way of thinking, feeling, performing…of being as an artist.
I dealt with mild to moderate stage fright for the first 25 or 30 years of my 37 years of playing, starting with piano recitals, then in college playing situations, and on into my career. This was especially true on important gigs, radio, and TV tapings, and in the studio. I found that I was often playing at a level less than my best, and, more importantly, I was unable to experience fully the joy of performing. I found myself distracted, caught up in my own thoughts and judgments, and concerned with the potential judgments of those in my audience. At least I was able to continue performing and to pursue a career in music, for at its most serious level, stage fright causes one to avoid performing altogether. I tried various approaches to making it better: smoking weed, certain physical routines, trying to be well prepared, and others.
Happily, through a variety of means—mostly personal/spiritual means—I’ve gotten to a place where I’m consistently comfortable, centered, often even blissful when playing and singing, even when it’s way less than perfect.
As is the case with overcoming any problem related to our psyche and way of being, overcoming stage fright begins with understanding what is going on—psychologically, physiologically and spiritually—when we experience it. It starts with the mind—judging, worrying, playing out scenarios of mistakes/inadequacy/judgment of others, bringing in baggage from disappointing or disastrous past performing experiences. This often happens at a subconscious level. At a conscious level, we are distracted and our mind shuts down a bit. Much of stage fright is the work of the ego, which has us believe that our performance is of some earth-shattering importance and that everyone else is as freaked out and concerned as we are. (It isn’t; they aren’t.)
That is not to say that our performance is unimportant, but rather that our ego leads us to feel an exaggerated sense of importance and need for perfection—at the expense of our enjoyment—and leads to a compromised performance, seemingly validating our concerns and creating a vicious cycle.
Sometimes we don’t hear the conversations and inner workings of the mind, but they are present, and they make themselves felt on the physiological level. Our throat tightens, our mouth gets dry, our breathing is more shallow—all of this doing us no good, especially if we’re singing, speaking, or playing a wind instrument. Our hands might shake a little, and they’re stiffer and have less dexterity, which is a drag if we’re playing an instrument, especially in playing music where chops (advanced technique) are involved. So, basically, we’ve compromised the vessel through which our performance is being channeled. This has the effect of breaking one’s spirit as a performer.
OK, that’s what is happening with stage fright on a psychological, physiological, and spiritual level, and it sucks. So what to do about it?
The way I’ve presented this chain of events leading to stage fright provides a key to a way to approach changing one’s way of being and performing. I believe a change on the spiritual side of the equation is fundamental. By spiritual I mean attending to the spirit, connecting to a source beyond the mind with all its judgments, fears, and distractions.
There are two fantastic and practical books I recommend for getting into the spiritual side of performing. One is by Kenny Werner, a renowned jazz pianist, though the wisdom and techniques in his book apply way beyond the jazz genre and even beyond music. It is called Effortless Mastery, and it employs practical techniques/approaches from meditation to teach one how to practice the Zen thing on one’s instrument. These same techniques and approaches could also be applied to a variety of art forms and performance mediums.
The other book is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, and it has to do with living and being. While it is about more than performance per se, I believe it is highly relevant for the performer. It is about living in the now, the present moment. As performers we want to be focused on what we’re playing, not what we already played (that phrase or note that didn’t come out just right) or what we’re about to play (that hard or new thing coming up). Tolle really speaks to that but also helps us to understand the sabotage our overactive minds cause to our sense of peace and well-being. The more we develop our sense of peace and the more we’re in the now, the more this will be reflected in our performance.
There are exercises and practices that can counteract some of the physical symptoms of stage fright. Breathing exercises are very helpful in reducing things like rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, and shaking. Meditation helps to quiet the mind.
From the standpoint of one’s psyche and of the conversations going on in the mind, some important things to practice and put in your mind are: 1) gratitude—it is hard to be genuinely grateful and stressed out at the same time; 2) acceptance—recognize that your performance is human and therefore imperfect, and that is cool; and 3) focus on the process and flow, not the result—this is easier to do when we learn how to be less judgmental. We should do our best in practicing to make something as good as it can be, then let go of judgment and enjoy what comes out.
These are generalized concepts that can be practiced if we are aware and if we have those kinds of positive and helpful conversations in our mind. Stress, when it comes to performing, is mostly self-created, a figment of our imaginations. Given the fact that we create our own reality, we can create a new reality where performance is consistently calming, centering, and enjoyable.
It didn’t happen overnight, but I can’t wait to get up in front of people and play music—even when the sound isn’t quite right, the band isn’t totally gelling, and I’m not on my “A” game. Relaxed and connected performance is something that can be practiced and a way of being.