Stage fright is a curious thing really. It is probably one of the most common public displays of irrational emotions outside of televised war or conflict footage, as it takes place in front of large groups of people. And there really are only three barriers to overcoming it.
Some may argue with me calling it an ‘irrational emotion’, but if you take a good close objective look at it, it really is irrational. Think about it. Here is a large group of people called an audience. In a fair amount of cases, these people have paid hard earned money to hear what we have to say or sing. So the chances of them trying to stop us are slim to none. It’s like saying “Here. Here is $20 do a job, but I don’t want you to actually do it.”
Even in the case where money is not involved there are several social standards that preclude anything actually harmful to occur to the performer. Simple law prevents the audience from attacking the performer. General good manners should prevent the rest, but that doesn’t always hold true and you get the occasional heckle or boo from some random jerk. There’s one in every crowd it seems. And that should never be considered a proper indication of the acceptability of ones performance. That’s simply that guy being a jerk.
Just when you think you’ve hit bottom
Case in point. I’m sure most of you reading this have heard of Stevie Ray Vaughan. If not, Google him. SRV was one of the most talented guitar players/singers/blues man ever to walk this blue rock we call Earth. Yet at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland he was boo’ed. There was nothing wrong or ‘booable’ about his performance as you can see here.
Of course after the performance Stevie was completely bummed over the those boo’s. There were cheers as well, but it’s hard to remember those in face of such irrational and suppressive negativity. However, in the audience that night were David Bowie and Jackson Browne.
SRV and Double Trouble (his band) were booked for the following two nights to play at the Montreux Casino after hours club. On the first night, David Bowie approached Stevie and asked him to play on his next album, which of course Stevie did and is the led guitar on Let’s Dance. That album sold 7 million copies and became Bowie’s best-selling album of all time. Jackson Browne showed up the next night with his band. They joined Stevie and Double Trouble and the group jammed until 7:00 the next morning. After which, Jackson offered Vaughan and Double Trouble the use of his private recording studio, free of charge, to record an album. Stevie gladly took him up on the offer and recorded Texas Flood, Stevie’s debut album which catapulted his career.
In 1985 Stevie Ray Vaughan went back and performed again at Montreux.
No one boo’ed.
So keep in mind that although there are a few jerks in the crowd, there are other people who are digging your performance. And you never know what could come from that one performance.
3 Main Barriers
I gave you the real world example above to help explain the three main barriers to overcoming stage fright. Those three barriers being:
- Lack of Communication
- Lack of Confidence
- Lack of Acceptance
Stevie Ray Vaughan had no problem with the first one, communication. His performances communicated his art thoroughly. There is no mistake about that. He connected to his audience, no problem. And there is no doubt that he had confidence in his ability to perform or do what he was doing. You simply don’t get as good as he was otherwise. It’s at acceptance where he failed that night. But let’s start with the first one, Lack of Communication, as that is the most important.
An entire post could be dedicated to this barrier, but lets sum it very easily.
Lack of Communication
The very heart of your performance is communication. If not communicating, then what are you doing? As a matter of fact, if you are up there on stage simply standing in front of the audience you are communicating. It’s the degree of communication that regulates the power of your performance. It is also the first thing to drop out when stage fright sets in.
Your level of willingness to communication is directly proportional and opposite to your level of stage fright. If you were completely and totally unwilling to communicate to an audience, you would have to physically manhandled onto the stage whereby you would clam up and completely shut down. That is total and utter stage fright.
On the flip side of the coin, if you were completely willing to communicate with everyone in the audience, you would gladly run onto stage and perform with no reservation or stage fright whatsoever.
So it would seem, that one could simply decide to communicate with an audience and stage fright would magically disappear. And that IS possible for some, but not quite realistic for most. Therefore, what would be the most effective way to overcome this? Reduce the size of the audience.
What one is running up against in stage fright in regards to communication is the sheer size of the audience. That mass of people can be quite daunting regardless of the actual number of people. Sometimes more than one person is enough to be too much for some performers. But for the majority of performers who suffer from stage fright, it is a sizable crowd.
When you have a crowd, physically speaking, it is larger than the performer. And the performer sees this crowd and considers it so. Thus, the size of the crowd can strike fear into the performer. It may not be a rational problem, but it is a real problem all the same. The crowd is just too darn big to communicate with. Where do you start?
You start with one.
You reduce the audience size to one person. You pick one person, one face in the crowd that is receptive and communicate to them. Perform to them. Note that I said “TO” them and not “FOR” them. That is key. Perform TO them. Communicate TO them, not for them. At that point you have that person. Then move to another person. One at a time, you move through the crowd communicating to individuals not crowds. Crowds are ambiguous and therefore, to that degree, mysterious. Individuals are not. They are right there to be communicated to.
Soon you will find as you move from one individual to another, communicating to each, that your stage fright is melting and the crowd is actually now a bunch of individuals that your are communicating to individually at the same time.
So reduce the size of the audience to one, and build from there. Eventually you will be able to walk onto any stage and communicate at once with several individuals at once regardless of the size of the crowd. But there are a few more things that could help along the way.
Lack of Confidence
Julie Andrews said “Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” That is an extremely powerful quote. Not only is it succinct, it is actionable. You can apply this one quote to practically eradicate any lack of confidence. That eradication also helps to eradicate stage fright.
Professionals, as a whole, are completely confident in their ability to perform the action they are a professional in. Therefore, they have no fear that their performance will falter. Therefore, they have no fear that they will fail embarrassingly in front of their audience.
In Theory that is. No performer is completely void of doubt before a performance. It simply isn’t possible to obtain that absolute level of confidence. There is no such thing as ‘beyond a shadow of doubt’ when it comes to performing and confidence. Ask any level of professional performer, and if they answer you honestly, they will tell you that of course there is a shadow of doubt.
If you ask me, I would tell you that of course there is to some degree. Otherwise, what’s the fun in that? Knowing that every single performance was going to go completely void of any mistake, flawlessly delivered with no chance of anything could go wrong would be deathly boring.
The trick is to be confident enough.
Be confident enough in your ability to deliver the actions of the performance so that you have no reason to think that something could go wrong. That way you can focus on the other two barriers, lack of communication and lack of acceptance.
Think about it. The first time you got behind the wheel to drive in traffic you were at least nervous if not terrified. Remember that? But you have proven to yourself so many times over and over by simply driving everyday that you can drive. I bet you don’t even think about it any more. You start her up and drive to the store. Nothing to it. You have practiced it so many times that it can’t go wrong. To a degree anyway. There is always the chance of an accident occurring. But you don’t think about it that much right? I’t just a simple thing you do, like baking or working. And even those things, if you think about it, had their “oh boy here we go” moments when you started doing them. But now those actions to are common.
That’s confidence through practice.
So follow Julie Andrews’s advice and practice it until you can’t get it wrong and you will eliminate lack of confidence as a contributor to stage fright.
Lack of Acceptance
Last but not least, that barrier that temporarily crept into Stevie Ray Vaughan’s head after the booing, Lack of Acceptance. And the very fact that it affected such a confident and communicative performer lends credence to it being the most insidious and most difficult barrier to overcome.
I don’t know everything thing that was going through his head after that performance. The only way to do that would to be him. But I can pretty much guarantee that he briefly doubted his ability and was not at that moment keen to go back on stage and perform again. Not that he didn’t obviously get over it, but I’d bet my Taylor acoustic guitar that those things were creeping around in his head at that moment backstage after the performance.
His lack of acceptance contributed to his temporary drop in confidence and communicability. Or to put it simply in a possible quote, “Wow. Was I that bad? Do I really wan’t do this again?”. Heck. I have never met one person who hasn’t had that phrase rattle through their head at least one time or another. And thus begins the slow death of an artistic career if left uncured. Or worse yet, it can prevent someone from getting on stage in the first place to have a career or even one performance.
But there are two words, that if completely and truly adopted by a performer, can cure it instantly. There are two words that can knock it right out of your head and completely render any doubt or stage fright powerless. Even you have zero confidence in your ability to perform and zero intention of communicating while on stage, these two words by themselves theoretically have the power to wipe out all stage fright.
So what if it sucks? So what if I screw up? So what if not everyone likes it? You can’t please everyone all the time anyway, so, so what?
Two very simple words that are extremely easy to say, and to even mean, when spoken in the sanctity of home or friendship. But not so easy to muster up in the wings of a stage. It’s not so easy to not care when you are standing there off stage with a microphone in hand being announced.
So how do you muster up those two words with certainty when in that particular position? How can we adopt ‘So what?’ so easily. Well there is another phrase that is the bookend to and completes the ‘So what?’.
What’s the worst that could happen?
I know you’ve heard those sentences together many many times. However, there is a trick to the second one that makes it work. Asking ‘whats the worst that could happen?’ is not enough.
You have to answer the question.
As counterintuitive as that may sound, it works. One would think that imagining that kind of stuff before you perform is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing at that time. Wouldn’t just freak you out even more? That depends. It depends on what the answer is. It depends on what you imagine
The answer to ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ isn’t what could go wrong on stage. You’re already imagining that. That is what gets you in trouble in the first place. That isn’t the answer. The answer could be better phrased “What’s the worst that could happen after that?”. THAT is the question to answer. That is what you have to answer.
What is the worst that could happen after something goes wrong?
That is what you need to imagine. You need to imagine what the consequences would be of something going wrong. Then, once you have that imagined, you need to ask yourself if you are OK with that. You need to be able to accept that. It needs to not bother you. Really work out the details in your mind. As backwards as it may seem, think it through and imagine what would happen after the “debacle”. Then accept those consequences. If you can’t, then take it to another level.
If you can’t accept those consequences, imagine the ‘what is the worst that could happen because of the consequences’. Keep working it back like that until you don’t care about the consequences. Eventually you WILL find a point that doesn’t matter. You will reach a ‘so what?’ that doesn’t matter.
I’ve had students jokingly say “I could die of embarrassment!” To which I dutifully reply “So what?”. The look I get is usually a startled one, to which I stare down until they actually work it through. Death is a serious as it gets for an individual, but after that there is a level of not caring. How much would you care if you were dead?
Then they come full circle and compare death to the performance at hand and realize that relatively speaking, the latter really isn’t that big of deal. And then they accept the immediate imagined possibilities of consequences of failure with the greatest of ease. I mean, how important is it really?
Woosh! Just like that, the stage fright dissipates and they go on to perform well, and more importantly, have fun. Because all of the danger associated with the performance goes away. Performing no longer is a dangerous activity (depending on that content of the performance). It’s just performing. It’s not going to battle or court or prison or to the grave. It’s just performing. Cool exercise, that.
I also find it interesting that the same exercise can be applied to other areas of difficulty accepting things in life. But that is a discussion for another time and a different venue.
In the meantime, use the above to reduce or remove completely as possible the three barriers to overcoming stage fright and sing with joy!
Communicate to one individual at a time after you have practiced your performance until it can’t go wrong. And if by some chance something catastrophic does go wrong,