How to Overcome stage Fright; Practical Tips for Public Speaking
Fear filled my stomach, crept up into my chest, constricted my throat… I couldn’t help myself. I hated myself and this situation. “I do not want! I can not!”. But it was too late to retreat: my exit was announced, people in the hall were waiting for my speech.
Did you know that most musicians have stage fright? It’s like a fitter with a fear of heights. Or a pilot who is afraid to fly.
The topic of performance anxiety is taboo in the classical music world. Our generation of teachers—those in their fifties—are raised to accept fear as weakness. Fear was stuffed into a box called “The Costs of the Profession”, where other things imposed by upbringing were kept: “Classics are only for the elite”, “You work for an idea, not for money”, “Music is hard labor” and the like. This box was removed far into itself, so as not to interfere with life. However, every time during the preparation for the performance, its contents strangely floated to the surface, taking possession of the body and thoughts, preventing sleep and enjoying the performance at night. These attitudes were passed down from generation to generation unchanged and reached me.
First attempts to cope with fear
It all started in adolescence, when you seriously begin to wonder if you are capable of anything sensible at all. By that time, I already had a huge experience of performances and solo concerts in the largest halls of the capital compared to my peers.
At the music school, I tried to find out from the teachers what to do with paralyzing stage fright. And although they were all experienced teachers with many years of teaching experience, they could not help me in any way. As I now understand, both from ignorance of the nature of this state, and from my own unprocessed fears.
Many wonderful books and articles have been written about fear. In the 2000s, there were some fragmentary translations of Western publications and crumbs of ours, written in the harsh professional language of scientific psychologists. There was no special literature for musicians, and there still is not.
In the hope that fear would recede before my professionalism, I diligently prepared for each exit, whether it was a small test or a performance in the Great Hall of the Conservatory. Didn’t help. My body was still paralyzed, my hands were taken away, it was as if a black hole was opening in my head, absorbing everything I was working on.
No, I played to the end, and even without errors. But to play in such a way that the listener is involved in the process, experiencing emotions from my music – before that it was like up to the moon. I cried from impotence, resentment and anger at myself: well, what is wrong with me? After all, at home I could really play wonderfully: music flowed from my heart without barriers, I felt free and was completely confident in what I was doing. I, not fear, was in control. Over the years, he has worn me out so much that I seriously thought about changing my profession. I could count on my fingers the times when I personally enjoyed sharing music and saw how it affected listeners. These episodes prompted me to analyze.
Is there life without fear?
Feeling in my gut that the fear of performing is not the “cost of the profession”, but a barrier that prevents talent from revealing itself in full force, I decided to change the situation at all costs.
I read accessible literature on psychology, textbooks on acting, books on oriental practices, and yoga. Step by step I figured out what was going on; Slowly but surely, I managed to overcome my psychological fears and physical blocks. Like a blind kitten pokes its nose into the surrounding objects, trying to find milk, so I went by feel, stuffing bumps and trying on myself all the techniques and exercises I read.
Looking ahead, I’ll say that I successfully dealt with fear and was able to transform it into excitement. It, in turn, allows me to be collected and give out to the maximum everything that I am capable of.
Thanks to this transformation, I was able to win eight prestigious European competitions, captivate a crowd of sixty thousand people at an open-air festival with a performance. However, this took years. Years of searching for solutions, techniques, the right attitude and constant work – sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, but almost always scary. Work that no one but you will undertake and no one but you will do. Work on yourself .
I want to share with you the methods that helped me achieve the desired result in working with the fear of speaking.
I have identified for myself three main blocks that answer my question “Why does fear arise”:
- Due to difficulties with self-esteem.
- Due to incorrect or insufficient preparation for the performance.
- Because of the stress caused by the performance situation as such.
- In all three blocks, I had flaws or huge gaping holes. (alert-passed)
Desire for praise
It’s not that my self-esteem is below par. I trusted myself and believed in my ability to play well. That is why I stepped into fear. However, I was very concerned about what others would say about my game – the teacher, parents, friends and granny in the fifth row. I understood that all people are different, and I thought that they want to hear in my game. I fell into a stupor because I had no idea how to play to please everyone. Relief came when I realized that it was impossible in principle. A mountain lifted from my shoulders – I took a deep breath and allowed myself to be myself. And then there was a breakthrough. I was able to see the situation from a different perspective. Indeed, there are people whose opinion I trust. If they didn’t like my game, it doesn’t mean that I’m bad. This means that I was not able to convey my ideas or emotions convincingly without even a shadow of a doubt. Means, you need to work and make it so that it is convincing. Refine there, be clearer here, better structure and show development.
In a good way, I didn’t care what other people thought of me. I began to perceive the assessment of others not as praise or condemnation, but as a way to understand where and what I need to “twist” in order to be more convincing. The judgments of others now did not affect my deepest foundation – self-esteem. (alert-passed)
If we act out of a desire to earn praise, we are not considering our own deepest desires. But they, like a compass, lead us to freedom of expression and realization of our talents. To our ability to be ourselves. Don’t be afraid of them. Ask yourself again and again – what do I really want? All external factors – money, envy, resentment – will fall away like a husk, and the Answer will emerge. He will give you direction and strength to set foot on a path that you will walk with pleasure, despite the obstacles.
Fear of making a mistake
The fear of making a mistake is the leading fear of classical musicians. And the point here is not only that we often have to play by heart. Even with notes, you are always afraid to make a mistake. “What if this happens? What if I forget the text, go astray? My brain ran these questions around in circles, driving me crazy. Then I decided to present the most terrible scenario, saying it out loud so that it would not be so scary.
Yes, I would be very ashamed. I will be embarrassed and blush to the ears, run away from the stage, hide in some corner to cry.
What will happen to the people who hear how wrong I was? Nothing special. They will sympathize or gloat and switch to something more important in their lives. In a couple of days, I will still be throwing heat from the memory. In a month I will be able to tell my friends about it, and in a couple of years I will write an article. I realized that everything would be fine with me and the people in the hall, whether I made a mistake or not.
Visualizing the worst scenario in color is a great way to understand that it’s not all that scary. In addition, we learn to anticipate a negative outcome, which gives us the opportunity to prepare as much as possible to prevent it. (alert-passed)
Fear of making a mistake is one of the most insidious, as it has a poisonous aftertaste. One single negative experience of an error poisons the entire subsequent game process. The brain gets stuck on a mistake, over and over again scrolling through an unpleasant moment and amplifying the negative, preventing it from focusing on the present. Instead of treating the mistake as an unfortunate oversight – who doesn’t happen to! — and move forward, you basically end your performance right there. The autopilot guides you further.
In working on this fear, I had to develop such a property of thinking as neutrality. This is the position of the observer, in which we notice and note the bad and the good, without making judgments.
Imagine a tornado: a huge funnel that picks up and sweeps away everything in its path. Its inner part, which is called the “eye”, is a place of stability and tranquility. Imagine that we also have such a place inside us – a point of absolute rest. Despite the whirlwind of our thoughts and emotions, the whirlwind is not able to capture this still point. It is in it that you will find the absence: reactions, judgments and condemnations. This is where your observer lives.
Thanks to yoga and breathing techniques, I was able to strengthen my observer, I learned not to succumb to mistakes and not be led by brain provocations.
The shadow side of you
I have also noticed that our inner critic is often unfairly merciless and cruel to us. Not noticing anything good, he reproaches us for the slightest flaws, remembering and counting only negative experiences. Mistakes for which we would easily forgive others with a gesture or a word of encouragement remain in the memory of the inner critic as a reminder of our imperfection.
You are not a set of individual qualities and bad or good deeds, you are a single whole. To feel whole means to accept yourself completely. By allowing ourselves to be free of our weakness and vulnerability, we become stronger, freer, and more open. When this happens, our uniqueness is revealed to everyone – the natural ability to create, coupled with the accumulated life experience, values and worldview.
Creativity is not a flawless performance, it is our ability to see beauty in the ordinary and share it with others. Isn’t that what we want to convey when we go on stage?
Everyone knows that performances require preparation. As a rule, musicians work hard and hard. With and without notes, with and without an instrument, in a state of wakefulness and sleep. We are very efficient. Music is constantly spinning in our heads: we study passages while sitting in a cafe and check out new fingerings while standing on an escalator. We, like athletes, train tirelessly and on weekends before performances. With only one exception – all athletes know how important the mood is both in preparation and before their exit. They understand the importance of the right mindset—the mindset of a winner. For them, working with their thinking is a natural part of preparing for competitions, where there is no place for uncertainty and fear. Athletes know how not to give up after offensive falls and goals scored by an opponent, how to tune in to a high bar and go to its implementation.
Musicians do not train these skills and generally do not psychologically work out such things. Never. However, the recognition of defeat occurs primarily in the head. Often even before going on stage.
I trained in myself the mindset of the winner consciously and purposefully. I tried to communicate with those who achieved significant results and professional heights. I went to trainings on goal-setting and adjustment of behavioral strategies. I learned not to dwell on the negative and assess the situation not from the position of “I should have…”, but from the position of “What else can be done to achieve the result”. The second option involves active participation in changing the situation. For example, when I was asked to play an unfamiliar work in a duet with another musician on the air, I could proceed from the position of the past: “I should have negotiated with the host in more detail” or “Why did I even agree to participate in the program!”. However, this would not have helped the situation. I took a risk because I knew that I had enough skill and experience, and most importantly, I know what to do in difficult situations.
The inability to correctly allocate time for preparation is the scourge of modern society with its multitasking and frantic pace of life. Someone treats emergency work and preparation at the last moment with ease, while such situations unsettle someone.(ads1)
I experimented, groping for my optimal timing and preparation regimen. Giving preference to interesting rehearsals with other instruments, I often missed and sat down late to work on solo works. And I was again in a fever from the realization that I was not ready. A veil before my eyes, a lump in my throat and a feeling of hopelessness of the situation – no, I don’t want to return to this again!
I realized that quality preparation for a performance takes me at least a month. I began to count in advance from the performance even a little more – after all, there will definitely be urgent unscheduled things that will not let me work out. So let them be planned. So I have a specific date when I have to start working on a specific repertoire.
True, however, the general rule is that the less experience, the more time it takes to prepare.
Whether you are going to give a presentation, give a concert, or talk about your business – in any case, runs are necessary for a successful presentation. Two or three times is enough: it does not matter whether your grandmother, neighbor, acquaintance or all together will be the listener. Your presentation is important – not for yourself, but for others. In addition, record yourself on video. And even if you hate how you look, this will be one of the most valuable lessons for you. You will see how you are perceived from the outside and you will be able to adjust the presentation of information for a better perception by the audience.
If you think about what public speaking is for our body, it becomes clear why our heart rate increases, our palms sweat, and our breathing becomes shallow. Since the time of the caveman, people have been united in groups to ensure their survival. Now imagine that you were in front of a crowd of unknown how-minded outsiders. The brain reacts to this situation with fear and the release of adrenaline into the blood – the first warns of danger, the second – so that they can act quickly.
Simple breathing techniques help me reduce stress levels on the bodily level: one minute deep breathing alternately between the right and left nostrils. It lowers the heart rate and helps to activate both hemispheres of the brain. Breathing is closely related to our mind and body. Properly operating with them, you can set yourself up in the right way.
The Secret Garden exercise helped me find the inner calm that is so necessary before a performance: I find a secluded corner, sit down and, closing my eyes, imagine a place in my chest – an oasis of calm and serenity. I am in it, noticing the singing of birds, the quiet coolness and the soothing noise of the trees. This feeling of security that I just experienced in my garden, I try to keep as long as possible.(ads1)
Transformation instead of struggle
Feeling fear is natural. It is an inseparable part of our being. Instead of fighting with him, and, accordingly, with yourself, it is better to turn him into your friend.
Through fear, I came to know myself. And I realized that any situation, even if uncomfortable, is a chance to learn something new and grow.
Having gone through all the stages alone – from struggle to acceptance and transformation – I understand how important it is to find support from outside. Therefore, I began to advise and give master classes not only to musicians, but also to everyone who needs to perform in front of an audience. How to deal with stage fright. How to make him your ally. How to convert from a minus sign to a plus. And, most importantly, how to finally and irrevocably throw away that irrelevant box with all its contents.