The fear of stage fright

People who say they never have stage fright make me feel the same way as people who say they don’t get hangovers:  confused, envious and I don’t believe them.

I was the girl who mimed in the choir.  I looked with awe at those who were designated as “singers”.  The celebrated ones.  By the age of 9 I was apparently so convinced that I was not one of them that I announced in a school project entitled My Life So Far: “I love singing, I’m just not very good at it”.  When I found and read this safely stored project a couple of years ago, my twenty something self was flabbergasted.  It remained my “party line” and occasionally falls out of my mouth even now.  Have I seriously been telling myself this for 20 years?
It is no wonder then, when I get up to sing, I am overwhelmed.  This is a serious hinderance for a songwriter who needs to sing her songs.
It’s all very Coyote Ugly.
I have now found ways to sing my songs in public without falling to bits or crying (… yes this has happened).  Despite the mixed results of these performances I have always had the same response afterwards.  I’ve delighted with myself for trying and I’ve learned something.
The fear has been known, in the past, to get the better of me.  It has been, however, more than the stage fright itself, but a fear that stage fright may rear it’s horribly ugly head.  Concern that I might get stage fright can lead to nothing but a downwards spiral.
Some traditional strategies have not gone far to reduce my despair.  For example, “just imagine everyone in the room is naked“.  I cannot imagine anything worse than performing to a room of fully naked people.
I have explored some of the science around stage fright and developed some of my own strategies for dealing with it over the years.  Here are a few things that I need to constantly remind myself of.
1.  Understand what’s going on and know it’s nasty but normal
It’s normal to be scared.  Standing up and singing or reading something you have written in front of a room full of people is a scary and abnormal prospect for anyone.  It can be difficult to convince oneself that our reactions are normal, particularly when the full rooms include people who have performed a million times and appear to be taking it all in their stride.  They say “you’ll be fine” in an attempt to be supportive but actually kinda making you feel even more ridiculous for being concerned… cue more concern.
I was going to research and produce a succinctly digestible explanation of the science of stage fright but TedEd, Mikael Cho and and Robertino Zambrano have already done this for me:
So, the flight of fight response to a threat that evolution hasn’t quite fixed for us:
“When you think about negative consequences, a part of your brain, the hypothalamus, activates and triggers the pituitary gland to secrete the hormone ACTH.  This hormone stimulates the Adrenal Glands in your kidneys and results in the release of adrenaline into your blood […]. Your neck and back muscles contract (forcing your head down and your spine to curve) moving your posture into a slouch. This results in a Low-Power Position as your body tries to force itself into the fetal position.
If you try to resist this position by pulling your shoulders back and lifting your head up, your legs and hands shake as the muscles in your body instinctively prepare for an impending attack.  Your blood pressure increases and your digestive system shuts down to maximize efficient delivery of even more nutrients and oxygen to your vital organs. When your digestive system shuts down, this is what leads to the feeling of dry mouth or butterflies” – Mikael Cho
The results:
Bad posture + dry mouth and throat + short breath as oxygen is taken to the vital organs + shaking extremities (when playing a musical instrument) = disastrous for singing and speaking performance.
As Mikael Cho says – it’s “natural and inevitable”.  Don’t let your hypothalamus hide the best of you.
2.  Get in the same boat or build a new boat
Find a place where you are in the same boat as other people trying to sing is really helpful.  This can be anything from a beginners’ singing course or series of courses where you will get the opportunity to sing solo.  Then take that opportunity.  The fact that everyone is so vulnerable should make for a supportive and nurturing group.
I even started Ladies’ Set, a safe stage for women doing something for the first time (including performing for the very first time).  We are all terrified but we all do it… PLUS it’s for charity, which is helpful for ego removal.
I think it’s healthy for a person to be nervous. It means you care – that you work hard and want to give a great performance. You just have to channel that nervous energy into the show” – Beyonce Knowles
3.  Create muscle memory
We know practice makes progress.  Repetition is key.  When you’re worried about the stage fright the last thing you want to be worried about is that you haven’t practiced enough.  But it’s more than that.  If your body is used to its shape when singing or playing, and if we can let our hands move around the instrument on automatic pilot, this will assist the body in moving when the nerves attack.
4.  Breathe
Focus on the breath allows us to be mindful and remind our bodies that the threat of attack is minimal.  I will write more about the power of mindfulness on another day.
5.  Practice being uncomfortable
Practice performing and being in a position recognise and interact with evolution’s triggers and responses to threats.  Become a choir slut, going around as many choirs as you can and perform with them all.  Take every public speaking opportunity you can at work.  Karaoke constantly.  Know your body in that state.  Then, after going through all that, find a friendly open mic somewhere you can be anonymous, then another, then another:
In my opinion, the only way to conquer stage fright is to get up on stage and play. Every time you play another show, it gets better and better.” – Taylor Swift
6.  Acknowledge the fear
I’ve been known to talk myself around: “what’s the worst that can happen”.  My attempts to suppress my reactions may convince my intellect but my body will react,  almost saving up all the fear for the final performance.   It’s not fine and it’s normal not to be.
See how Joe Kowan acknowledges fear:
In honour of acknowledging this fear, I entitled my EP: Fighting and Flying.
7.  Power pose
7.  Power Pose
I hope everyone has seen Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk.  It’s time to get big; stand like Wonderwoman.  Before a performance or rehearsal, trick your hippocampus.  Find a corner stage or a toilet cubical or dressing room and open your body up:
Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes. So, this is two minutes. Two minutes, two minutes, two minutes. Before you go into the next stressful evaluative situation, for two minutes, try doing this, in the elevator, in a bathroom stall, at your desk behind closed doors. That’s what you want to do. Configure your brain to cope the best in that situation. Get your testosterone up. Get your cortisol down. Don’t leave that situation feeling like, oh, I didn’t show them who I am. Leave that situation feeling like, I really feel like I got to say who I am and show who I am” – Amy Cuddy
8.  Don’t drink
I used to think it made sense to have a few drinks before I performed.  This is 100% not the case.  When I stopped drinking before performances, I found it so much easier to interact with my fears and realise what was going on.  No crying.  Even a cheeky glass of wine can push you slightly off kilter.  Now I wait until I have finished to have a drink.  I have not cried on stage from fear since making this decision.
9.  Letting butterflies fly
Remember the metamorphosis: caterpillar to butterfly.  Working with and through the butterflies will hopefully lead us to our own.
So it’s ok, it happens to the best of us.  Let’s find the magic in it:
If you have stage fright, it never goes away. But then I wonder: is the key to that magical performance because of the fear?” – Stevie Nicks
I’d love to hear your stories and strategies around stage fright and ways in which you’ve managed to control it.
Em x

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DJ // producer // songwriter

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