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I've had my fair share of train-wreck performances, I remember playing passages in the wrong key or forgetting the very first note.
I've also seen colleagues engage in all types of strange rituals backstage.
Pacing frantically back-and-forth, repeating mantras over-and-over again, desperately rubbing their good luck charms or facing the corner of a wall and staring blankly into space.
The only thing missing was an elaborate seance over a ouija board.
Stage fright causes us to act out in all sorts of weird ways and sometimes you feel like it's out of your control.
Well, you can do something about it. Let me show you how.
What is it about stage fright that makes it feel so devastating or life-threatening? Well, from a biological perspective ... it's because it's actual fear.
For the longest time, humans survived in tribes. And survival meant being part of a cohesive unit - in other words, not standing out.
If you did, one of the following two scenarios would have happened:
So we feel this on a subconscious level since our "software" hasn't been updated to the modern times we live in.
When we're walking up to the stage, getting ready for a job interview, or preparing for a public presentation, we get locked into this "fight or flight" mode. We imagine the crowd is "against" us.
And since we can't run away, we have no choice but to prepare for battle.
This is why it's so hard to get out of our comfort zone and why exhibitions feel like life or death.
We fight against our ancestral tendencies as well as a modern disease: Perfectionism.
This is also what fuels our backstage anxiety.
Most students aim for a "perfect" performance, which usually means getting every single note correct. This is not only unrealistic, but a terrible goal to begin with.
Because even if they succeeded, what would be the result? An accurate but boring, soulless, and robotic performance - while looking absolutely miserable on stage.
Not only that, trying not to make a mistake means you actually make more of them.
This has to do with the usual advice we get, which is "don't be scared" or "don't be nervous."
This makes the problem worse because your mind focuses on whatever's in front of it, good or bad. Don't be scared gets translated into don't be scared.
It's like trying not to think of a pink elephant.
And the opposite approach doesn't work either. For example, when you're told to "be more confident."
For one thing, what does that even mean? If you can't formulate an actual plan then it's just wishful thinking.
And secondly, you need reference experiences. If a student has never performed before then this wishy-washy advice won't work.
What's even worse is if they've had traumatic public experiences - failing miserably in front of all their peers.
No amount of practice can fix this alone. You can try to give them whatever advice you want, but their brain will keep looping endlessly on these disappointments.
The Blessed Ones
As if this wasn't complicated enough, mainstream advice can work for some students.
But that's because they have a different set-point.
Let me explain: I am in no way a naturally happy person - most of the time I'm brooding or lost in thought.
Does this mean I'm depressed all the time? Not at all, it just means my happiness setpoint is lower than average. It's almost like my standards for being happy are higher (don't judge).
So if you have a naturally jubilant friend who never seems to be in a bad mood, her setpoint is likely way above normal (or she's a psychopath).
When these vague suggestions work, these students most likely have a higher
"confidence" set-point. For example, I have at least one student who tells me
she's never been nervous for a performance - even when it was her first time(!).
It’s All Good
Now, one effective way to overcome stage fright is to learn the art of the reframe.
Reframing is interpreting something in a different (negative or positive) way. It's like how some people have everything in life but always think "the grass is greener on the other side."
This is explains why two people can look at the same situation but have completely different reactions to it. Road rage is one example - ever had someone flip you the bird for something you didn't do?
So instead of avoiding fear, tell yourself it's okay to be nervous. Even better, it's good to be nervous.
Doing so creates acceptance instead of resistance.
It's good because it shows you care. Think about it for a second, if you weren't nervous at all then you could miss damn-near every note and not give a hoot.
You would have questionable character, but not a shred of anxiety.
Now, the amount of nervousness is going to differ for every student. Besides their setpoints, this is usually caused by a lack of experience.
The less experience you have, the more nervous you'll feel and vice versa.
As a side note, I actually believe that your nerves never go away. When you gain more experience, you just get more comfortable with the feeling of nervousness.
The following strategies I'm going to lay out for you are meant for the first-time
performer but can be adapted for any level.
Before we get into the specific plan, let's first talk about mindset - because the best advice in the world won't work if you believe you're going to fail.
Earlier, I mentioned how detrimental the perfectionist mindset is. Along those lines, believing and imagining you'll be 100% successful isn't good either.
Why? Because a first-time performer has no idea what's going to happen.
For example, if a student has been visualizing their ideal performance going off without a hitch, what's going to happen when it doesn't go as planned?
When they're confronted with an alternate reality than the one they've created, the results can be disastrous.
The better approach is to expect mistakes since this is what's most likely to happen.
This is to do is get them out of their heads. Bad performances occur when the students make the whole experience about themselves.
It's understandable, but too self-important.
This is how amateurs think, while professionals put themselves in the shoes of their audience. They obsess over how their fans are experiencing the entire event.
One way to help them understand is by asking them to pay attention to what
the other recitalists are doing - usually staring off into the abyss.
The message I hope they hear is that everyone is just as nervous as they are.
I also help them realize that the crowd actually wants them to succeed. Think about it, what kind of demonic people would want a grade-schooler to crash and burn?
By now, the student has hopefully developed a more positive attitude and expectation towards performance. Once they're fully bought-in, we can start planning and preparation.
But first, an important concept: encode success.
I stumbled across this idea from the book Practice Perfect. The basic gist is to make success is inevitable.
But what does this mean? As I've been repeating over-and-over again, success is NOT a note-perfect performance.
It's the student enjoying the process as much as possible, overcoming any setbacks or challenges, and avoiding traumatic experiences.
The ultimate goal is for them to look forward to the next (every) recital. So far, the success rate is 100% (humble brag).
And for this to happen, the preparation is designed to help each student succeed in the easiest possible way.
One way is to pick a goal they can understand and achieve - like not giving up.
They can forget notes, play the wrong rhythm, get lost in their music ... it doesn't matter as long as they make it to the last note.
Two other ways are picking sheet music they've been playing for a long time or having them play in the program as soon as possible, since waiting too long can be stressful.
Additionally, recital preparations are began as far ahead as possible - usually 3
months before their first performance.
And even if it's not the student's first time playing in public, we want to do this anyway.
This is because I only organize 2 recitals per year.
Since there's a lot of downtime in between these events, it's necessary to plan ahead because fewer opportunities magnify the pressure they feel.
As a side note, if the student has more performance opportunities throughout the year, you can sidestep a lot of these suggestions and learn through simple trial-and-error.
But this concept still helps.
We now know that stage fright is created because of our ancient biology and
Earlier, I mentioned another reason is that the student doesn't know what to expect. So the best way to plan for the unknown is through rehearsals.
We "rehearse" what will happen for sure:
And of course I provide a healthy amount of loud, enthusiastic applause.
We'll practice this sequence as much as humanly possible, until they no longer have to think about it.
Why do these simple actions help? Because it gives the student a sense of control.
These are the things they can accomplish no matter how their actual performance goes.
This helps develop stage presence, i.e. how comfortable someone is under the
spotlight. Ideally, instead of focusing on their nervousness they'll simply complete each action - like a checklist.
Now once they're comfortable, I increase the challenge by recording them. Just like they say the camera adds ten pounds, this creates a heavier atmosphere.
We make the rehearsals more difficult to make the actual performance easier.
But let's say the student is still stressing out and putting too much pressure on
themselves. In that case, I'll have them practice failing.
The goal is for them to actually make mistakes. For example, if the student makes 3 errors - and I've ask for 5 - we've failed to accomplish this task.
They begin to understand that mistakes are part of the process and have more fun making them.
But here's the kicker: they have to practice overcoming any rough spots. The ability to get out of a tricky situation is the most important skill they'll need on stage.
Lastly, I tell them that the preparation is more important than the actual result. If they've put the work in, what happens at the recital doesn't matter - at least to me.
Before you go, I want to leave you with a few more suggestions.
Piano performance isn't the only way to overcome performance anxiety - think of any public venue as an opportunity to practice.
Try striking up a conversation with a complete stranger - if that sounds intimidating pretend you're asking for directions or suggestions. You can also join your local Toastmasters to practice public speaking in a supportive environment.
Opportunities abound and the more experience you wrack up the more overall
confidence you'll have.
You'll be able to refer back to these encounters with the knowledge you've succeeded in the past and can do it again.
And if you're serious about your piano practice, performance is something you must go through. What's the point of practice if you don't share your progress?
That's like me writing this blog post and never publishing it.
So I hope you've learned something about stage fright today, or even changed the way you approach it.
Remember to set the bar as low as possible and be satisfied with any amount of
progress you make at each juncture.
Use what you learned today and I hope your next performance will be a great one.
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