Point of View
Composer/Cellist/Teacher (Latham Music)
answers the following question...
How do you deal with stage fright?
by Lynne Latham
Waiting backstage, the familiar
symptoms return. The palms moisten, the stomach becomes queasy,
the heart beats harder and faster, breathing becomes more
shallow, the knees feel weak. "Here we go again," you think to
yourself, disgusted that the cycle is seemingly beyond your
control. Is it possible to overcome the body's natural defense
mechanisms? To use the surge of adrenalin in a positive way to
enhance instead of hinder a performance? Of course it is. It
just takes some understanding and practice.
Fight or Flight: The Human Body in Survival Mode
Those familiar feelings are caused by the production of
adrenalin. Your brain receives those primal impulses and your
body goes into "fight or flight" survival mode. Your body is
reacting to perceived danger - it is primed for anything.
Response time is quickened; senses are fine-tuned. You can jump
higher, run faster and play daunting technical passages.
Although your body is telling you to run, you must stay and
complete a performance. So how do you minimize the negative
effects of adrenalin? By changing your perception, by viewing
the physical changes as excitement, not panic. By learning to
slow down, breathe deeply and focus that additional energy into
a passionate and exciting performance. This takes practice.
Prepare! Prepare! Prepare Again!
Lack of preparation is a leading cause of stage fright. If a
performer is unsure of his or her technical ability to pull off
a successful performance, that adds even more pressure and
jitters. Especially in the public school setting, there is
rarely enough time to fully prepare students for performance.
1. Pick music well within the technical range of the group. A
sure success is better than a rocky performance.
2. Do not start practicing with instruments. If there is a
recording of the work, listen with students following their
parts. Demonstrate difficult passages for your students. Use as
many senses as possible to experience the music before
physically playing it.
3. Address all of the difficult rhythmic passages away from
instruments. Have the students clap or speak (counting out loud
is always good) these passages before attempting them on the
instrument. Then, with the instrument, do a monotone version,
rhythm only. Only after the rhythm is solid, attempt the passage
4. Divide each piece into small sections, rehearsing only one
section at a time for accuracy. Point out where sections repeat.
This makes the task of learning a longer work less overwhelming.
5. Practice slowly. An assault at full speed on a difficult
passage rarely spawns confidence and courage.
6. During your rehearsal time, be sure to schedule a sure
success. This cuts down on the frustration of the group. If
students can do something well first or last, then the hard work
in the middle is more bearable.
7. Schedule "dry run" performances well in advance of the actual
performance. The more the students go through the motions of
performing, the better the performance will be, with much less
We've all heard those negative, self-defeating voices in our
heads. The fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, the
performance of music is such a personal experience. We feed
ourselves negative self-fulfilling prophecies. Replace the
negatives by feeding your brain positives, practicing that
all-important skill of ignoring the mistakes while delivering an
exciting performance. One question to ask yourself: Is pretty
good, good enough? Should we not strive for excellence in a
performance? Make sure that the work being performed is at the
"pretty good" stage at least two weeks before the performance,
so that the last 5 percent of the learning process may be
achieved easily. This will quiet the voice inside, calm the
fears and allow a more confident performance. We are not
striving for perfection; excellence and perfection are quite
different. As musicians, our goal is to entertain, to share the
love of our art with others, to move people emotionally,
intellectually and spiritually. Perfection is not our goal and
the failure to achieve it is not a punishable offense. Relax and
enjoy the music making process.
As teachers, we must be conscious of the subtle messages we send
to students. It is good to keep parents separate from students
at festivals and auditions, as they tend to add expectations and
pressure. Be sure to emphasize to your students that at any
level, their performance is unique and special; comparisons to
more advanced peers is another source of stress. Music teachers,
not only teach how to play an instrument: We are teaching an
art, which is completely subjective depending upon technical
level, and success is measured in steps. To teach a child to
enjoy the art of music-making is a gift for a lifetime. To
exaggerate the lasting effects of one performance is
unnecessary; there will always be another chance. Don't allow 10
minutes out of a lifetime to become a life or death experience.
Some Stage Fright Solutions
Act the Part. Performing is as much "acting" a part as it is
executing a technical feat. A tool I've used with my students is
having them attend a live performance featuring a professional
artist on their instrument. Have them pay attention not only to
the "music" being performed, but the "music" being portrayed -
paying attention to the body language, posture, and breathing of
the person on stage. Then have the students do an "imitation" in
class. Amazingly, the body becomes more relaxed, the breathing
deeper, posture is better. The students have reached outside of
themselves and removed the internal pressure by pretending to be
someone else. Giving students something external on which to
focus actually improves focus on the task at hand, which is a
secure, confident performance.
1. Potential memory slips are often a source of anxiety for
performers. To remove this internal pressure, have students
write a story about the work to be performed, putting specific
feelings, actions and pictures with each section. Have them
close their eyes and "run" the story in their heads like a
movie. The more detailed the story, the more important
communicating that story to the audience becomes. Another
version of this is to picture the actual music running through
the mind, visualizing the rise and fall of the notes.
2. Anxiety tends to build in situations where waiting is
involved, such as for an audition or festival performance. Have
the student imagine going to a safe place (i.e. a mountain
meadow, a deserted beach). Before the performance, have them go
off (alone), close their eyes and imagine playing the piece they
are performing in that safe place. Hopefully the peaceful
"residue" of this meditation exercise will follow them into the
audition room. This takes weeks of practice to be done
3. Simulate performance parameters for students and allow them
several "practice" performances. In a situation with a judge,
sit behind a desk and write during their performance. If it's a
recital, have them perform for their peers. The more "real time"
performance practice the student has, the less frightening the
actual performance will be.
Directed Breathing. This breathing technique, along with many
others, is discussed in Robert Triplett's book "Stage Fright."
Also see Barry Greene's "Inner Game of Music" and Kato Havas'
Diet, Sleep and Other Management Skills.
1. Avoid caffeine and nicotine, weaning yourself as early as two
weeks prior to a performance. Both of these substances are
stimulants. Increased adrenalin flow only compounds the effects
of stimulants already present in your system; thus the tremors
and increased heart rate will be much harder to control.
2. Avoid processed sugars (i.e., candy, soft drinks). Natural
sugars aid the body in converting stored energy to action.
Processed sugars provide a brief high, but the overall effect is
3. Eat a good meal, high in complex carbohydrates, low in sugars
and fats. Pasta is an excellent choice, along with fresh
vegetables and fruit.
4. Arrive at the performance as rested as possible, establishing
a consistent sleep pattern two weeks before a performance.
5. Avoid listening to other performers in an audition situation.
It only leads to playing the comparison game, which can lead to
6. Try to remember to breathe deeply before beginning any
music-making. This sounds very elementary, but breathing is the
first thing affected by the adrenalin rush, and good oxygen flow
to muscles will steady nerves.
7. Provide a quiet, safe place for students to relax before
8. Laughter is a wonderful tension release; come prepared with a
few good jokes.
Remind your students continually that music-making is fun. We
have chosen a career in music education because we love music.
Don't blow out of proportion the importance of one performance.
Put in proper perspective, it is just one moment in a long
lifetime of making beautiful music. Careful preparation produces
confident performances. Make sure that classroom preparation
includes stage fright management skills as well as learning the
This article is reprinted with permission from Ms. Latham and
SCHOOL BAND AND ORCHESTRA Magazine.
© 2012 Lynne Latham
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