Overcoming Stage Fright – Here’s What to Do

After a recent performance, I was packing up the stuff in my dressing room. A woman knocked on the door and said, “Can I ask you something?” I invited her in. She asked me how long I had been performing. I told her. Then she said, “What I’d like to know is — when did you get over stage fright?”

At moments like this, I always wish my husband were standing behind me so he could say, “Ha!”

But alas for him, he wasn’t there to revel.

So, I took a deep breath and said, “I’m pretty sure I haven’t yet.” Then, I told her the truth: that for the first whole year of performing, I was terrified every night I got onto a stage, even if the “stage” was made of shipping pallets and duct tape. The only thing that changed was my ability to channel the fear. After about two years of performing constantly, getting on a stage became part of my routine. It wasn’t a big THING anymore. But I still got (and get) stage fright. I’m just better at it now.

Here’s the main point: If you’re waiting to get over stage fright before you’ll perform, do a speaking engagement, teach a workshop, or read a poem at open mic night, then you’ll be waiting a VERY long time. Stage fright shrinks because of taking action.

It’s a lot like self-esteem. If you’re waiting for self-esteem to show up before you start a business, take the next step, write a song, create a blog, apply for a job, or audition for a part, then you’ll be waiting for a long time. Self-esteem grows because of taking action.

The bad news is this: it comes down to taking action. Once you take action, you’ll learn how to overcome your own brand of stage fright.

9 Tips for Overcoming Stage Fright

Nonetheless, here are a few little tricks to do if you’re feeling anxiety ridden about a particular show or event:

1. Give yourself a stop-time for your anxiety.

This is something I invented a long time ago, and it works better than anything else I’ve tried. If the show is at 8pm, then say to yourself, “Self, you get to have until 4pm to be as whiney and miserable as you want. At 4pm, we’re kicking in to the part of us that knows I can do this. I need you to be ready for that moment. Up ’til then, have at it.” This “allowance” is liberating. Because you’re giving yourself non-resistance time, some of the stage fright actually has space to diffuse. The stop-time will show you the side of you that can take over and be confident. Slowly, that confident side will grow.

2. Don’t have lots of to-do’s on performance day. Go slow.

This works for me, but I can’t do it at every show because of my travel schedule. If I have a particularly big show, I always allow the day to be about the show and little else.

3. Have lots of to-do’s on the day of a show. Go fast.

Some of my performer friends find that the less they think about a show, the better. So they go through their routines and cram in movies and do some work at Kinko’s. They show up at the venue at the last possible minute. And they love it.

4. Create a ritual.

Your rituals will come to you with time. I like to change guitar strings and play songs for a while. I also say a prayer before I walk onto stage. Even if I’m doing a small show (a few songs at a benefit concert, for instance) I get very clear that I want my ego to step aside. And I remind myself of why I’m doing what I do. Otherwise my scared self will say, “How come you couldn’t have just stayed in PR like a normal person??”

5. Get in the audience.

I don’t do this. But I have friends who love to wander around in the audience and talk with people before they perform. It relaxes them to just hang out, and then jump up on stage.

6. Exercise.

I perform better when I’ve exercised that day. I get up early and head right to the gym and work out. It gets my emotions in a better place. I’m convinced that artists and creative types need to exercise regularly.

7. Get to the venue early in the day.

One of my favorite things about touring with the ballet company was that on the day of a performance, the company arrived at the theatre at noon. The dancers had to rehearse and take a class. The crew had to set the stage. And I got to be in “theatre mode.” Yes, I got nervous. But I felt like I “knew” the place by the time I got on stage. I used the time to just be in the theatre and feel the energy. This is why I love performing at theatres — they just expect that you’ll get there early in the day.

8. Feign confidence.

Ask yourself what it would feel like if you simply just freakin’ ROCKED? (Say that like one of those annoying radio guys from the 80’s… “101.5. Turn it up and RIP THE KNOB OFF!!”) Seriously, what would it feel like if you knew that? Just find that feeling of deep confidence that’s in there. It’s not a cocky thing. It’s about knowing that you ROCK. Get on stage with that confidence. (Sometimes this really doesn’t work. Sometimes you simply don’t rock. So use this one with caution!)

9. Perform from the fear.

You’ll have to adapt this one to work for your own situation. Some nights I don’t have the strong confident thing going. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe I’m irreversibly scared. So, I’ll start the performance from a softer place. It’s tempting to fight the anxiety and try to figure out ways to blast through it. The only problem with “figuring out” is that performing is about interacting with the audience. You can’t approach it from your head. So, if you’re freaked and you feel like you don’t have a handle on it, find the fear and begin softly. I’ll often start with a soft little song. I won’t try to have great stage banter at first. I won’t try to be funny. (Because in certain moments – it becomes about the “trying” and not about the “funny.”) What often happens is that I slowly ease my way into a confident place. Then I can find the energy I need to carry the rest of the show.

Anyone else who speaks or reads their poetry or teaches, please add your thoughts here. I’m sure there are great ideas out there…

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Comments

  1. Rob says

    Christine,

    “Self-esteem grows because of taking action.”

    I think that this is such a statement of truth. I often find myself wishing I had more confidence in certain situations and I always have to remind myself that confidence increases through experience. If I sit at my computer all day hoping to gain social confidence, I might as well forget it. I have to hop in the car, play one of your CDs, and find a group of friends to hang with. When I do this, I find my confidence goes through the roof.

    Thanks for reminding me of the necessity of action.

  2. says

    Thanks Anne! I’ll go check that out.

    Hi Rob. Yep, all the self-esteem workshops in the world can’t compete with one strong step in a direction – ANY direction! Thanks for your note.

  3. Kathy says

    We finally got a chance to watch your video – didn’t look like any stage fright there!! I guess your tips must be working for you. Our favorite moments are when that little Christine smile sneaks across your face – like you are remembering someone or something that inspired that particular line. It’s fun to watch you multitask too – tuning the guitar while relaying one of your poignant stories. Amazing!! We haven’t made it all the way through yet but love it so far!! Some of our favorites, some new stuff…..and you look beautiful among all the stage art and lighting. Bravo! Hopefully it’s the first of many DVDs.

  4. says

    whatever happened to the good ol’ picturing-the-audience-naked trick? :)

    i guess that can greatly depend on who is in your audience, eh?

    i’ve played the djembe with my friends’ band in front of an audience on some occassions (a couple weddings and at church), and I’ve noticed that my stage fright usually goes away once I start playing and am concentrating on the task at hand. So, that’s one way I try to calm myself down before hand. I try to look forward to the moment when i’m up there on stage because I know that’s when I’ll start feeling much calmer. Of course, I’m always kind of in the back or to the side, so I’m not exactly the one all the focus is on, so It could be different if my mistakes were more obvious.

  5. says

    What a great post. You have lots of good, insightful suggestions, here.

    For me, getting over stage fright required a frightful experience. At an early age, some 25 years ago, I accepted an invitation to sub for another guitarist with an established local band that was much better, much more experienced, and much older than I was. I knew I was in over my head, but I thought I would be able to get by, fake the hard stuff, and basically pull it off. But no. There was not just one, but half-a-dozen tunes that proved way beyond my musical capability to play at that time, and I failed spectacularly in front of some 2000 people.

    I learned SO much from that experience about what it takes to really be a musician, and though it was very negative and embarrassing at the time, it really helped prepare me for my life. One of the benefits is that I very seldom fear the stage…it excites me and gets me going, but I almost never get the jitters. Even when I’m uncertain, or I’m not as prepared as I would like to be, I can ruefully always look back on the Worst Gig Ever and know that no matter what happens…I’m going to get through it.

    It’s music…nobody’s going to die, so have fun!

    • Knighty says

      I sang at church today and I was so nervous. My voice was a mess and I was embarrassed after. My dix year old said it was bad. I said Im never going back to sing again. I know iit’s for God but maybe it’s just not for me. The nerves is too much!

  6. Colin says

    Having done film work and TV commercials for many years in the past, I might have a tidbit or two. Firstly, practice, practice, practice. No substitutes there. Secondly, whether you are singing a song, giving a speach in public, or reading a poem at an open mic night, it IS a performance. Though it should be “authentic” in it’s essence (it comes from you), there is still the need for certain contrived aspects, so don’t beat yourself up or feel unauthentic if you give the performance a little contrived pizazz. Thirdly, commit yourself to the work; good, bad, or indifferent, and expect the unexpected when it comes to audience responses. Lastly, nothing lasts forever, even shakey performances.
    Colin

  7. Caren says

    There are a couple of things I’ve learned about public speaking/performing. One of the most important was that some of the performers who seem so polished up there are nervous, too! I’m not sure why that comforted me when I found that out, but it did. Guess I didn’t feel so alone. Second, I took a public speaking class in college – and the professor *videotaped* our speeches! I was horrified at the thought… but then when I watched my video later, I thought – “Oh! I actually look OK up there!” and I heard places where the audience reacted to what I was saying, that I had missed in my nervousness. It helped me to see that my nerves weren’t *splayed* up there for everyone to see – and, when I joked about them, it made a strong connection with the audience.

    I’m with Colin with the practice, practice, practice part. In playing the djembe, I found if I practiced the basics frequently, and got to know the rhythm inside and out, I was much more able to play from my heart on stage – the flow was there, ’cause I wasn’t having to *think* so much.

    Read this great quote today – “Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.” ~ Samuel Johnson

  8. says

    Thanks Kathy! (I actually was really crazy nervous that night! Glad it doesn’t show :-))

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jer. I think what you mean is that you’re supposed to picture your audience in their underwear. And I think that would be Marsha Brady’s blog you’d be looking for!

    Great story, Barry. I’m glad you’ve gotten through it. I have a few of those kinds of moments too!

    Right on Colin. Thanks!

    Thanks Ignacio, and I’ll do my best to perform the duties of the Thinking Blogger to their highest…

    Hey Caren – Thanks for the contributions there. (Videotaping a speech? AA!)

  9. says

    Hey Christine

    You’re absolutely right! I think as we get more and more in tune with that feeling, it becomes just like any other thing, as natural as you would have approached the McDonald’s crew over the counter to order your first hamburger.

    For me, I feel its more of the before going on stage thing, like there’s this part of me that will resist going up. But once I’m there, giving a speech, I find that I actually enjoy the feeling of having that opportunity to address an audience, to pass on information and to learn from them too. Then it feels like the effort is very worth it. Ha :D

  10. kris says

    I’m a “what if” sort of gal. There are always 100 things in my head that i’m worried about, especially before teaching a
    class or giving a presentation. So I take a minute and I analyze those “what ifs”. What if someone asks me a question I
    don’t know the answer to? I’ll tell them, “good question!” and go from there. Knowing that I’ve come up with some solutions
    to the things that give me anxiety means that I can worry less because I have a plan. And very rarely do those issues even
    come up. But if they do, I’m ready. :)

  11. Elaine says

    Love the tips – thank you they’re really helpful. I tried tip 1 and 9 this week as I was delivering a training course and was really tired and whingey beforehand. It really worked for me… I found a better place to start the course! I am usually really nervous if I have to talk to more than 30 people in a group. These tips will really help me next time it happens. My mentor suggested to me to visualise and be the person I want to be…

    Just picked up your DVD from the post office – can’t wait to play it tonight!!!! (I bet you don’t look nervous at all!!)

  12. says

    Hi Christine,

    Thanks for these insightful tips! I get anxious too and also have come to the understanding that it doesn’t go away. Here’s what I find helpful. 1) Releasing expectations, 2) Embracing the moment, 3) Deciding to serve, 4) Practicing gratitude, 5) Pretending it’s the last show I’ll ever give, so enjoying it as much as possible!

  13. AJ says

    Hi Christine,
    I am just catching up with the last few blog posts, and realized that just as this one was posted, I was nervously fiddling with the settings on my laptop as a way to distract me from a big meeting I was about to have with big, important people in a big organization in a big city. For me, the nervousness stemmed from a sense that I would be totally out of my depth and that I had no business seeking out these big, important people to discuss bold new directions. I am way too junior for that!
    So, I switched from fiddling with my computer and instead re-wrote the talking points I wanted to cover, and just imagined and ‘sat with’ being in the meeting…shaking hands with confidence…being tall…smiling…listening….talking…influencing…sharing ideas. I was still sort of nervous, but in a much different way. I am the only person who can bring my perspective. I am the only person, who so far, has got up to talk about these ideas….and of course, I am the only person on whom my confidence depends! And whether they like the ideas or not, is actually fairly immaterial I realized. So what if the direction I suggested is not the one they want to take. So what?
    The meeting was awesome, and the ‘bold new direction’ is on several people’s minds today I think. Cool!

  14. MONI says

    It’s the night of dress rehersal, and I’m sitting on the Romeo & Juliet balcony waiting for the blackout. On the blackout, the stage crew rolls the balcony on stage and leaves me. I’m shaking. The seats are empty except for a few mothers and teachers witnessing my fear. The balcony is empty too, but in the box the director of our company watches with eyes like a hawk’s… eyeing me like I’m prey.
    The music starts and a spotlight shines over me on the balcony. I have to proove myself. I have to do this right! But my stage frieght over comes me half-way through the scene. I feel like my toes at the hard ends of my pointe shoes have been stubbed ten billion times. But worst of all– I’ve nearly blanked out. The choreography escapes me, sliding out my memory like water through my hands. It’s gone! Romeo leads me through the rest of the scene through whispered words and saves my sorry ass. But tonight is the real deal. Romeo can’t lead me through it anymore…

  15. Anton Pearce says

    Thanks for the article! I’ve had problems with stage fright myself so it’s good to read other perspectives on this.
    I still get nervous any time I have to perform in front of others, but I find the best things to do are to be totally prepared, accept that a mistake doesn’t mean the whole thing is a disaster and get your breathing under control.
    For anyone interested, another website that has articles and help for stage fright is http://www.stagefrighthelp.com

  16. says

    My partner F is a guitarist/composer who’s been working in music ever since he was 14. Despite the fact that he’s been performing now for the past twenty years he still gets stage fright.

    I asked him once why he continued to do something which filled him with so much dread and he said that the terror was the thing which made him come up with so many new tricks and pieces, that if you knew you were standing up there playing the unplayable then you were protected from the audience, the gap between stage and floor was one that they couldn’t cross.

    The second thing he mentioned was (as has already been said) that you had to practice, practice and practice some more (he still does his scales for at least four hours a day, and that’s on top of coming up with new stuff) so that even if your mind blanked out, your fingers knew what they were doing. In fact, he said that you aimed to have your mind blank out because it was then that you came up with the music of the moment.

    The third thing he mentioned (which I’d never thought of) was that the audience wants to like whoever’s on stage. They aren’t there to point the finger and throw things – or at least not usually, he has some great stories of gigs gone horribly wrong.

  17. says

    Hi Christine… I so love your blog; it is one of the most intellegently written and thought provoking about music on the net.

    I don’t usually have issues with stage fright, but being human, I do feel it in certain situations. If I haven’t played out in a long time, the first song will cause the bottom of my ribcage to tighten (affecting breathing and control). What I do about that is to be sure and choose an easy song so my “horse can run the track a bit”. Then I’m off to the races.

    I think it’s important to recognize the many levels of stage fright. Some are conducive to thought-retraining, but some are so core they require medical intervention. My brother-in-law Dr. James Hubbard (http://familydoctormag.com/)prescribes a beta-blocker such as propranolol for his wife who has panic attacks before performing.

    It’s such a pervasive issue, I am doing three blog posts on the subject myself. They’ll be at http://judyrodman.com/blog if you wish to check them out. I will add a link on my blog to your great post here.

    Thanks again for a great blog!

  18. Janna says

    Thanks everybody for the info. I am just getting back into performing after 15 years of silence due to a performance where I blanked out. I am finding that inviting friends over in small groups and playing for them first is helping alot. The tips from Christine are helpful and I plan on using them in the future.

  19. Erin says

    There are many moments for “stage fright”. Job interviews, for one. Or tough conversations with people you are at odds with. Any instance that involves public speaking. Personally, I find visualization to be very helpful. I really get into it: sit by myself in a safe place, close my eyes and call up the room where I’ll have my interview or the stage I’m going to speak on. I visualize the bad stuff: tripping and falling on my way to the podium, making a horrible gaff, telling a joke that falls flat. And then I visualize getting over it: getting back up and smiling, moving on from a bad joke. I focus on really feeling that feeling of nailing something. I end by cementing that image of me in my mind doing well, feeling strong and confident. Then when I get to the interview room or to the stage, I feel confident that I can handle anything. And if, God forbid, something does go wrong, my brain says, “Wait, we’ve been here before, just get up and keep smiling!”.

  20. Mackie says

    Hi, Christine…I’m living my dream and singing with two bands. For some reason I am having a bad case of nerves today before tonight’s show. In the back of my mind, I remembered reading this post so I looked it up. Great ideas, great thoughts, great support. As always, your words are inspiring and uplifting! I’m going to set my deadline now and get ready to get over it and get on with the show!

  21. says

    Great post. I especially appreciate #9 – Perform from Fear.

    I am a speech coach in DC and recently posted a small tip I learned about overcoming stagefright.
    Green Room Speakers: sarahgershman.blogspot.com.

    I would love to hear what you think.

    Thanks,
    Sarah

  22. Houston says

    I really enjoyed this, Christine, and it really helped me one thing I do is ask my self “why am I here?” The answer you need to give is that your there because you enjoy doing it and not because anyone forced you to, unless you were forced to. Just know that your there to have fun and that if people want to judge you if you mess up, so be it. Their reaction isn’t’ what your there for.

  23. says

    Christine,
    I want to thankyou for your post and to all your insightful readers who have taken the time to share their personal experiences with handling stage fright. I am still working on it, but am discovering that is best to feel the fear and do it anyway. When fear raises it’s sorry head, say, “thanks for sharing, but there’s nothing here that wants to harm me.”

  24. says

    SWEATY palms, fast heart beat, negativity, panic, and this when I awake in bed, lying in at the weekend, thinking ahead, its days before I have to present the infomation.
    In the past all these symptoms and more when in front of the audience, knees wobble, voice drops lower and quieter, dry mouth, cant talk, cant breathe, body shakes, nausea, words dont make sence, words dont come out, composure loss, loosing the audience, confidence draining, audience embarrased, I’m embarresed, its hell, everyting lost…. DIG ME A WHOLE TO jump into, escape is the only option…. I hate it, its so annoying frustating and scary Why me? Is it only me?How can other people do this and make it look so EASY?

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