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Stage Fright: How to Control It So It Doesn't Control You

Updated on November 14, 2014

The first time I played my violin in public, I was about seven or eight. It was Christmas, and I was playing "Silent Night" at church. I had the flu, but since my symptoms had begun only a few hours earlier, it was assumed that I was just nervous and it would pass after I was done. I hesitated before I played but otherwise did very well. I only made one mistake, and in my youth and innocence felt the need to stop and confess to the audience, "Oops! Wrong note!" before correcting my mistake and continuing. When I went to leave the stage, however, it was apparently obvious to my parents that I was genuinely sick. Daddy rushed to take my violin, and Mama helped me toward the bathroom, where I threw up.

That was hardly the last time a performance didn't quite go as planned. I have been distracted by others moving about, talking, or generally being rude. I have gone through with performances when I had not adequately prepared. I have been in ensembles in which one person was ill prepared, making the rest of us sound bad in spite of our flawless performance. I have had teachers and conductors who should have cut pieces from the program and did not do so, thereby setting people up for failure. Sometime in my mid teens, I stopped suffering from stage fright and learned to accept the things I could not control while working to improve the things I could.

Unless you are a robot like the one on the right, and perhaps even then, it is inevitable that something will go wrong during a performance. I don't pat my students on the shoulder and tell them they will do great even when I know they can play their piece flawlessly because it is a promise I cannot keep. There are too many variables, many of which are outside the performer's control. Instead, I tell them things like, "I have confidence in you," "I'm proud of you," "You can do this," and "I'll be right here with you."

There are only two things the performer can control: preparation and focus. If you didn't prepare before stepping onto the stage, it's a little late to hope for a perfect performance. However, if you have given yourself adequate practice, the only enemy you have to confront is your own fear. All musicians have to deal with it at some point or another. Your stomach has butterflies, and you can't keep from fidgeting. Your palms are sweating, and perhaps the rest of you is, also. You are breathing too fast, and you can hear your own heartbeat and are sure everyone else can, too. Well meaning people try to comfort you with words like this: "What are you worried about? You'll do fine. What's the worst that can happen?" The problem is those words do more harm than good because they lead our imaginations to visualize worst-case scenarios.

Your violin or bow could break during your performance:

You could mess up terribly and find yourself on Youtube. I'm not going to post any videos of that and further humiliate people. I'm sure my readers can make their own judgements about whether or not to watch such things. You could get so nervous that you faint, vomit, cry, or panic. People could laugh or boo. You could trip on your way to or from the stage. You could rip your clothes.

It's generally not good for us to think about these things before we perform. Instead, it's better to channel that anxiety and use it to your advantage. One way I teach my students this is to have them practice playing while they have some anxiety-like symptoms. We run or do jumping jacks to raise our heart rates and hopefully break a sweat. Then, we try to play a high-energy piece, allowing ourselves only a few seconds to catch our breath before we do. The first time a student tries this exercise, they fail miserably. Internalizing a slow rhythm and gaining enough control over the bow to play such a piece is extremely difficult when you are breathing hard and the rhythm of your heart pounding in your ears distracts you from your counting. With practice, however, it can be done.

The other thing I have my students do is more general advice than a specific exercise. I encourage them to express themselves through their music. We talk about using the instrument as an extension of the body and pulling our emotions out from deep inside and projecting them out of the violin while simultaneously displaying them with our movements and facial expressions. I tell my students that when they are sad, they should play their violin. When they are angry, they should play their violin. When they have a reason to celebrate, they should celebrate by playing the violin. Doing so should be as natural for them as laughing, crying, or screaming, and in some cases it may also be more healthy. By developing this habit, the violinist is conditioned to calm down when they play, and the act of playing will therefore calm his or her stage fright.

Here are some things you may find helpful:

In case my students still get stage fright even after all we do to prepare for it, there is one more thing I do. I tell them that I don't care if they don't hit a single correct note. What I care about is the progress they have made and will continue to make, and that includes having the courage to play for others. I also tell them that they should have the same attitude toward others. We don't laugh or boo at other violinists. We don't tease them or point out their flaws after the fact as if they don't know they made mistakes, and we certainly don't post videos of their failures on Youtube. We acknowledge that failures are part of the journey and we gain just as much from them as we do from success, if not more. When it happens, we review our mistakes, dust ourselves off, and move on.

Have a beautiful and blessed day!

Courtney

Courtney is part owner of Treble Strings. She teaches lessons both online and in her studio in Smithville, MO. To contact her, please email: lessons@treblestrings.com

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