Stage fright...it doesn't always pass.
"As if we never said goodbye"
When I was growing up, my mother used to clean the house, fold the laundry, even drive the car while listening to music. Peter, Paul & Mary, Jane Oliver, Barbara Streisand...they were familiar friends to me before I even began school. Mother wasn't one to leave her children unaware of how to work in the home, so we listened and worked, side by side, every Saturday until the chores were done. But, somehow, the music made it fun. Dancing with the vacuum as your partner...scrubbing to the beat of Neil Diamond...it became a tradition we looked forward to sharing with our parents. That's magic in itself.
But one day, Mom came into the bathroom as I scrubbed the tub and her jaw was nearly on the soon-to-be mopped floor. My back was to her, and I was preoccupied with my task and found it nothing special that I was singing along with Barbara Streisand. Apparently, none of this was out of the ordinary except that I had finally heard and understood every word to her song "Evergreen," and therefore I was belting it out more confidently than before; confident enough to be heard two rooms away.
You've Got Talent!
Nobody can argue the tremendous talent that IS Barbara Streisand. But Mom had tears in her eyes when I got off my knees to wring out my sponge after the song ended. "How did you do that?" she asked me. "What? That stupid soap scum won't budge!" I replied. "Forget the tub...I mean your voice," she said. "What about it...I was just singing...ya know...like the tape," I said. Though I pushed past Mom to start the dusting, I had no idea her mind was blown away. From that moment on, she wanted me to sing.
Off to the races
Well, she sat me in the church choir right off. I was in Kindergarten and had no trouble keeping up with the other members, children and adult alike. I learned the hymns during the service and Mom watched me fiddle with the piano afterwards to memorize the notes I'd heard that day, having never touched a piano until then. And every time we were in the car, or visiting family, or cleaning, she'd ask me to sing to her. I was fine with that, but it did get old for me because it was not challenging...I just sang what I heard. I didn't know few others could make the sound I made.
Then, one day, she entered me in the school talent show, but by then I had caught on...she wanted me to sing, on stage, in front of everyone...by myself. That's where I drew the line...I was NOT doing that. People wouldn't just hear me...they'd be waiting, listening to every sound I made. I refused to perform. She insisted. So I said I would play my xylophone I got for Christmas, but singing was out of the question. I won that battle...but I think she conceded because she was lining up other options.
Wouldn't you know it...not long after my mediocre xylophone performance, the school music director volunteered me to sing at the Mother's Day concert for all the teachers. My Mom was assistant principal at the school and it just sounded fishy to me that she didn't have a hand in it. I resented that I wasn't asked to perform, but demanded. I learned the Peter Pan song, "Your Mother and Mine," and to this day I don't remember any other classmates participating.
I felt singled out, and showcased not making me feel special, but frightened. My music teacher just told me to watch the back of the room while I sang, or picture the audience in their underwear & socks. I had no clue how those ideas would make me more comfortable if the people would still be in the room listening to my every breath.
Sure enough...it didn't work...I was terrified throughout my song. Even the gym teacher was staring at me while I sang. My voice cracked on the very first high note and from then on I could hear little else but poor quality sound emitting from my mouth. Everyone assured me I was overly critical and couldn't hear how it really sounded, but that wasn't my point. Why was I being forced to perform if I didn't want to perform because I was scared to perform? My grandmother told me it was because I had a rare talent, one not to be wasted on pride. I was too young to even know what she meant.
I Think I Can
My mom kept me in church choir until I graduated high school AND insisted on violin lessons when my middle school teacher noticed my natural ear. Moreover, Mom joined the committee to hire a new church music director after the previous one starred me in a play that was humiliating to me because I had a problem with the set during one of my solos. And wouldn't you know it...the newly hired music director just LOVED my voice. Mom signed me up for voice lessons in 9th grade when I refused to squeak a violin one second more.
My sister resented me because of all the attention she wasn't getting...all because of my "talent,"...and ALL the while I hated performing because it terrified me when I did it alone. My stomach would lurch. My palms would sweat. My knees would shake. How could I enjoy that experience?
Make It Work
I pictured the audience in all sorts of ways. I stared at the back of the room until my eyes crossed. I breathed deeply...I made sure my knees weren't locked. I told myself the audience wanted to hear me, they weren't being forced to suffer...but still I was crippled with stage fright. Performing in a choir was no problem, sometimes even fun...but being singled out...agony! I dreaded it more than anything growing up. Please, don't ask me to sing.
Even when I went to college, my high school voice teacher insisted I try out for the university choir, as she had insisted I try out for district chorus in high school. I thought my lack of ability to sight read would have ended the matter, as in high school, but I was wrong. The university choir director loved my sound. I did three years in that choir until I insisted on having my final year without performances just for some perspective. This was granted, but not before performing in Europe just after a university concert to end all concerts, where I was demanded to speak publicly as one of the few non-music majors in the choir...a rarity.
Believe me...the attention was flattering. If I hadn't been forced into it I would never have competed in a scholarship pageant for college assistance, signed autographs or even been requested to perform at a friend's funeral. But the stage fright, it keeps me silent to this day. If one doesn't enjoy performing, why do it? For the answer, I must go back to Barbara Streisand. She makes a fortune with her talent all the while she has terrible stage fright, just like me, so my mother told me.
I would love to interview her to know how she copes with her fear. I saw her just last night performing live in front of millions of people at the Oscars. She looked flawless. I saw no buckling knees, no trembling hands, no wavering vocals. Maybe how she does it is a big part of why people pay to see her. I have to wonder.
How do you cope with stage fright?
Take care of you
Bottom line...stage fright didn't pass for me the more I performed...as my music teachers all promised. Picturing the audience in their underwear...wouldn't that freak a person out, not help them? Deep, even breathing...sure, in a perfect world. But with so many eyes on you, one could just be trying to keep breathing at all. It was ever worse if I knew members of the audience. For me strangers are better for keeping me calm...but not by much.
What was I so afraid of? Got me. Perhaps it was the fear of vomiting on stage, or tripping up the stairs on my entrance. But I really felt that the performance would be nothing short of disaster. What if I forgot the words? What if my timing slipped and the pianist couldn't help me through it? What if the world ENDED? I remember wanting the floor to open and swallow me up so I was excused from my obligation...that's for sure.
Then one day I had a fabulous revelation. I was up, once again, in front of a congregation with all eyes on me. This time, however, it was my wedding day. True...I'd never smiled so much in all my years...but when I came down the aisle and settled into my place in front of everyone...I felt no fear, no apprehension, no nerves about people hearing me. True...I wasn't singing...but I was still on display, singled out. So what changed?
I really think it was the fact that I wanted to be in front of all those people. Sure...perhaps all the previous experiences on stage prepared me for that day...but I just can't deny the idea that wanting to be up there made all the difference. So my advice is this- no matter what your talent, no matter what the occasion, listen to your body. Take care of you. If you are up on stage against your will, find any coping strategy that works for you. Power through to succeed and the first chance you get, be sure to do what you want to do. Life is too short to suffer, even for a great talent.