10 Rules for Overcoming Stage Fright

By Harvey Rachlin

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Many years ago, when I was a junior in high school, our concert band director who was my private clarinet teacher, told me at a lesson that I had pretty much nailed Carl Maria von Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet. He said that he had the concert band score to the piece and would like me to perform it with our school band.

What musician wouldn’t be thrilled with such an invitation? I felt a rush of elation, almost unable to contain myself with this certification of my musicianship. I loved playing the clarinet and practiced almost obsessively several hours every day, and this was the kind of feedback I lived for. Moreover, I was thrilled that William Dwyer, the esteemed conductor of our Herricks High School Concert Band, whose reputation he had built up over the years as one of the finest school bands on Long Island, would pick me, just a junior clarinetist, to perform as a solo instrumentalist with our school band. In my euphoria I imagined myself standing on stage in front of all my fellow-school musicians playing von Weber’s clarinet masterpiece as Mr. Dwyer spiritedly led my bandmates in accompanying me through this magnificent piece. He asked me to remind him to pull out the score from the band’s music library so we could begin rehearsing the piece and as he continued talking all I could think about was how anxious I was for our beloved maestro to cue everybody in.

In the days that followed my excitement turned to trepidation. What if I made an embarrassing mistake? Suppose I squeaked out a bunch of notes? What if—and this really rattled me—I got so nervous that I froze on stage? Reveries of adulation turned to heart-palpitating fear. As each day passed the prospect of standing in front of the concert band—and eventually before an audience—and performing flawlessly became terrifying. My mouth got dry at the very thought of being in the spotlight, my confidence plummeted, and there were a few sleepless nights. In the end, I never reminded Mr. Dwyer to retrieve Concertino from the band library or that he even asked me to play the piece.

To this day I regret having let my fears overcome my zealousness to play the piece, not to mention robbing my teenage years of an enriching experience that could have been the premier highlight of my high school band days. And in retrospect it wasn’t only this solo performance that gave me the jitters. As much as I practiced and was, if I may say, a competent player, I used to be apprehensive about getting difficult new pieces both in lessons and in band, thinking I wouldn’t be able to master them.

If growing older brings on wisdom, I have had many years to contemplate my high school music meltdown and come up with ways with which I could have combatted my stage fright as well as my uneasiness in taking on any new challenges in my youth. Here are ten rules I would impart to musicians to allay their public performance fears:

  • Acknowledge that it is natural to have stage fright and there is nothing wrong with you if you have it. Fear of performing in front of an audience is as normal as fearing heights or thunder or lightning and is as old as public stages themselves. So, don’t beat yourself up for having this stressful instinct!
  • Always remember that you can surmount your fears. Fear may be a natural response to intimidating situations but don’t let it get in your way. If you know you are capable of performing a piece you just need to find a way to overcome your fear of performing it in public. It can be done with some effort and you should make it your goal to do just that. You don’t want to look back and say, “I didn’t have the guts.” At the very least, you want to say “I had the courage to try…”
  • Keep in mind that once you begin playing on stage you will become so immersed in your performance that you will forget about the audience in front of you and the musicians behind you and focus only on your performance.
  • Build up your confidence by telling yourself over and over that you will do great and be a sensation. This is a form of auto-hypnosis that helps you believe what you tell yourself. So, say to yourself repeatedly something like “I can do it and I’m going do it!” until it sinks into your head.
  • Picture yourself playing in front of an audience or before your fellow musicians. Try finding a magazine or newspaper photograph similar to what you think will be the setting of your performance and tape it to the wall (or put it on your computer screen) and play before it as if you were actually playing in a concert. Look at the audience in the picture and try to feel relaxed as you play. And to further the inculcation of mitigating your fear, as you lull yourself to sleep each night before the concert envision yourself performing expressively, smoothly and confidently on stage in what turns out to be a stellar performance.
  • Step out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself by taking on more difficult pieces than you are used to performing and approaching them with enthusiasm and not anxiety. Break up your routine of rehearsing alone and ask some friends or family members if you could role play an actual performance in front of them. Remember: comfort zones can stunt growth if they’re not challenged.
  • Before you go on stage to perform take deep breaths to calm yourself, and at the same time maintain an enthusiastic state of mind. In other words, psyche yourself up to go on!
  • Create a positive frame of mind by telling yourself that by performing you are doing a wonderful thing and embrace the moment. Life is about taking chances; they make you better and stronger.
  • Tell yourself that it is good to have a certain amount of nervousness and that you will channel that nervousness into motivation on stage.
  • Remember that you want to be a participant in life to the fullest extent you can. That means both making opportunities for yourself and embracing those that come your way. Performing on stage is special and is a grand opportunity in life.
  • These simple rules may not work for everybody as everyone is different, but the musician with stage fright or having a fear of learning difficult new material may, with some effort and thought, be able to come up with other rules that could work for him or her.

Sure, I will always regret not having performed Concertino for Clarinet in public, but I also know that it’s part of life to have regrets and it’s best not to let them get in your way as you grow older. We all know that you learn from your experiences, no matter how disappointing. Youth is a time when we’re sorting things out, confronting our fears, trying to deal with our inhibiting instincts. But it is at the same time a period when we learn from our mistakes and grow to be a better person. I try to impart the lessons I’ve learned in all my journeys to my students and if anything, I say can help a young person deal with any daunting situation he or she is faced with then perhaps my own regretful experiences may have a redeeming value.

Harvey Rachlin is an award-winning author of 14 books including The Songwriter’s Handbook and The Songwriter’s and Musician’s Guide to Making Great Demos. His Encyclopedia of the Music Business won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism, was named Outstanding Music Reference Book of the Year by the American Library Association and was recommended by Academy Award-winning composer Henry Mancini on the 1984 internationally-televised Grammy Awards. His books have been praised by such music luminaries as Elton John, Aaron Copland, Richard Rodgers, Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Marvin Hamlisch, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Morton Gould, and Johnny Mathis. He runs the Music Business program at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. He is the author of a forthcoming book on the history of pop music.

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