Many of us will have experienced stage fright at some point.
But what is it, why does it exist and how do you beat it?
Whether you're stepping out on stage for the first or the hundredth time, the dreaded stage fright can get its icy fingers into you and turn you into a nervous, gibbering wreck. Sometimes it won't affect your performance - other than making you feel panicky and miserable - but other times it can cause you to completely dry up.
Stage fright is basically the "fight or flight" response which is hard wired into your nervous system. If you've ever spilled a very large angry man's beer or your car has hurtled towards a cliff edge you will have experienced it.
When you experience the fight or flight response, your body is pumped full of adrenalin and your blood is redirected from your extremities to your muscles. Your breathing gets deeper and your heart rate increases to pump energy rich blood around your body. This was a useful physiological reaction when our ancestors were being chased by sabre tooth tigers, but it is utterly counterproductive when you are trying to sing, play an instrument or remember some lines - because it also makes your throat dry up, makes you shake and can give you mental block and tunnel vision. You are physiologically primed for an energy burst to save your skin, but just like a rabbit in the headlights, it can actually make you freeze.
In the long term this reaction causes stress. Stress can damage your immune system and leave you open to infection.
Obviously a small amount of adrenalin before a performance is a good thing and can make you feel excited and can help focus you, but having a huge adrenalin dump designed to save you from certain death, is a bit of an overreaction when all you are doing is trying to entertain people.
Very interesting, but how do you beat stage fright?
1. KNOW YOUR MATERIAL.
If you're playing a new song or it's one of your first gigs, take some extra time to rehearse. Record the songs on your phone and listen to them several times. Write notes on the structure. Learn it so much that you are utterly bored of it. Make sure it is an old friend that you know intimately because as soon as there is a room full of eyes and ears focusing on you, things change. Perhaps you've had a drink, you'll have stage smoke and flashing lights in your face, you'll be fighting technical problems like not being able to hear yourself and all you can see is a sea of faces looking at you. Suddenly it doesn't feel like the rehearsal room anymore and if you aren't able to play the song absolutely in autopilot, you will probably get thrown off course and start the adrenalin pumping.
The SAS don't start jumping through windows and throwing stun grenades at terrorists without having done hundreds of hours practicing the same thing over and over again in a realistic "killing house". When they do the real thing and there are bullets whizzing past their heads, they have done it so many times before that it's almost ordinary. So that said…
2. PREPARE FOR BATTLE.
As melodramatic as it seems, a gig can be a battle against all the things the possible things that can go wrong. You need to be switched on to give your best performance.
Backstage at most gigs there will be band members doing rituals to bring them up to their most resourceful state. Friends and family will be sent away twenty minutes before stage time and band members will be doing yoga, vocal warm ups, shadow boxing (what I do), playing Tetris or getting into a band huddle.
Everyone has their own idiosyncratic ritual to get themselves in the zone. That's why backstage is usually always so off limits. It would be such a disappointment walking in on your favourite ice cool star is prancing around singing camp show tunes or looking in the mirror reassuring himself he's awesome.
Whatever ritual you come up with to get yourself relaxed and pumped, you should end up being able to walk on to any stage with a spring in your step and no thoughts of panic.
One excellent trick is hypnotic anchoring. Whenever I'm feeling pumped or have just played a great gig, I will press the tips of my thumb and index finger together. Over time an association is built up and if I need to be switched on instantly I will press my thumb and finger together and some of that switched-on feeling will come back. Many tv presenters, politicians, athletes, actors and comedians use the same method before stepping out onto the stage.
There will always be a moment of potential panic at a gig: Your amp has stopped working and you need to borrow another. You can't hear the monitors properly. Someone's thrown up. Someone's caught fire… This is all normal. Luckily you now know your material like a scholar and you're as in the zone as a buddhist monk, so not being able to hear the bass isn't the end of the world any more. Just as boxers have corner men telling them to relax and breath, having friend nearby with spare strings and some gaffa tape is equally as comforting.
If you don't have your own crew holding your hand, there will be people working at the stage anyway, so take the time to say hello and be friendly. If you can play the gig knowing that these people are on your side and are likely to jump to your aid should technical disasters happen, you are onto a winner.
Here's a little tip - being nervous or shy can actually make you appear aloof and arrogant to those who don't know you. So try to look as friendly and approachable as possible, because nobody is ever impressed by arrogance.
4. BE COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR SURROUNDINGS.
If you are an old hand at playing gigs, the stage is as comfortable as a couch. However, if you aren't that experienced and you have the opportunity, take a some time to familiarise yourself with the stage and venue and don't be intimidated by it, it's where you belong and where you will shine.
You are your actions. By that I mean, if you are feeling happy and then force yourself to frown, you will eventually fool your brain and actually start feeling grumpy. Give it a try now. Of course it also works the other way. If you are in unfamiliar and potentially intimidating surroundings, force a smile and act relaxed and you will actually fool yourself into actually becoming genuinely happy and relaxed.
If you're still grumpy, give the smile method a go. After a couple of minutes you'll feel nice!
The fight or flight reaction is hard-wired into all of us vertebrates by millions of years of evolution, so even if you have done a thousand gigs, the potential for stage fright never goes away. Now that you know the four methods to keep it at bay however, you should never suffer from it again.
Incidentally, I once played the same festival as Metallica, a famously neurotic and messed up band. They toured with their own portable multi-storey complex, complete with a rehearsal room, gym, an army of crew, a psychiatrist and their own dressing rooms. The reason for this was:
- to stop themselves freaking out by knowing their material
- preparing for battle
- having back up
- being comfortable with their surroundings
Hope this helps,
Love Bobby x