Stage Fright & What To Do About It
Updated: Jun 30
My Experience With Stage Fright
If there’s one thing about stage fright it’s that it never goes away entirely. Sure enough, it becomes way, way easier to deal with the more you do experience it and these days it translates more into ‘excitement’ for me personally but there are moments where it still catches me off guard. In this article, I’m going to discuss what stage fright is, when it’s likely to happen, why it happens and what you can do about it.
What Is Stage Fright?
Psychologically, human beings still haven’t quite adapted to performing in front of an audience. It’s actually quite an unnatural thing to do when you really think about it. Later, I’m going to share with you an experiment to prove just how abnormal it is but first let’s pretend for a second that you’re a caveman from times past…
You wake up in your stone walled, slightly damp cave one morning and as the sun rises you drag your bare feet outside onto the hillside as you normally do. Except today you’re confronted with 10 other people 20 feet or so away that you’ve never seen before and they’re just hanging about, watching you, staring at you, waiting. They watch some more, they stare some more. You feel the tension start to build. Your palms are sweaty, your heart races and your thinking becomes cloudy with anticipation of what they want or what they might do.
Now imagine that same scenario outside your front door on the street where you live…
Feels threatening right? Unsafe even? In psychology, this reaction is called the fight or flight response. You either stay and endure the possibility of violence or your run away to safety.
Of course, that probably hasn’t and isn’t going to happen to us but there is a way to replicate it that I learned in music college…
We had a professional session musician come to visit and talk about guitar related careers and he mentioned some of the above. Then, he went round each person in the room one-by-one and got the rest of the room to just stare at whoever’s turn it was for about 10 seconds. When it came to my turn, I remember just how awkward it felt to be stared at in a situation where that wouldn’t normally happen.
My point here is that stage fright is actually a totally normal bodily response designed to protect us from potential threats and we need to learn to work with it rather than trying to eliminate it.
Let me say that once more.
Stage fright is completely normal so don’t compound it by thinking that you’re suffering from something you shouldn’t be. I promise you, it gets easier and virtually everyone who has had to perform to an audience will have experienced it.
When Is Stage Fright Likely To Occur?
Stage fright is likely to occur when you’re sprung into or you put yourself into a situation that you’re unfamiliar with and other people are watching. Typically, we associate stage fright with jobs that are primarily performance based such as being a musician, an actor or comedian.
However, it can happen in a variety of other situations. Public speaking, for example, is a common fear for many people and is often required in managerial roles. Public speaking, when done correctly, requires a skill set that encompasses charisma, confidence and charm as well as practice.
But it can also happen in less obvious ways such as social situations. You might be exposed to new people in groups of 6 or more, say and the more people that join the table, the more nervous you become.
Why Does Stage Fright Occur?
Have you ever noticed how talking to one close friend over a quiet coffee feels very different to being a guest at a dinner party for 15? Ok, it’s obviously different but…
That’s your stage fright kicking in! Sure, you didn’t emerge from a cave but the principle is the same and our minds are hard wired that way from thousands of years of evolution to keep us safe from threatening situations where we couldn’t be sure of who we could trust.
There are a few reasons why it might occur. It might be an unfamiliar situation, it might be because performing is new to us or it might be because we feel underprepared which in turn affects our confidence.
This is where practice can be a huge ally. If you know you can do it when you’re alone but it’s just being in front of other people that's making it difficult then you know where to focus your attention to help reduce the anxiety involved.
What Can You Do About Stage Fright?
To tie in with the point above, being prepared is a great start. Put in the practice time. Rehearse over and over and over, know your stuff and then when you have that first song, poem, monologue or whatever it is memorized you can be safe in the knowledge that you’ve done what’s required.
Of course, you don’t have to be absolutely perfect or anything but just do enough so that you can safely say you tried. The more you go through this process, the more confident you’ll become.
Focus On Who Cares
You can focus on the people that care about what you’re doing.
Here’s an example of this…
When I’m out busking the streets of Bath, donations that make their way into my case can fluctuate quite a lot depending on material that I play. Sometimes a period of time will go by and there are zero donations. But then one person will come over at the end of a song, donate more money than usual and tell me how much they loved it. So on days like that, I focus on those people.
Here’s another example…
Playing wedding gigs are mostly amazing audiences that just want to get drunk and have a good time on someone’s wedding day. However, occasionally it can feel a bit stale playing to an audience with whom you wonder why they got a wedding band in the first place. What to do? Find people in the room who are mouthing the words to every song. Draw special attention to that couple who just got up and danced for a laugh.
Maybe you don’t have aspirations to busk or play weddings but you can apply this at any level of performing.
There’s always someone who digs what you’re doing and they are the people to play to.
It’s known that we can control the state of our immune system by the way that we breathe. There’s a protocol called NSDR (Non-Sleep-Deep-Rest) practiced by Andrew Huberman (video below).
By breathing in gently through the nose and breathing out through thinly pursed lips we can slow our heart rate down and put our attention in the moment rather than the anticipation of what’s going to happen.
There are also numerous meditation videos on YouTube that create similar results. This kind of breath work can be useful in the lead up to a performance, just take 10 minutes, breathe and remember that it's all normal and you're going to be fine.
The other way is to just immerse yourself in gig after gig after gig. If you’re a beginner that might be more like open mic after open mic after open mic. By repeatedly exposing yourself to the situation you’re afraid of, you gradually reduce the associated anxiety and learn to think of it more like excitement rather than nerves.
It’s certainly going to be uncomfortable at first but it’s well worth seeing it through. Perhaps you can commit yourself to one open mic for four days of every week in a month. Each week, log how nervous you are and see if there’s a gradual decrease in nerves.
In this article we’ve discussed what stage fright is, when it’s likely to occur, why it occurs and what you can do about it. Ultimately, it’s helpful to understand that stage fright is a normal reaction to what is evolutionarily considered an abnormal situation. The more you expose yourself to situations in which you feel threatened or uncomfortable, the easier those situations will become to manage. So prepare your performance, get out there and show the world what you can do!
About The Author
Aaron Carrington is the owner of Carrington Guitar Academy in Bath, UK. Since graduating from The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London. Aaron has played in high profile locations such as Buckingham Palace, The Savoy and The London Eye.
He’s been a regular part of the UK wedding and corporate gig scene and has travelled internationally to the Middle East to play in top quality residency bands 6 nights per week. The finesse gained from this level of playing experience is passed on to his guitar students.
Now permanently in Bath, Aaron strives to deliver the highest standards of guitar teaching at Carrington Guitar Academy by offering a personalized lesson plan tailored to each student’s goals. You may also catch Aaron busking regularly on the streets of Bath. If you're interested in guitar lessons get in touch to book a FREE trial lesson!