Whether a sold out stadium or an open mic night, stage fright can affect many in the performance industry, and is something artists are, more often than not, likely to have to deal with. Here we look at some effective coping strategies musicians can implement in order to deal with struggles of performance anxiety.
Guest post by Hajar J. Woodland for Function Central—Bands & Musicians for Hire
It doesn’t matter if you’re singing at a low-key wedding or performing at Wembley, stage fright can affect us all.
Most actors and musicians deal with performance anxiety at some point in their careers. Daniel Day-Lewis fled the theatre mid-show, Adele projectile vomited before a gig, and Ella Fitzgerald’s career was built on the back of stage fright when, at the talent contest that launched her, she froze before a dance routine and decided to sing instead.
So what is stage fright? Simply put, it’s a rush of adrenalin that sends you into fight or flight mode. You might be able to harness it to put on a great show, or you might find it leaves you feeling completely powerless at the precise moment you want to feel in control. At one end of the scale there’s a nervous excitement or butterflies, but in more severe cases this could include sweaty palms, a dry mouth, pins and needles, blurred vision, and a full-on panic attack.
It’s hard enough when you only have to worry about your performance, but if you’re in a function band, it’s likely you also have to think about everything from last minute song requests to 200-mile 2am drives, meaning the anxiety can strike long before you’re on stage.
Stage fright in the moment can be terrifying and unexpected, and might also be an extension of underlying anxiety or low confidence. Of course, as it affects people so differently, there’s no universal cause or cure, but being both prepared and present can help you alleviate the symptoms.
Here are just a few tips that can make gig days more manageable when you live with anxiety.
- Get your act together. First and foremost, make sure you know what you’re performing inside out, and the rest of the band does too. There’s nothing like being hazy on a particular song or tricky lyric to gnaw doubt into you in the lead up to a gig. Rehearse everything you need to and know your set inside and out.
- Energise. Make sure you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a hot meal before your performance. Poor sleep can affect every part of your day from feeling stressed to forgetting lyrics so be sure to get as much as you need. Singers won’t want to eat too close to performing, but low blood sugar could raise your anxiety. Bring healthy snacks and make sure a hot meal at the venue is written into your contract.
- Leave plenty of time. It seems obvious to set off early and leave lots of time for load in, but that extra hour in bed or lazy lunch can quickly turn into a last minute rush out the house. Leaving plenty of time might mean you’re waiting to load into a venue, but rather that than being stressed and helpless in traffic during the first dance.
- Get your gear in order. Make sure your music and PA equipment is as compact as possible. Being streamlined saves unnecessary load-in time, helps with your mental check list, and looks much better to clients too of course. Use suitcases and zip-up padded bags – a carrier bag of leads is never a good look, not even a Waitrose one. Always carry spare leads, power supplies, batteries, extra microphones and whatever else you might need two of. Keep these near the stage so you know a dodgy lead will be quickly fixed.
- Have a smooth drive. Driving to new locations every weekend needs a checklist in itself. Make sure you have auto pay on tolls and congestion charges so the fee isn’t weighing on your mind. Have a good sat nav such as Waze or Google Maps – an out-dated sat nav is no excuse for being late. And of course, be sure to have breakdown cover, the right insurance, and allow time for water, air and fuel.
- Focus on one thing at a time. The sheer range of tasks required of you on gig day can be pretty overwhelming, but reframing them can help you stay focused. A typical monologue for the overwhelmed can sound like ‘I have a 100-mile drive and then I have to unload, and what if we can’t get in the venue, and what if I forget the bride’s name, and what if there’s no food, and hang on, did I turn the oven off, and will people like me, and my voice feels a bit scratchy, and how am I going to sing for two hours, and will I make it through till midnight…’ and so on. Perhaps start with ‘I’m going for a drive to the countryside.’ Once you’re at the venue, then think about the next thing. Take it all step by step.
- Set up and sound check straight away. Once the PA and lights are set up you have time to get out of the roadie mindset and into performer mode. Have a good, thorough sound check and make sure you’re happy with your monitoring – there’s nothing more stressful on stage than not being able to hear yourself or the rest of the band.
- Take short breaks and deep breaths. Little breathers throughout the day for a cup of tea, warm-ups, or a few deep breaths can help you prepare for the next step and stay relaxed when you’re speaking to guests and event organisers.
- Remember, people are on your side. Anxiety and stage fright can be exacerbated by the idea that people want or are expecting you to trip up, that they’re listening to every single note and word. They’re not. People just want a great night, but rather than turning that into pressure, try to embrace it as a privilege that you’re lucky enough to experience.
- Self-medicate? Not if you can help it. A contentious one this. Many musicians turn to a pint before a gig, but it’s important to be aware if you’re building up a dependency. Alcohol isn’t just a depressant, it’s bad for your singing voice, so perhaps speak to a specialist if you find yourself desperate for a drink before a gig.
- Give yourself a good talking to. Go on, give yourself a pep talk to remind yourself why you belong on stage. Take a few moments to appreciate what makes you unique – from the tone of your voice to your song choices. There’s a space for you on stage for a reason – so fill it.
- Experiment with what works for you. To distract herself from stage fright, Carly Simon reportedly gets her band members to spank her before a performance. Yes really. But controlled breathing exercises, yoga or a camomile tea might be more your bag.
- Consider medical help. If nothing seems to comfort you or alleviate the symptoms, it’s worth talking to a professional. There are lots of resources for anxiety and mental health. Check out charities like Mind and Anxiety UK and perhaps investigate therapies such as CBT or even hypnosis. As for medication, beta-blockers might be a performance enabling go-to for a quarter of classical musicians, but the side effects vary so speak to your doctor before trying any new medication.
Performers across every art form have stories of how they conquer – or at least live with – their fears, but what’s wonderful about these tales is the underlying dedication to their art and the audience. Whatever remedies work for you and measures you have to take, if you love bringing joy to people through your talent then that’s definitely a cause worth fighting for.