Stage Fright - your trip to the zoo and other solutions

An 8 year old child recently asked me: ‘What is stage fright?’

She wondered: ‘is it like the butterflies I get before going to the zoo?’ I think she was talking about the mixture of excitement and nervousness about the unknown. After all, animals are live and can be unpredictable, just like live performances. I nodded at her question and explained that nerves are something natural that some people might experience - but that they don't have to be a negative thing. Just like the butterflies of excitement and anticipation of an eight year old going to the zoo, it’s possible to overturn fear and have a great 'day out'. 

My photo from a recent trip to the zoo

Anyone who watches The X Factor will have recently observed how all-consuming performance nerves can be when the stakes are high. Maybe you too have felt it - in a job interview, audition or in the middle of a speech. 

In my experience of working with hundreds of amateur performers (and having been overwhelmed by my own nerves from time to time!), I’ve seen how nerves can make a performance - it’s just a matter of grabbing them by the scruff of the neck and putting them to good use.

Our choir Forte embracing a public performance

What is stage fright? To conquer ‘stage fright’ (or whatever you want to call it) we should first explore what it is. There are degrees of intensity, from mild nerves (what I would call butterflies) to incapacitating bouts of fear-filled anxiety that require medical treatment. Stage fright, on the more worrying end of the spectrum, doesn’t just affect amateur or novice performers - this form of anxiety can be experienced by anyone, at any stage in any sort of career - created by presentations, speeches or vocal performances. 

Undoubtedly, the biggest contributor to performance anxiety and fear are negative ideas and projections that can overwhelm us. The thoughts that say that everything has to be perfect, that there’s only one go, that your performance is being judged against other people’s and that whatever happens your best will not be good enough. Fear occurs when we believe we will never live up to other’s (or our own!) ideals. 

If you can empathise with any of those feelings of fear, you might find the following useful, whatever causes your nerves!

Reaping the benefits of nerves. Not only are ‘nerves’ natural but the the adrenalin rush that accompanies pre-gig/audition/presentation nerves can be advantageous, heightening focus, enhancing senses and speeding up reaction times. 'Nerves' become ‘fear’ when our adrenalin spills over into negative consequences, including less focus and a more 'wobbly' performance. The body responds to 'nerves' and 'fear' in the same way, but the degree to which we experience the sensations can be the difference between a positive or negative outcome. 

Physical reactions might include a dry mouth, tense muscles, shortness of breath or butterflies in your tummy. Our voices are directly affected by these physical reactions, which is why nerves can affect singers and speakers more than most. 

The key is to find a method to prevent our thoughts and feelings from running away with us so that we only experience the positive effects of nerves.

Our Starling Singers rolling away the nerves

Techniques to overcome stage fright 

Prepare - I can think of very few people who can give an honest, confident performance without any sort of preparation. Do yourself a favour and work hard so you can come into the situation feeling poised, confident and equipped to take on the challenge. 

The old fashioned pretend they’re naked/on the toilet trick - This visualisation exercise brings everyone to the same, human, level and I've been doing it for years. It’s often a fear of hierarchy (and an associated idea of not being good enough) that leads to us cracking under pressure. But if we can quash the idea that any one person has more worth than others, we might see the situation as it really is - an opportunity for you to celebrate what you can do.  

Remember Your Audience - We often forget that presenting and performing are fundamentally about communicating and sharing ideas. When we can locate our key message and who that message is being directed to, the rest can fall into place. The voice runs on instinct, and knowing our audience helps us explore, discover and express meaning and find a new connection. In speaking directly to our audience, stage fright can be transformed into authentic, honest stage presence.

Finding Yourself in Failure - This one is hard for a worrier like me, but remember that even if things go wrong, the consequences will probably be quite short-lived - a bad review or an uncomfortable 5 seconds. The benefits, however, can be boundless. Mistakes always provide an opportunity to learn, therefore the risk is always more valuable than the fear that often holds people back from trying at all. In giving something a go and taking action you will take pleasure knowing that you will work harder, feel a sense of accomplishment, find new confidence and move closer to your goals. 

Visualising Your Performance - Before your next performance, visualise the entire situation in a quiet, relaxing place. Run through the whole event including how you’ll get there, the way you’ll walk into the room and your performance(s). Make sure you picture: 

  • What the venue looks like
  • Who will be there
  • Where your audience will be 
  • and finally - imagine the ideal performance where everything goes perfectly

Resist the temptation to ‘catastophise’ or imagine the worst, instead project the best possible outcome. In switching your brain to expect the best, you will also turn down the 'fear' button. 

It's over - what now? If you're anything like me, you might be tempted to spend hours reviewing, analysing scrutinising a performance after it has happened.While it's useful to learn from and improve upon anything that didn't go entirely to plan,stagnating in the past isn't helpful. Nor should you expect an award from anyone else. People may or may not react, share their opinions or offer feedback. Don't expect it. You’ve worked hard to get to this point and this is your personal celebration so don't dwell on other's opinions.

Take it to the zoo... I hope you can find something useful in these techniques next time you feel the nerves pressing, but maybe all you need to do when you feel a twinge of nerves is to remember that trip to the zoo. There might be some big unknowns there, but, given the right approach, there'll be lots to discover.