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  • Tom Godfrey

Living with Stage Fright

I used to have terrible stage fright. Over time, I learned how to manage it and even turn it into a positive. I'd like to share four strategies that have worked for me. THESE ARE NOT QUICK FIXES! But if you put in the work, you can learn to manage your fear. This comes from a musician's point of view, but you could apply this to public speaking or anything else that puts you in front of an audience.




Preparation

It might seem obvious, but one of the main things that helps me manage my nerves is preparation. Knowing your music inside and out can be a confidence booster. As a bonus, if you've put in the time, you might even be able to get through a song on autopilot. There have been times when I've been so nervous that I remembered little of my performance. While my mind blanked, my body remembered what to do, and I got through it.


As you approach a show, practice for the performance. It's tempting to stop and fix every mistake, but you also need to practice playing through your mistakes. There are times when you need to stop and drill small portions of your music, but as you get closer to a show, practice run throughs. Play through an entire song, set list, or show without stopping. If you are preparing for a show in which you'll need to speak to the audience, this is a good time to start practicing your stage patter.


Perform Often

This is a big one. I was a classical trombone player in my younger days. Classical trombonists train to be ensemble players. I never once got nervous playing in an orchestra or concert band because that was what I was used to. However, I was a wreck whenever I had to play a solo recital. I played in band and orchestras all the time, but I only played a recital once a year. I just wasn't used to playing as a soloist.


Fast forward many years later, when I was beginning to perform as a guitar soloist. I was extremely nervous at first, but the more gigs I played, the less nervous I became. Playing solo became more of a "normal" thing. Sure, I would still get nervous, but my stage fright gradually became manageable. Notice that I wrote that it gradually became manageable. This lessening of nerves came about after many, many performances.


How do you go about performing if you're just starting out? The good news is that you don't have to book a world tour just for the experience of playing in front of people. You can play for your family or friends. I personally find it more nerve-wracking to play in front of people I know, so if you can play for your family, you might find it even easier to play in front of an audience full of strangers. If you attend a church, you can volunteer to play for services as a soloist or as part of a group. Retirement centers are GREAT places to gain performance experience. You will never find a more friendly audience than at a retirement facility! If you play at a retirement home once a month, they will LOVE you!


Don't Fight Yourself

This one took me a long time to learn. My nervousness manifests itself most often through shaking, which is NOT helpful if you're a guitar player. For the longest time, I would try to will myself not to shake when I felt the nerves kicking in. The problem was that I was fighting an adrenaline surge. Essentially, I was fighting my own body. The more I tried to control my shaking, the worse it became.


Somewhere along the way, I learned that I could let this adrenaline surge pass if I relaxed my shoulders and focused on breathing. When I feel that stage fright coming on, I actually greet it in my mind like it's an old friend coming to visit. I then breathe in and out slowly and deeply. I typically time my out breath with my musical phrasing. When I do this, I find that the adrenaline surge passes more quickly. This might sound silly, but it's worked for me over the years, so I'm going to keep doing it.


Roll with Your Mistakes

This one also took me a long time to learn, and it correlates with my earlier advice about practicing going through an entire song or set without stopping. You are guaranteed to make a mistake. Everyone steps in it. When you make a mistake (and you will), forgive yourself, forget it, and keep going like nothing ever happened. I don't care if you're an amateur or a pro, everyone makes mistakes. An amateur will often react to their mistakes. I used to do this a lot. It was almost like I was apologizing to the audience, or letting them know that I knew I had flubbed. A pro will not react after making a mistake. Instead, a pro will just keep on smiling and playing. Most of the time, nobody will even notice the error.


It can also help to realize that we tend to magnify mistakes in our head. If you miss a note, it's easy to dwell on it and blow it out of proportion, when in reality, very few people will notice or even care. It might sound odd to take comfort in realizing that no one cares, but there it is!


Wrap-Up

In the end, stage fright never totally goes away, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A little bit of adrenaline and fear adds excitement to a live performance. I think this is why a live performance has an edge that you just don't get from a studio recording. On the other hand, you don't want nerves to ruin a performance.


Preparation, performing often, not fighting yourself, and rolling with your mistakes – There are no quick fixes here, but if you put in the work and put in the time, you can learn to harness your fear over time.


How do you handle stage fright?

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