Stage fright #1: are we too ashamed to talk about it?

The first of a series of guest posts on understanding and coping with stage fright by pianist, educator and author Charlotte Tomlinson.

Charlotte will feature in a forthcoming At the Piano interview.

Imagine this scenario: one of the world’s finest symphony orchestras is preparing to go on stage, at, let’s say London’s Barbican Centre. Musicians are tuning up, putting rosin on their bows and warming up their instruments. It seems totally normal and you would almost think that everyone was so professional and so used to giving concerts that they didn’t suffer from stage fright at all. But the reality is different.

Chris is going over his flute solo silently in his mind, his heart beating wildly and his breathing short and sharp. Despite his professionalism and years of experience, he is terrified and hardly slept the night before. Naomi, one of the second violins, doesn’t feel quite so pressurized because she is surrounded by other players and never plays solos, but try as she might, she always ends up chatting incessantly and nervously about anything at all, just before she goes on stage. It is her way of releasing excess nervous energy. And Suzy, the cello soloist, has just stopped herself from throwing up and is now pacing up and down her dressing room, breathing deeply.

These are a few imaginary examples of what can happen when professional musicians are about to go on stage. Nobody talks about stage fright, certainly not in professional performing circles. Musicians backstage at the Barbican wouldn’t have shared their anxieties to each other, for fear of losing their credibility and more significantly, their employability. Stage fright is considered taboo. It’s not only considered taboo, but also shameful. I have known many a highly successful, seasoned professional, who has confided in me, their deep, deep shame at having nerves that cause them such distress. They will lie to pretend they don’t have them, suffering in silence so that no one knows their big secret, their ‘weakness.’ And it is often the case that the greater their success, the bigger and more shameful their secret becomes.

I have given many talks about how to deal with stage fright to teenagers at schools, who are about to give recitals that will be assessed and marked as part of their final year exams. When I ask how many of them feel nervous when they are about to perform, hands go up slowly and tentatively until every hand has gone up, including my own. They look around, amazed. They have no idea that anybody else goes through the same experience as them and the relief in the room is palpable. How wonderful if we could learn from early on that having a form of stage fright isn’t taboo or shameful, and that feeling that way simply exacerbates the problem.

Stage fright happens as a result of an overdose of the body’s production of adrenalin from a perceived threat. The body interprets walking on to a stage to give a presentation as the equivalent of coming across a sabre toothed tiger in the jungle. A small dose of adrenalin can be an advantage when you’re performing. It heightens everything, keeps you alert, ready to perform at your best. But too much can have a crippling effect. The perceived threat can come from so many different directions: too much pressure, fear of looking a fool, thinking everyone will criticize you, not feeling good enough, not preparing adequately. It may be only a ‘perceived’ threat, but it is very real and can cause enormous distress.

Stage fright is more common than we would like to think. An enormous number of people are suffering from it, silently, not daring to own up to it. Understanding and recognizing this can be the first step towards letting go of its hold on your life. So what’s the next step? Maybe finding a way of sharing it with an empathetic, compassionate person, someone who respects and acknowledges your feelings – someone who just gets it! This can take the valve off the pressure cooker and begin the journey towards healthy, enjoyable performing…and free of stage fright!

Charlotte Tomlinson is a pianist, educator and a published author who specialises in helping musicians overcome issues that stop them from performing. Her book Music from the Inside Out deals with the thorny issues that can profoundly affect you as a musician, and which you may not want to face. You are encouraged to look at what lies beneath the surface and you are guided to unlock what’s holding you back.

Music from the Inside Out gives you tools that can transform your whole approach to performing music.

For more information about Charlotte, and to order a copy of her book, please visit her website:

www.charlottetomlinson.com

4 thoughts on “Stage fright #1: are we too ashamed to talk about it?”

  1. This is very helpful advice. I can only agree that stage fright is basically the ‘fight/flight’ response kicking in and producing all sorts of disturbing physiological effects.

    Time as, they say, is a healer and eventually, we can cope (the feelings of apprehension can never disappear completely, because they are fundamentally natural, survival responses) provided the customary performing environment doesn’t change too rapidly e.g. one week, the local church hall, the next week, the Royal Festival Hall!

    I’ve always told my students that nervousness is completely natural and above all, it is only a feeling (italics needed here!). If well handled, adrenalin can be the magic ingredient that transforms an ordinary performance into an extraordinary one!

    Great post. Thank you.

  2. What excellent advice. Indeed, if we think of stage fright as a failure of chemistry rather than personality, it’s easier to talk about and deal with. Piano stage fright seems different than other kinds — at least, this is true for me. I was a radio news anchor for many years and regularly spoke publicly live in front of large audiences, and rarely, if ever, got any kind of stage fright in those circumstances. However as a kid, and even today, I will get it, particularly in solo piano situations, and particularly when someone might be judging me (a piano teacher, music director, auditions, etc.).

    In the next post, you’ll probably be discussing how to best deal with stage fright. Breathing, clearing your mind, and so forth are all kinds of techniques. But what’s worked best for me is simply reminding myself that those potentially judging me are just human beings who make mistakes themselves all the time — as am I. I.e., lowering expectations, in a strange way, improves performance in those moments. But everyone’s psychology is certainly going to be different here.

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