Stage fright sucks.
Anybody who’s ever been paralyzed, or forced into a lame performance or presentation, because of stage fright will confirm that. It’s the worst. Your brain feels totally in control of what’s happening - it’s assessing the situation and trying to follow through with the plan – but your body didn’t get the memo. It’s shaking, flushing, nauseous, has dry mouth, is stuttering and sweating. Really not cool.
Because stage fright is such a common experience, the explanation lies in evolution. Evolution theory says that individuals with traits that help them survive are then, because of surviving, able to pass those genes on to their progeny.
Stage Fright Is A Survival Trait?
For instance, babies are not intrinsically cute. They’re just babies. But the hominids who found babies cute were probably more attentive and responsive parents, and because of that, their babies survived into adulthood and passed along their genes. Do that for a few hundred generations and the number of babies-are-cute people start to strongly outnumber the babies-are-babies people.
One sensible theory about stage frights says that social anxiety was a survival response to “hostile dominants,” triggering escape, avoidance, or submissive behavior. So, from a monkey-brain perspective, you’re getting stage fright because you think your audience is going to kill you. That’s extreme, but not unnatural. Your monkey brain may just think they’re hostile, aggressors, or want your stuff.
Stage fright becomes debilitating when your mind invests in or exaggerates that natural response. People with certain personality traits – perfectionism, control issues, fear of failure, the need to be liked – struggle more with stage fright than others. (If you want to know more, George Dvorsky has a wonderful article about this.)
Since I just described every singer I’ve ever met, let’s look at ways to deal with stage fright. You may never get over it, and you shouldn’t plan on it, but you can learn to manage it.
HACKS FOR STAGE FRIGHT
Diaphragm breathing: When you’re afraid or stressed, you take short, shallow, and irregular breaths. When you sleep, you take long, deep, and regular breaths. If you can make yourself take “sleeping breaths” it will be harder for your body to remember that it’s panicking.
Choose your thoughts: People with stage fright tend to imagine the worst, and those thoughts increase the symptoms. Instead, think (or even say out loud) thoughts that will calm and reassure you.
Visualize: This won’t help in the moment, but is your best investment in the long term. Long before your performance, regularly imagine the scene you anticipate triggering your stage fright. See yourself calm, cool, and kickin’ some audience ass.
Therapy. There are many kinds of therapy, and you may find one that works for you. There’s talk therapy, bio-feedback, hypnonsis, and other options.
Beta Blockers: Better living through chemistry, people. Beta blockers are a non-addicting, cheap drug that blocks the effects of adrenaline. They really work for musicians with stage fright. You’ll need an Rx.
Watch for my white paper, How to Have a Great Music Theater Audition, coming Thursday, May 4.