The worst part of stage fright or an anxiety attack on stage is that it’s often unexpected, which means it can horribly blindside a musician. Here are 8 ways to overcome an anxiety attack will help even the most fearful musicians deal with stage fright.
When I wrote How to Deal With Performance Anxiety and Play Your Best, I didn’t realize that a musician could intellectually know how to overcome an anxiety attack on stage, but still be overcome with stage fright. I thought I had all the mental tools I needed to play my flute in front of an audience. Boy, was I wrong.
This is how I found out how bad an anxiety attack on stage can be: yesterday I performed three pieces of classical music with an organist. I play the flute (or thought I did, until my fiasco on stage yesterday!). Our three pieces were Michel Blavet’s Gavotte, Vivaldi’s Pastorale from Sonata 4, and Denis Bedard’s Melodia. Our audience was easy – a small friendly group of 12 people. I know them all; in fact, this performance was a surprise concert to celebrate the end of a 12 week Artist’s Way creativity workshop. I was playing in front of a supportive, encouraging, and very positive group of people who love music and creative arts. So why am I writing an article on how to overcome an anxiety attack on stage? Because my stage fright totally blindsided me and ruined my performance. I was devastated and shocked by how powerful my anxiety was! Here’s what happened – and how I’ll be preparing myself for my next performance, which is in less than two weeks…
One of the worst parts of my anxiety attack on stage yesterday is that I’d practiced the three pieces for six weeks. I knew them…not off by heart and not perfectly, but definitely well enough to get by.
Maybe that was part of the problem. I didn’t know the songs well enough, so I couldn’t fall back on muscle memory when I was scrambling to overcome anxiety on stage. If you need to learn how to overcome anxiety when you’re playing an instrument on stage, make sure you know your music well.
What is stage fright?
“Stage fright” is our natural alarm response to what we think and feel is an emergency situation. For me, stage fright felt like my brain shut down. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t read my music or even see the notes on the page. I lost the tempo, and my heart was racing.
I could barely play my flute. It was awful.
I thought I’d be nervous, so I gathered tips on how to overcome an anxiety attack on stage. But it turns out that you can know something intellectually – such as a piece of music off by heart – and still freeze under pressure. That’s what stage fright is.
Here’s what an Anxiety Coach says about stage fright: “Performance Anxiety is what happens when you focus on yourself and your anxiety, rather than your presentation or performance. It stems from a tendency to resist and fight your anxiety, rather than to accept and work with it. Stage fright is the result of thinking of the performance situation as a threat, rather than a challenge.” – from Blocked by Performance Anxiety?
Stage fright or performance anxiety symptoms may include:
- Racing pulse and rapid breathing
- Dry mouth and tight throat
- Trembling hands, knees, lips, and voice
- Sweaty and cold hands
- Nausea and an uneasy feeling in your stomach
- Vision changes
All these symptoms of stage fright will affect your performance as a musician in many ways – none of them good.That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that you’re not alone! “To say that I suffer from pre-show nerves is like saying that when you get hit by an atom bomb it hurts a bit.” – Ozzy Osbourne, in his 2010 autobiography, I Am Ozzy.
8 Ways to Overcome Stage Fright and Anxiety Attacks
Stage fright is brutal for musicians because it prevents us from playing well. An anxiety attack can even cause a musician to walk off stage and never return to play in public.
The worst part of stage fright or performance anxiety is that you may not even feel it until you sit down to play. That’s what happened to me: I felt fine until I actually picked up my flute and listened to the organist count us into the first song. Then I froze. I could barely move my fingers or blow air into the flute.
Here’s what I’m learning about how to overcome anxiety and stage fright. I have a recital in less than two weeks, and I need to deal with my performance anxiety. It’s not about impressing the audience…it’s about playing well for myself. I want to do a good job.
And so do you. You’re here because you want to know how to overcome an anxiety attack on stage, right? Try these tips…
1. Play in public as much as you can
I thought I’d be fine playing my flute in front of an audience because I “serenaded” them as they walked into the house for the concert. I played several easy pieces, to warm up and get rid of my stage fright.
You’d think that playing informally in front of your audience would help you warm up and play well in front of them later, but it didn’t work. Why? Because they were mingling, talking, and distracted. They weren’t sitting and watching me play. There’s a huge difference between playing for people who aren’t focused on you versus playing for people who are watching you. I could be a street busker, no problem. Being a concert flutist isn’t so easy.
My next performance is less than two weeks away. This is a much more formal concert. It’s actually a recital, and the composer of Melodia (our third and most difficult piece) will be there. That actually doesn’t bother me; I feel overwhelmed with anxiety regardless of who is in the audience.
2. Memorize the notes and tempo
Knowing your music by heart isn’t the answer to overcoming an anxiety attack on stage, but it can help. I didn’t know my music well enough. If I’d known my notes better, I may have been able to rely on automatic memory to carry my performance.
But, I know a musician who memorized her piano concerto backwards and forwards. She knew her notes and tempo cold! She was confident and prepared when she walked on stage. And yet…when she sat down at the bench and started playing in public at the recital, she froze. She forgot most of the notes, and she actually had to stop playing in the middle of the piece and walk off stage. That was how bad her stage fright or performance anxiety was.
The worst part? She didn’t expect to feel so anxious about performing music on stage. She really thought she was prepared. She was ready to do an excellent job.
So, while memorizing your music can help you overcome an anxiety attack on stage, it will not protect you from the dreaded consequences of stage fright.
3. Do not rely on your memory
Here’s a tip for overcoming stage fright that is in direction contradiction to my last suggestion: make notes and abbreviations on your sheets of music so you don’t have to remember things.
For instance, if you always forget to breathe before the high B flat, mark that spot with a B. If you never take the rest you’re supposed to, then circle the rest symbol. The less you have to remember while you’re performing, the closer you are to overcoming anxiety on stage.
4. Lose yourself in the music
When I played our second song – Vivaldi’s Pastorale for Sonata No. 4 – I actually got into the waltzy tempo and forgot about my audience for a few seconds. Unfortunately the song lasted for less than two minutes, which means I didn’t have time to really get into the music.
Are you playing music you truly enjoy? That can be a great tip on how to overcome an anxiety attack on stage. Fright is less overwhelming and consuming if you’re performing music you love. Get into the music – lose yourself in the music! Become the music.
5. Accept that getting over stage fright is a long-term process
This is the most disappointing tip on how to overcome anxiety attacks on stage: it requires sustained, gentle effort. Stage fright is a biochemical, emotional response to a perceived threat, and it will not be stopped by a couple of deep breaths and positive visualizations before a performance. Musicians need to train their brains and spirits to overcome anxious feelings while performing, and it sadly doesn’t happen overnight.
Some performers and musicians practice saying, “What would it feel like to let go of this feeling?” They find freedom in imagining how they would perform if they weren’t so anxious about being on stage. If I let go of my stage fright, I’d feel happy and even joyful about playing my flute! I’d be relaxed and secure, calm and free. I’d connect with the music and put my soul into the notes.
Wouldn’t that be lovely?
6. Research different approaches on how to overcome anxiety attacks
In Getting Over Stage Fright: A New Approach to Resolving Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing, Janet Esposito shares the Sedona Method way of overcoming stage fright.
“[At the thought of performing], your mind and body react strongly, and you experience a range of distressing thoughts, feelings, and sensations. You feel dread in the pit of your stomach, and a feeling of intense fear and foreboding comes over you. Your mind starts to race and you wonder if you can somehow get out of participating in this event. Your chest tightens and your heart starts to beat rapidly as you contemplate what is up ahead. You imagine how incredibly overwhelming all of this is going to be, and you start to feel trapped and helpless—and then frustrated and upset with yourself for having these reactions.”
Esposito says at some point in this scenario we need to see ourselves heading into the abyss of the hell of stage fright. Instead of allowing ourselves to fall in (which I did yesterday – I fell into the pit of an anxiety attack that stopped me from playing my flute well) – we take a step back.
“You pause and take a slow, deep breath and recall the method of releasing and letting go,” writes Esposito in Getting Over Stage Fright. “Rather than condemning yourself for having these thoughts and feelings, you give yourself full permission to be exactly where you are in this moment, no matter how bad it feels. Then, after a few moments of full, unconditional acceptance of where you are, you gently and slowly ask yourself the following questions, giving yourself time to fully experience each question: Could I let this go? Would I let this go? When?”
7. Consider booking a session or two with an Anxiety Coach
Learning the Sedona Method or any of the several helpful strategies for overcoming stage fright might be easier with a therapist, coach, or counselor. In fact, I might get counseling on how to overcome anxiety attacks on stage. I really want to play my flute well in the upcoming recital, and I don’t know how to get rid of my stage fright.
The problem is I won’t know if my own tips for overcoming performance anxiety will help until I get back on stage. Even if I work with an Anxiety Coach who specializes in overcoming stage fright, I won’t know if his or her methods will be effective until I’m actually performing in front of people who are starting at me on stage.
That sucks. Even if they’re watching me with encouragement, enjoyment, faith, and love, I may succumb to my own worst enemy. Me.
8. Change your mindset – a mental tip for overcoming anxiety on stage
“Imagine coming to your speaking or performing challenge with a very different mindset,” writes Esposito in Getting Over Stage Fright. “This new approach you are taking is based in being authentic and genuine as you focus on connection and collaboration. You have stepped back from your own self-interest or self-protection and, rather than being preoccupied with succeeding (or not failing), you care more about the needs and interests of others. You connect deeply with the people in your audience and care about everyone getting value out of the experience.”
Instead of pressuring yourself to prove that you’re an awesome musician or performer, step back from your ego. Just be yourself, enjoy the music, and connect with your audience.
Easy? No. Simple? Maybe.
On the bright side, I have learned a few things about how NOT to overcoming stage fright or performance anxiety…
How NOT to Overcome Anxiety on Stage:
These are the mistakes I made yesterday, before I played my flute in front of an audience:
- I had a giant McDonald’s coffee an hour before performing, because I thought the caffeine would boost my cognitive abilities and flute playing skills. I was wrong. Caffeine only made me more jittery and added to my feelings of anxiety about being on stage.
- I was hungry. Starving, in fact. So my brain wasn’t fortified with energy, glucose, or nutrients. Not eating enought food is definitely not a good tip for overcoming performance anxiety!
- I told our audience that I was nervous. This amplified my anxiety and made me more aware of how scared I felt. To overcome anxiety on stage, we need avoid thoughts that increase self-doubt.
- I didn’t know the music well enough, so I couldn’t fall back on muscle memory to carry me through my stage fright. Overcoming anxiety attacks on stage isn’t cured by memorizing your music, but it can help.
I also allowed my anxious feelings to consume and carry me. Next time I’m on stage, I will try the Sedona Method – I’ll stop myself from stepping over the abyss into a full blown anxiety attack on stage. I’ll take a deep breath, and encourage myself to focus on the music.
Enjoy the music. Feel the music. Be the music.
Stage Fright and You
What’s your experience with anxiety attacks on stage, as a musician? Write your heart out below. It will help. Trust me – I do feel better about my terrible performance and stage fright yesterday, now that I’ve written about it.
While I can’t offer advice on how to overcome anxiety attacks on stage, I do read every comment. I encourage you to respond to other readers’ comments if you feel led, and to share your experience of performance anxiety. Writing often brings clarity and insight, and can help you process your feelings.
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