Stage Fright - April 15, 1999

Aside from technical questions, I think the question I am asked most often is, "How do you deal with stage fright?" I'm an expert on the subject in the same way a smoker is an expert on quitting smoking because he has done it so many times. I've waged many wars with stage fright with varying degrees of success. Lately, I have reached a new comfort level with performing, and I would like to share with you what has worked for me.

I will preface by saying that for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to performing in a solo guitar context. But the methods I suggest can easily be applied to most performing situations. Maybe I can sum up how to deal with stage fright in one word: PRACTICE. Having said that, let me give you some tips on what to practice and how to practice. When preparing for a concert, pretend to perform in your daily rehearsal. Visualize the audience. Close your eyes and picture an audience facing you. Be aware of how you feel on the stage, what the floorboards look like, how the stage lights shine out of the darkness, the sea of bodies with all eyes on you. Sounds scary? Well, this is what you will face when you go out there for real, so it is best to get used to it now. 

Pay attention to the sensations in your body. Is there clenching, burning, tightening, or shaking? All of the above? Focus on whatever uncomfortable feelings your body is experiencing and identify them merely as body sensations. Keep the unpleasant physical feelings separate from negative thought patterns. For example, you may have a fearful thought which will manifest itself in a tightening of your hands. As soon as you become aware of this, focus on the sensation, not as an extension of that thought you had, but just as a pure physical feeling in itself. Without the fear to feed it, the tightness will probably dissipate.

About those negative thoughts: I can't merely tell you, "Think positively," because if you could automatically do that, you wouldn't have stage fright. What I will say is: FOCUS. Focus on the music--not on what your hands are doing, but on the music. Continue to focus and refocus on how the music makes you feel, how you want each note to sound, how the rhythm wells up from your body, how you want to communicate these things to your audience. Negative thoughts will come up. Don't push them away. Refocus on the music. A mistake is made. It's gone. Focus on the music. Keep coming back. Your mind wanders. It's like meditation. Come back. Be here with the music.

Speaking of meditation, remember to BREATHE. When you are nervous, the tendency is to clench up and take shallow breaths, which creates the cyclic effect of making you even more constricted. When you breathe, the oxygen flows through you. You open and expand. When you breathe with the phrasing of the music, you become a singer through your instrument.

Sway your body with the music. Tap your foot. The tendency is to focus on your fingers, which narrows your scope considerably, and tends to constrict. Open up. Allow the music to emanate from your entire self, rather than just your hands and fingers. Close your eyes or look out into the dark theatre and show yourself to the audience. When you practice, learn the passages in which you need to look at your hands to insure accuracy, and the rest of the time, practice looking away.

All of the above methods can become a habit in your daily practice, so that you can program yourself to think the right thoughts and put yourself into the music every time you pick up the guitar. The next step is to use these same methods in front of real people. When you feel ready, create a performance schedule that gradually increases in degree of difficulty. Before you go straight from your practice studio to Carnegie Hall, first play your entire program for your spouse or a good friend. Next, play your program for a gathering of a few friends. Then, maybe play a house concert. After that, book a concert in a small local theatre. Go on a small tour. Maybe then you'll be ready for Carnegie Hall. Also, if you are fortunate enough to have musical projects with other musicians, this will give you the valuable practice of performing, but without the burden of the entire responsibility resting on your shoulders. When you were first learning the guitar, you learned easy songs and gradually worked your way up to more difficult pieces. Use the same principle when you set up your performance schedule.

When you walk out on stage, kick all your performance practice into gear. For the entire time you are there, breathe. Greet the audience. Do not hide from them. They are there because they want to hear your music. You are there because you want to share it with them. Breathe. Feel your physical sensations. Breathe. Focus on the music. Refocus. Breathe. Move with the rhythm. Breathe. Refocus. Breathe. Begin your concert with a guaranteed success. Don't start with your hardest piece. Start with a tune you could play even if you had just pulled your hands out of a bucket of ice. This will give you an opportunity to get grounded and settle into the music. Play for the audience. That's why you are all there. Show yourself. Show people why you love this music. Breathe. Focus. Move. Breathe. Focus. It becomes a dance.

Many great performers such as Pavarotti, Pablo Casals, and Vladamir Horowitz have been known to suffer from extreme stage fright. Be aware that it is not only common but natural for most people to feel varying degrees of fear when they expose themselves before an audience. It is a vulnerable position to put yourself in. But I'm not the first person to say that this energy can be positively channeled into a dynamic performance. Remember that the intensity of fear you feel reminds you that you are alive and that you care!

One more thing: A healthy sense of humor is a great ally. I like to joke with my audience. It helps me to stay loose, and if I can get people to laugh, it creates a bond. Even if this isn't your style, if you are able to laugh at yourself, it can help you to keep from taking things too terribly seriously, and it can add a lightness to the quality of your music, not to mention your life.

Have fun. 



Old School, by Paul Chasman and the "Great Gatleys"


Accompanied by Dan and Laurie Gatley on bass and vocals, Paul Chasman returns with 11 new original tunes that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think. With his trademark sparkling guitar at the forefront, Paul’s poetic lyrics contrast life and mortality; grief and celebration; and light that penetrates the dark.