More Thoughts on Stage Fright

I recently did five shows in the space of a couple of weeks, so I got to revisit my old friend stage fright. Most of the time I did fine despite my nerves, and occasionally did more than fine. A very critical friend I've known since fourth grade, an excellent singer who never gives idle compliments, saw me sing in LA. When he told me after the show that he’d never heard me sing so well I knew I’d done a decent job. So I suppose it's possible to sing and play well and be super nervous. But it’s way more fun to conquer the nerves, really be inside your body during a show, and own the stage. 

I’m a Nervous Nellie, as are many singers. In the nineties I had a deer-in-the-headlights incredibly bad experience on stage, from which it took me years to recover. So when students tell me about their abject terror at the idea of singing in public I’m right there with them. During the years after my horrible stage experience I explored every stage fright cure I could find, enough to put in a book. But every time I perform I either learn something new, or relearn some points I should remember by now. Most of the following are additions to what I already put in the article I wrote about stage fright that's posted on my site. Hope they are helpful. 

Stay warm.
Apparently I have acclimated to Nashville’s long hot summers. I was freezing at a house concert in California in July. I was gabbing with guests outside right up until showtime and didn’t think to grab a sweater. And, to be honest, I didn’t want to cover up my outfit with a sweater. So due to vanity and stupidity I started the show freezing cold, which seemed to take what had been garden variety nerves into “Holy moly, what are the chords and lyrics?” territory. I’d be singing a line and have no idea what the next chord or lyric was, until at the last nanosecond they’d reveal themselves. Being cold is no good for the vocal cords, either. Since pre-performance nerves can make you colder, bundle up and wear scarves until you walk on stage. If the venue is icy bring a decent jacket to wear on stage-- the audience will love it when you take it off after a few songs. 

Take a minute (or five) to get centered right before the show.
Some of my recent shows were attended by people I hadn’t seen in several years, and I wanted to catch up with as many of them as possible. At one show I happily yacked away until the moment I was called onstage. Bad idea, resulting in bad focus that lasted for a few songs. After many years of performing I’ve developed a pre-show ritual involving yoga and visualizing that serves me well. If I’m time-crunched I can reduce it to a couple of minutes. But if I don’t take the time to get centered before I walk onstage I can spend part of the set catching up with myself. Lack of focus plus nerves are a terrible combination. 

When you think you can sing your songs in your sleep, practice even more.
All of the aforementioned songs for which I couldn’t remember the chords and lyrics had been very well rehearsed, or so I thought. I’m always amazed at how a bit of stage fright can give me amnesia. If I had stayed warm and taken a moment to get focused I may not have blanked out on those songs, but it sure wouldn’t have hurt to put in even more time practicing. I don’t believe that you can over-rehearse a song, you just learn it more deeply and build more muscle memory to carry you through any stage blank-outs. 

Put an easy song up front.
If you’re like most performers your nervousness will be worse at the start of the show. Knowing that’s true for me, I put an easy belter first on the set list. I prefer belters early on, since I can channel nervous energy into them. I save ballads that require more control for later on in the set. Partway through my mini-tour I changed things up and put a different song first, a non-belter. Bad idea, resulting in a less than strong beginning. I switched back to my belter for the rest of the shows. 

Assume that you’ll be nervous onstage and prepare for it.
At one show I felt perfectly calm before I went on, so I skipped my usual pre-show calming rituals. As soon as I began singing I felt the nerves descend, and though I soon worked through them I never felt like I was really in my body during the show. Develop a pre-show regimen and stick with it whether you have pre-show jitters or not. If you are happily nerve-free for any show, a pre-show regimen will still help strengthen your focus and performance. 

While practicing, plan for distractions.
My husband was playing a short set before me when in walked a friend he hadn’t seen in many years, sporting never-seen-before bleach blond hair. Tom laughed, promptly forgot what he was doing and actually had to stop his song mid-performance to recover. When you’re practicing for a show or audition try to imagine sudden distractions happening so you can strengthen your focus. You can even ask friends or band members to try and distract you as you rehearse. Sounds crazy, but you never know when an old friend with new bleach blond hair will arrive during your show.

There's more about performing well and dealing with stage fright in my book Singing Live.

© Susan Anders

© 2019 Susan Anders/Zanna Discs