Overcoming the Spotlight Shakes: Tips for Musicians Battling Stage Fright

Stage Fright

Understanding Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety, also known as stage fright, is an anxious state some musicians experience before or during a public performance. It is a physiological response to the stress of being under pressure to perform well. Stage fright is incredibly common, even among professional musicians. Surveys indicate around 75% of musicians have experienced significant nervousness during performances. 

Performance anxiety happens because public performances create high stakes scenarios. Musicians face social pressures and expectations to play flawlessly. Mistakes feel more consequential with an audience. The scrutiny can create irrational fears of embarrassment, judgment, or failure. Physiological responses get triggered by the perceived social threat. 

The anxiety stems from our natural survival instincts. Public speaking taps into fears of negative evaluation from others, just like our ancestors experienced dangers from threats in their environment. Although performance anxiety feels awful, it shows how much musicians care about doing well. Learning to manage stage fright is an important skill to develop. 

Physical Symptoms

Performance anxiety often manifests itself physically in various ways. Many musicians experience an increased heart rate, sweating, tremors, dry mouth, upset stomach, and shakiness when anxious about an upcoming performance. It is the body’s natural “fight or flight” response kicking in. 

Other common physical symptoms include muscle tension, headaches, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fatigue. The exact symptoms can vary from person to person, but typically involve signs of high autonomic arousal. 

In extreme cases, some musicians may even experience panic attacks right before going on stage. This includes symptoms like a racing heartbeat, tingling sensations, chest tightness, breathing difficulties, and an overwhelming feeling of dread. 

Learning to recognize the physical signals from your body is an important first step. This allows you to better manage the symptoms and avoid having them spiral out of control. While the physical manifestations can feel unpleasant, they are generally not dangerous or harmful. Knowing what to expect can help minimize worries about the physical symptoms of anxiety. 

Mental Symptoms

Performance anxiety can manifest itself mentally in a variety of ways for musicians. Many deal with increased negative self-talk and doubts about their abilities. They may engage in catastrophizing and imagine worst-case scenarios like forgetting the music or their technique failing on stage. Musicians may also experience an intense fear of judgment – worrying that any mistake or imperfect note will lead to harsh criticism from the audience, conductor, critics or their peers. 

Some find their mental chatter becomes very loud before a performance, almost to the point of drowning out their ability to focus. Racing thoughts might jump from one worry to the next in quick succession. These unhelpful mental habits like negative self-talk and catastrophizing can create a vicious cycle, heightening the anxiety and making concentration difficult. Learning to identify such thoughts and counteract them is an important step towards overcoming performance anxiety. 

While performance anxiety is perfectly normal, excessive fear of judgment is detrimental. Musicians must learn to be kinder to themselves and silence their inner critic. Peer support can be invaluable in reassuring musicians that they are not alone in occasionally struggling with mental symptoms of stage fright. With preparation and experience, these symptoms often lessen over time. Patience, self-care and seeking help when needed can help musicians manage the mental challenges of performance anxiety. 

Preparation Is Key

Thorough preparation and practice is one of the most effective ways for musicians to minimize anxiety and build confidence before a performance. When musicians feel fully prepared, they are less likely to experience debilitating nerves. 

Proper preparation includes:  

  • Practicing regularly in the weeks and months leading up to the performance. Don’t leave practice to the last minute. Get very familiar with the music by practicing frequently.
  • Conduct a full dress rehearsal. For example, practice wearing performance attire, practice on the actual stage if possible, have an audience, practice your preshow and post show routines.
  • Solidifying trouble spots in the music. Don’t gloss over sections that need more technical work. Drill problem areas until they become second nature.
  • Practicing performing the whole piece from start to finish, not just problem sections. Get used to the flow and continuity.
  • Recording yourself during practice sessions. Analyze what went well and what needs improvement.
  • Visualizing yourself succeeding during the performance. Mentally rehearse the venue, sensations, emotions.

Thorough preparation breeds confidence. When musicians feel fully ready to perform, anxiety is kept at bay. Preparation takes the focus off nerves and redirects it onto the music. With solid preparation, musicians can walk onstage feeling capable, self-assured, and excited to share their music. 

Perspective and Mindset

Having the right perspective and mindset can make a big difference in managing performance anxiety. Here are some tips: 

  • Remember your purpose – Focus on your love of music and sharing it with others. Don’t get caught up in perfectionism or comparison.
  • Growth mindset – View anxiety as something to manage, not something to be afraid of. It takes time and experience to get comfortable performing.
  • Keep perspective – The stakes feel high, but in the grand scheme of things one performance is just a blip and chance to learn.
  • Focus on process – Rather than worrying about outcomes, focus on the learning process and getting better each time.
  • Define success wisely – Don’t equate success with lack of anxiety or perfection. Success is doing your best and learning from the experience.
  • Let go of judgement – Both self-judgement and concern over others’ judgement can fuel anxiety. Do it for yourself and let go of criticism.
  • Embrace awkwardness – Chances are we come off as more awkward than we feel. Accept imperfection as part of being human.
  • Allow yourself to be present – Rather than living in the future performance in your head, bring yourself back to the present moment.
  • Encourage yourself – Talk to yourself with kindness and cheer yourself on. Imagine what you’d say to encourage a friend.
  • Keep it in perspective – Most people in the audience are on your side and want to see you succeed. Focus on sharing your gift.

Relaxation Techniques

One of the most effective ways for musicians to manage performance anxiety is through relaxation techniques. These give you methods to calm your mind and body, while focusing on the present moment. Here are some of the top techniques to try: 

  • Deep Breathing – Slow, deep breathing is one of the fastest ways to reduce anxiety. Try breathing in for 5 seconds, holding for 2 seconds, and breathing out for 5 seconds. Repeat this breathing pattern until you feel more relaxed. Place one hand on your stomach and focus on breathing into your belly.
  • Visualization – Picture yourself feeling confident and succeeding during your performance. Visualize walking on stage feeling relaxed, playing your instrument effortlessly, and receiving applause. Imagining positive outcomes can boost self-assurance.
  • Mindfulness – Be present in the current moment to avoid anxious thoughts about the future. Notice the environment around you, physical sensations, emotions, or your breath. Acknowledge anxious thoughts but let them pass without judgment. Staying grounded in the present will reduce rumination.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Tense and relax muscle groups throughout your body to relieve tension. Start with your feet and work your way up. Tighten each muscle group for 5 seconds, then release for 30 seconds. This will lower stress hormones.
  • Meditation – Quiet your mind with meditation techniques like counting or repeating mantras. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on your mantra. Gently return focus when your mind wanders. Regular meditation can significantly reduce anxiety long-term.

Practicing these techniques ahead of performances will give you valuable tools to stay centered. When anxiety surfaces, put them into action. With time, they will become second nature.  

Lifestyle Factors

A musician’s overall lifestyle can have a significant impact on their experience with performance anxiety. Diet, exercise, sleep, and other health factors all contribute to mental wellbeing and resilience against stress.  

  • Diet – Eating a balanced, nutritious diet is essential. Avoid too much caffeine and sugar, as the ensuing energy crashes can exacerbate anxiety. Stay hydrated and get enough protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats to support focus and steady energy levels.
  • Exercise – Regular exercise is proven to reduce anxiety. It decreases overall stress hormones and boosts feel-good endorphins. Going for a walk, doing yoga, lifting weights, or other moderate exercise can mentally prepare musicians before a performance.
  • Sleep – Getting enough high-quality sleep allows the body to recharge and recover from adrenaline rushes. Sleep deprivation worsens anxiety and impairs focus. Prioritize winding down each evening and aim for 7-8 hours of restorative sleep to perform at your peak. Consider blocking blue light and limiting stimulation before bedtime.

Making positive lifestyle choices improves resilience against anxiety. Support mental wellbeing by adopting healthy everyday habits around diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management. What you do between performances affects how you feel when the spotlight shines on stage.  

During Performance Tips

Even after thorough preparation, it’s normal to feel some nerves when stepping onto the stage. Here are some quick tips to help calm nerves during a performance:  

Take some deep belly breaths before walking out. Inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds. The deep breathing will help relax your body.  

  • Scan the audience and find friendly, supportive faces. Making eye contact with engaged listeners can help calm nerves.
  • Remind yourself that the audience wants you to succeed and is there to enjoy the music. They are on your side.
  • If you make a mistake, quickly refocus and move forward. Don’t dwell on it. The audience likely didn’t notice.
  • Stay focused on the music, the original joy of performing, and being in the present moment. Don’t overthink things.
  • Channel any nervous energy into your stage presence and performance. Use it to your advantage to deliver an energetic, compelling show.
  • If you start to feel panicked, go to your “happy place” mentally, remembering why you love performing.
  • Discreetly do progressive muscle relaxation. Tense and relax muscle groups during pauses to relieve tension.
  • Remember to pause between songs to collect yourself. Take a few slow deep breaths during breaks.

Staying centered in the moment, relying on your preparation and skills, and using quick calming techniques can help manage nerves during performances. With experience, performing often gets easier.  

Creating a Support Network of Mentors and Colleagues

Performance anxiety and stage fright can feel incredibly isolating for musicians. However, reaching out to find support and mentoring from others who have been through similar struggles can provide comfort, perspective, and practical advice.  

Seeking out mentors who have years of experience managing performance anxiety can help provide reassurance as well as tips and techniques they’ve learned. Respectfully ask if they’d be open to an occasional check-in chat or meeting when you’re feeling particularly nervous about an upcoming performance.  

Making connections with fellow musicians, especially those in your own ensemble, orchestra, or band can also provide solidarity and support. Open up to colleagues you trust about your struggles with anxiety and nerves on stage. You may find many share the same feelings and you can lend encouragement to each other.  

Some professional musicians even organize peer support groups to have a safe space to discuss performance fears. Or join an informal group text chat to share nerves, funny memes, or motivational quotes leading up to a big show. The camaraderie can be uplifting.  

The key is to not isolate yourself in silence and self-criticism. Be brave in confiding your fears to those who can truly understand through their own experiences. Let trusted mentors and colleagues provide perspective, advice, and comfort so you don’t feel alone on stage.

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