Some Thoughts on the Nature of Stage Fright, a.k.a. How to Stand and Deliver

By  | December 21, 2011 | 18 Comments | Filed under: Features, Vocal Technique

"WSUK... All day talk radio in my head... I suck!

“There are tricks that calm the body and mind, but it is difficult to rationalize your way past the bio-chemical experience of The Fear.”For the many ways that the Matrix movies do not bear repeated viewings a decade on, their ability to distill eternal wisdom into whoa-esque one liners remains untarnished.  Most issues related to technique and performance are solved when we step back from the actual point of struggle and frame the question correctly.   (Yes Neo, when you are ready, you won’t have to dodge the bullets.)   Stage fright is just such an issue.  Debilitating and confusing, yes.  Can we fight it in the moment?   There are tricks that calm the body and mind, but it is difficult to rationalize your way past the bio-chemical experience of The Fear.   The Fear laughs and sends another cold shot of cortisol through your tummy.   However, change your thinking toward the act of performance and the roles that both you and the audience play in that extended series of present moments, and the brain’s natural defense mechanisms will have no need to kick in.  In this article, I will unpack this idea and offer a few real world techniques for de-energizing the thought patterns that elicit the stage fright reaction.

Nobody’s Perfect

“We feel fear when in a state of anticipation.”

After a few months off from performing, I find myself in the middle of a run of two of the highest quality annual North American productions of Handel’s Messiah.  Top notch musicians and conductors, high expectations, large spaces and audiences, and reviewed by major outlets, these are gigs that one must mentally and vocally show up for.   The strange thing is, as I commuted to New York City from my home in Philadelphia last week, I felt more nervous in the car than I did on stage later that evening.  There is something important to learn from that experience.  We feel fear when in a state of anticipation.   At that moment, everything could go wrong; there is no evidence that anything has yet gone right, because it has not actually started!   This is a natural sort of fear, the result of the brain’s tendency to constantly plan and predict.  The trouble begins when we actually perform in a state of anticipation, rather than actively doing, manifesting, or creating our part of the music.

“Recordings are hyper-perfect and present unattainable models for young singers.”

What do we anticipate?  I would argue that we spend a useless amount of energy worrying about whether we are giving a perfect performance.   Any musician of my generation (to say nothing of the Glee generation soon to hit our conservatories) has likely heard and been shaped by more hours of edited, recorded music than live performances.   These hyper-perfect, alternate reality views of what a piece of music can sound like (always in tune, the singer gunk free and audible, nary a clam nor split entrance) present unattainable models for young singers. Rest assured that most professional singers cannot sing a piece of music live with such perfection. In fact, having performed and recorded with a few truly outstanding artists, I can report that it is a solid “B game” and an expressive approach that perpetuates great careers, rather than the occasionally outstanding “A game” moments.

Singing for perfection brings two counterproductive elements into a singer’s process.   Firstly, to evaluate your own success or failure in the moment requires intense self-monitoring.  As I presented in An Organizing Principle for Singers, one cannot simultaneously focus on the past and the present.   The voice functions best when we consistently send a specific intention to do something in the present moment.   Every other complex, yet coordinated conscious physical motion organized by the brain follows the “mental impulse = physical result” process.   Singing is no different.  A constant backward view distracts from your present moment intention and robs you of your best tool for vocal success, namely, the brain’s ability to take that intention and coordinate multiple muscle groups into one fluid motion.  Secondly, compelling art is not based on the absence of error.   More than ever, a classical singer must think critically about the content of their performance, not just whether they make a beautiful sound the whole time.   “Compelling art is not based on the absence of error.”In Chanticleer, we coined the term “be-oring” to describe beauty that persists for so long that it becomes boring.   Expressive singers make ugly sounds from time to time!  Ninety-nine percent of audience members cannot hear the minor imperfections that drive your critical ears crazy.   The fact that you are standing in front of them doing something amazing and athletic with a body part that they themselves possess is what preoccupies them.   Audiences do, however, pick up on caution, tension, and whether you appear to think that the composer should have bothered to write the piece of music in the first place.

Love is all You Need… and Gigs… and Active Thoughts

A colleague of mine from my Master of Music program gave me great advice for mitigating stage fright. At the time, having recently left the supportive and often vocally obscuring environment of Chanticleer (it is nice to be one of twelve sometimes), I was having problems standing on my own without caving to The Fear.   She suggested that I decide that I loved my audience and wanted it to be happy, and that it loved me in return.   Not, I caution, because you need the love of your fans to give your life meaning.   Rather, at its root, reciprocated love is the formalized acceptance of one another’s flaws.   Contrast this with lust, in which we desire characteristics that we either project onto or cherry pick from another.   To feel reciprocated love for your audience means that you know they do not care if you make a mistake.  And in truth, they do not.  Audiences want their performers to succeed.   Audience members bathe in their own flawed humanity everyday.   All they want is someone to show them a slightly less flawed version of what a person can be.   So when you are standing up to sing (or waiting during your orchestral introduction), actively think that you love the audience members and want them to be happy, that you are entering into a relationship with them, and that you are about to spend some meaningful time together.

Do it. Do the Music to their Faces.

“The performance is not happening to you (the helpless bystander), it is something you do.”

So how does this impact what you do as you sing?   The audience does not care if you are perfect, and that depressurizes the moment of performance, allowing you to make the following conceptual leap: When you perform, you are doing something specific in real time.   The performance is not happening to you (the helpless bystander), it is something you do.   By vibrating the air that reaches a listener’s ear, you are touching them – albeit indirectly – in much the same way that a violinist’s bow connects the motion of their arm to the string, or hot water brings the heat of a fire to our skin. This is a remarkably intimate act, one made more enjoyable for all by touching them with a specific intention.   Think of all the ways that you might caress a loved one.  Perhaps the worst way is to touch them while preoccupied by something else.

I think of singing an aria as passing through the narrow part of an hourglass with the entire audience and orchestra in tow.  Ahead of us all lay wide possibilities, but in any given moment we are all experiencing one specific choice together.  Singing live is something that you quite literally “do” to the audience members.   Look at them, not the back wall of the hall.  Challenge them to hold your gaze one by one, phrase by phrase.   Feel the emotion of the next line before you sing it.   When you are sitting on stage before your aria, in addition to feeling love, actively think, “come on, when will it be my turn?”   When you stand up, actively think how grateful you are for the chance.  These sorts of active thoughts do not drown out The Fear; rather, they reorganize your singing process so that The Fear never begins.

“Performance is like meditation: breathe in, breathe out, repeat with intention.”Human beings, especially modern westerners, are just awful at the dimension of time.   We are constantly distracted, incapable of sitting in one place for more than a few seconds before our minds encourage us to stand up to do the five tasks we are actively trying to remember to do.   People sit down to hear live music because they want their brain chemistry to change.  Take the sacred trust the audience places in you by showing up, and create something worthwhile with their time.  Over the course of two hours, their minds will wander, but look…!   There you are sustaining a specific intention through time.   You serve not only to entertain, but to remind audience members that they too could experience such sustained intention in their own daily lives.  Performance, for me, is very much like meditation: breathe in, breathe out, repeat with intention.

Some Technical Thoughts

“…singing before others does not, in fact, kill you.”Most important, of course, is to learn your music.  There is nothing like being prepared to calm your nerves.   If you are working up to a recital, make an excuse to give multiple performances of it, perhaps at a casual house concert for your friends.  Repetition in both the practice room and on stage breeds comfort, if for no other reason than because you amass more proof that singing before others does not, in fact, kill you.   Also, build your practice regimen in a manner that examines the process of breathing and onset as honestly as phonation. I cover some of these thoughts in my article, An Organizing Principle for Singers. Basically, if you have practiced taking an efficient breath, you can recall that physical act in the moment of performance, setting up an internal environment of familiar actions. Good technique, I believe, is build on a series of repeatable physical actions that each ends where the next needs to begin.   When the voice is trained in this manner, singing (even in public) becomes a predictable, dependable, and deliberate act.

Sing Like a Tennis Player

“Mistakes are out of your control before you even perceive that they have taken place. Leave them in the hall.”

My final thoughts on stage fright have to do with recovering from errors.   Rest assured, in your (hopefully) long career, you will mess up.   You will mess up crash-and-burn-train-wreck-big-time-kack-the-high-c style.  It is the law of averages.   Live theater is a complex, multi-variable environment that you cannot hope to control.   I like to think of a performance like a tennis match, not in that the tenor must “lose” for you to “win” the concert; rather, it is a long game that you can “win” even if you make mistakes along the way.  I was fortunate to have been watching the French Open a number of years ago while in the multi-day, multi-round process of a competition.   Tennis players at that level make awful mistakes, yet they leave those mistakes in the past.   There is only ever the next serve, the next volley, and the step-by-step slog to the next point.  In the performance that ended up winning the competition, I made a big old mess of the first phrase.  What could I do, however, but take another breath and hit the ball?   Mistakes are out of your control before you even perceive that they have taken place.  Leave them in the hall.

Now go practice.

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Ian Howell is a countertenor based in Boston, Massachusetts. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist all across North America and writes from time to time. He was educated at Yale and Capital Universities, sang with Chanticleer from 2000-04, and is currently a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Anonymous

    Have found this discussion very interesting. My experience has been one of enormous searching as to how to deal with this issue since very little. I am a professional classical singer, and found when doing my training in the Queensland conservatism in Australia a real need to get to the bottom of this overwhelming problem that was majorliy affecting every performance I undertook, and completely destroying them. What made a very significant difference to me was exploring breathing, in the form of meditation. I found that there was a real pattern to how I felt before going on to stage and in the build up of it. And if I really observed what was happening, it was down to my breathing, or not breathing as the case maybe. I then began to isolate myself from fellow performers before I went on to work with breath and keeping it calm, continuos and low. This has had a huge impact and has made me feel very much more in control and in a conscious state of being on stage.
    I find the discussion about eye sight very relevant. When singing with my eyes shut a lot of the anxiety goes away and the freedom of breath and sound returns. Of coarse this is not good when performing but by practising this and by practising holding my hand up close to my eyes, this freedom remains. In performance this practise has helped enormously . It has also had the effect of bring the audience too me, instead of me losing conscious sightless and anxiety by trying to include and reach out to all the audience. Also, how I approach an audition or performance has a huge impact as well. If I am excited and know my work really, really well, the breath carries me through. also I don’t think you can ever underestimate how important it is to continuously sing in front of an audience to help you get past this issue, BUT it must be with a goal in mind, to get more freedom of breath or to achieve something that will become an aid to you conquering stage fright every time you performance thus being a positive and strong move towards fearless and joyous singing.

  • Marv Wainschel

    Loved your thoughts on the nature of stage fright! A link was sent to every member of a chorus to which I belong. Thanks. Here are some of my own thoughts on the matter that could be helpful…

    Beliefs run our lives. If we believe that we have an incurable condition – like stage fright, the belief sets us up for a self-fulfilled prophesy. Our minds deceive us, and the deception is fortified by selected experiences. “I’ve tried everything,” we might say, eliminating any possibility for taking another approach. Or, you might believe that the experience is biological – inherent in your being or your chemistry. The truth is that people change over time, and an old approach that didn’t work in the past might work today, and new approaches are not open to closed minds.

    An organization called Landmark Education (see landmarkeducation com) provides a couple of exercises in one of their advanced courses. One is an experiential path to understanding fear – particularly fear of others. The other provides a way to understand what it truly is to be with people in a manner that dissolves desire to produce a result. I won’t describe either exercise here, since the description is irrelevant; results are experiential, not intellectual. A professional violinist I met testified that these exercises erased years of stage fright, leaving him with the ability to enjoy his own performances.

    It’s generally true that audiences want performers to succeed, and such desires can invoke audience fright. Some people are so fearful that a dreadful thing might occur on stage that they will not observe the performance. It’s especially true when you have a relationship with the performer, or when you project your own fears upon the performer. Some folks won’t attend a circus for fear that the tightrope walker will fall or the lion tamer will be attacked. One could worry that a magician will actually saw the damsel in half. While the audience member won’t be hurt directly, just considering the possibility of being witness to such an event could be disturbing. Even worse, as in Phantom, the chandelier could fall on the audience or the roof cave in, or one could become involved in a spectator riot at a soccer match. Such things have actually happened, so it’s so easy to point to the situation, however statistically improbable that it will happen at the very event you would otherwise want to experience.

    When people come together for whatever reason – performances or anything else, bad things can and do occasionally happen. Of course, horrible things can happen also when alone, so we might be tempted to fear life itself. However, that’s extreme, and it’s far more common to fear other people and how we might fare among them, whether on stage, in the audience, or at a party. We can walk around fearing or understand that most of the time we’ll be okay. It’s a choice, but not an easy one, because the understanding doesn’t come without effort. If I’ve spent my life as a pessimist, there’s probably a good reason for being that way, and what would it take for me to change? Isn’t it easier to keep your stage-fright and give up the stage? It’s a choice to be arrived at emotionally or rationally.

    Rational thinking is difficult – energy-intensive and time-consuming, and most of our behaviors are not built upon rational thinking. This is a good thing. Most performers understand that being spontaneous on stage – doing what comes naturally – is infinitely better than being logical about every move. But spontaneity requires discipline. It may be counter-intuitive, but being proficiently spontaneous is rooted in preparation. One must be prepared to be spontaneous, and preparation requires rational, logical thinking, which is hard work. Also, the short-term results of rational thinking can be devastating… revealing aspects about yourself that you might not want to see. It takes courage to be rational, accept the unwanted discoveries, and achieve long-term, amazing results.

    People who achieve amazing results usually have asked themselves the question, “What would it take to do that?” Often, it takes more than what you think it does, and the results are not what you thought they would be. They could be better or not as good. What it takes to achieve life on the stage without fear probably also brings life at a party without fear. And, learning one skill or methodology often leads to other skills and methodologies.

    The person who gives in to stage fright may believe he/she isn’t worthy of being on the stage or isn’t good enough to perform. Stage fright can be the convenient rationale for proving unworthiness or hiding presumed incompetence. Thinking that it’s biological or chemical is a smokescreen, because some emotion, some attitude needs to trigger the chemistry. There’s a reason – a cause – for stage fright. That’s good news, because finding the cause could cure a variety of ills and significantly enhance a person’s life.

    • Ian Howell

      Dear Marv,
      Thanks for reading my article, and my… what a florid comment :-)

      There is a common thread in both your response and my discussion with Ben Fogt below, namely that stage fright (music performance anxiety) is more similar to than dissimilar from general social anxiety. I honestly don’t know that I am convinced that is true, at least in the world of professional singers. Although there is likely a degree of self-selection among performers based on personality type, I find there to be little correlation between those who are the “life of the party” and those who are great performers. Some singers are very introverted, some are gregarious, some are down to earth, some are jerks. Performance seems to me to be a non-real life experience, and a good performer has to cultivate the technique of performance as seriously as they do phonation. Of course, we wear masks throughout the day, and one could argue that we ‘perform’ for each other at work, dinner, on a date, &c… However, in a musical performance, no one mistakes that the act is real vs. contrived anymore than you would while watching a baseball game. Real people are doing it, but they are doing a highly choreographed, athletic action.

      I think we do a disservice to performers by asking them to try to make a performance feel ‘natural.’ It will never be natural. Familiar, predictable, expressive, comfortable, dependable, perhaps. We can train these things. But, it is not natural :-) . In fact, I tend to agree with Vennard when he writes that what we call ‘natural’ is actually just habitual, in other words the result of repeated behavior. I think that we should remove the word natural from our pedagogy language, perhaps replacing it with the words “clear” and “coordinated.” I am even against encouraging performers to try to have a religious experience when they sing… As though they are merely a vessel for the composer/God/the Universal Spirit, &c… Singing (in front of other or alone) is a physical act that arrises as a result of specific thoughts. Organize your thoughts and the voice will work, almost every time. Ironically, when you remove the goal of feeling “natural” or connected to “God,” and simply communicate a clear idea with a coordinated body, you are much more likely to not only appear natural, but feel natural. It is the primary paradox of being a process (rather than results) oriented singer.

      Granted, there are a number of types of performers out there wrestling with this. An amateur singer in a community choir might not be dealing with the same issues as an opera singer, and the latter probably developed coping mechanisms long before they realized that they might be able to “beat” stage fright. So, I recognize that a wide variety of approaches are warranted.

      You raise an interesting point re: audience members experiencing anxiety about the performance (rather than performance anxiety… if that makes sense), and I appreciate the chance to think about this again. I have, actually, experienced this :-) , although in my case the issue had to do with needing to compare my capabilities with those of the performers on stage. Any singers out there sympathize? :-) . The solution came from a friend who suggested, “Ian, you know that what’s going on on stage doesn’t have a damn thing to do with you, right?” I think that approach can inform the situations you describe as well.

      What I want to emphasize from my piece (and based on some comments, I wonder if I made this clear) is that stage fright isn’t beaten by fighting the feeling of The Fear in the moment of performance. If that’s where you are, you have already lost. Organize your vocal training in such a manner that the act of singing becomes a routine, dependable process, and Stage Fright will not arrise in the first place. This doesn’t have to be a herculean task of rational thinking, but it does require practice.

      Much of what you write seems to be in the vein of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For those of you unfamiliar with this, basically your feelings are actually caused by the distorted manner in which you observe the world. You filter real information from your environment through ‘thought lenses,’ and build your version of reality on this faulty information. A quick example of this is Maximizing/Minimizing. Whenever someone else succeeds, you lift their success up as significant while minimizing any similar success that you experience. Have you ever landed a gig only to think, “Oh, I guess this group isn’t so good if they hired me.” If anyone would like to read more about this, there is a book called, “Feeling Good” by Dr. David Burns. It is on Amazon.

      Thanks again for your comment :-)


  • Adrienne Stockley

    Many thanks for the advice in this article!
    As a singer and conductor, I know all too well the overwhelming physical response that stage fright triggers, and how crippling it can be for me as a performer. Oddly, this is something that has actually DEVELOPED in me– I never used to experience any sort of performance anxiety! Over the past few years, it has not only caused me stress and frustration, but I have declined to do solo work because of it.
    So many things that you mention in this article are things that I have tried to put into practice, but what rang true for me was your mention of how the audience WANTS you to succeed, because I feel that’s the heart of the matter. I think of this every time I sit in a concert or studio class; that as a listener, I truly find myself cheering on the performer. I want them to let go of their inhibitions, to sing with abandon, to ignore any little mistakes that might occur and attack the next phrase with double determination.
    However, when I am the one on stage, I still fight against feeling self-conscious and judged, even in a room of VERY nice people who I know personally! The idea that the audience is expecting perfection looms in my mind, and then subsequently surfaces through a tight throat, shallow breathing, and trembling hands.
    It is extraordinarily comforting to know that even the most seasoned performer has to deal with these issues, and that even they flub up every now and then.
    Thanks again!

    • Ian Howell

      Hi Adrienne,
      Thanks so much for your comment.

      I think that the heart of a solid technique (which produces a good sound on stage as well as in the practice room) is a solid and repeatable process. You’re right, I think, to latch onto the thought that audience members want you to succeed. And sitting on the other side of it (in an audience or audition panel) certainly helps with that perspective. I think it is important to ask what process results in the realization that the audience doesn’t care if you are perfect. Just thinking that they don’t care if you are perfect doesn’t, in my experience, quiet The Fear :-) . That is why I urge people to 1) develop their technique in a process – rather than results – oriented manner. If you did the process right, and still kacked the high note (which happens), it is fine :-) . If all you care about is the result, that same situation is far more tragic. 2) Feel an emotion like love when standing on stage. Emotions organize a number of physical systems simultaneously, in a way that a simple thought does not.

      Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll stick around and check out some of my other pieces.

      happy new year,


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  • Annie Anderson

    Thanks for this thoughtful and stimulating post, Ian. Your approach of reframing your attitude toward performing reminds me of something I used to tell my public speaking students. Instead of trying to clamp down on their nervousness before speaking in front of a group, I suggested that they rename it as “excitement” and welcome it when it showed up, as an old, familiar sensation that gave them the energy to make a good speech. As a singer, I’ve realized that that advice is helpful as I sit and wait to sing — sometimes telling the butterflies in my stomach, “Hello, old friends. Almost time to get to work.”
    Also wanted to mention a thesis on stage fright written by a classically trained pianist I knew at Wellesley. Her finding was that the physical sensations of stage fright are specific to the performer’s instrument. Her hands became cold and stiff; I got butterflies and cramps in my mid-section and a constricted throat; a flutist’s shoulders got stiff. I am still amazed at the power of our psyche and that primal emotion Fear to affect our physical beings in such specific ways.
    Thanks for the post; I’ll be sharing it on FaceBook and look forward to others’ comments.

    • Ian Howell

      Dear Annie,
      Thanks so much for your comment, and welcome to the blog!

      Your point about a localized somatic response to stress is fascinating. I wonder if this has to do with a raised awareness of the body part, or if that has something to do with the manner of training. If nervous before my turn to perform, I would often practice taking a singer’s breath. If that worked physically, I knew that I would be fine. If not (if the breath were hindered by counter-productive tension), I used that time to go through the process of taking a deep breath.

      Your first comment about welcoming one’s own nervous sensations rings very true to me. Whenever that happened to me, I worked with the “Non-judgmental observer” technique. (For anyone unfamiliar with this, you basically observe yourself having the nervous reaction without attachment to it. If you are observing yourself, there must be some part of you that is not having the nervous reaction.) The best thing, I’ve found, is to greet the physical manifestation of nerves with laughter (inside voice). Like, “How funny… my heart is racing… :-)

      I think that the next step to take, and something that my students are probably sick of hearing, is to remove the question of success or failure from the equation by way of the process of training the voice. This is not necessarily an important component of every pedagogy, but I have found that the first step toward eliminating stage fright is to build technique in a manner that produces a dependable and functional voice the vast majority of the time. And (in my experience anyway) this comes down to clarifying and organizing the thoughts that give rise to the physical action of singing. I am in the process of cleaning up “An Organizing Principle of Singing, Part 2″ that covers this in more detail. I should publish it in January. I would love to know what you think of it when it goes up onto the site. Take a second and sign up for the e-mail list in the menu bar to be notified when it is live :-)

      Thanks again! Great comments,


  • Ian Howell

    A discussion on my facebook page with fellow Capital University Grad, Ben Fogt (I haven’t figured out how to have these things automatically cross post to the blog… news year’s resolution?) It is so relevant to this topic that (with Ben’s permission) I have reposted it here.

    Ben Fogt: I don’t know, Ian. Having suffered from debilitating performance anxiety for 20 years, I know that reimaging the audience and being okay with flaws aren’t helpful to me. I read about the master classes at Juilliard on stage fright, an endemic of the institution. I found out that a fellow in grade school with me found the same symptoms as me even after a BA at Oberlin and masters work at Juilliard. That master class directed him to a sport psychology graduate degree at Indiana. Anyway, what I’ve learned is that the best practice to overcome anxiety involves physical stress so that the same chemicals are flowing and blood pressure and heart rate are seriously elevated. These can’t be imagined. Then, you can learn how to perform under those circumstances. Preventing anxiety is all well and good, but for serious stage fright, you have to do battle with it. And it goes for speaking, aiming a football or singing. It’s just my experience, but something I wish I’d known back when the bug hit so long ago.

    Ian Howell: Ya know, that is an interesting point. My reaction is that when you ‘fight’ a technical issue, you give it energy. I guess that I don’t like the thought that a singer would think of themselves as a victim in this situation. If we don’t have debilitating fear when talking to the checkout person at the grocery store, but do when walking on stage, I think that we benefit from investigating what we are bringing to the latter situation that makes it so different. Perhaps I just haven’t experienced what you are talking about, but I have had stage fright symptoms that bordered on a major anxiety attack. It is good to have tools to deal with that moment, but I do think that it is possible to systematically train yourself to sidestep the reaction in the first place. Hard, but possible (and extremely freeing!) :-)

    Ian Howell: But thanks for giving me something good to think about :-) . Happy holidays!!
    3 hours ago · Like

    Ben Fogt: For me it’s something else, maybe repressed trauma, honestly. I get full on anxiety with karaoke with only 3 friends and a song I know inside and out. I’m sure that had I “trained” to perform under duress, I’d have fewer musical regrets. The performance is often different from the anxiety.

    Ben Fogt: You, too, Ian. If I think about it at a convenient time I’ll find some of the links for the Juilliard master class. It is probably good for any music educator/professional to know about.

    Ian Howell: it would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall of your mind when you experience this. I wonder what sort of thoughts are generated, and whether the cause of them is what you think of yourself, what you think the audience is thin…See More

    Ben Fogt: Honestly, Ian, sometimes I can only concentrate on standing up and maybe singing. Early on, I blamed having music handy. That was 1992, the year before I started in the Con. So I memorized everything, including what I’d say in class before raising my hand. But even then, I would get caught on a surge and give up. I thought that EVERYONE dealt with the same and that I just sucked at dealing with it. Now that I know, I just don’t sing in public. Maybe a Kindertotenlieder when I’ve had a bit to drink now or then but not on purpose. It’s not embarrassment, it’s pain.

    Ian Howell: Fascinating… Sounds like you had to deal with something that most singers are thankfully free from!! I didn’t mean to equate fear with embarrassment, If you subscribe to the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy concept that we create our own emotional states by our (often unconscious) thought patterns, I’m just curious what those thought patterns were for you?

    Ian Howell: , this is such a relevant back and forth we’ve had, would you mind if I posted it to the article? It might be helpful for people to read. :-)

    Ben Fogt Sure. I think it’s important for young musicians who hit this as a major obstacle are able to find ways to overcome it. The guys who apply sport psych to music claim to be able to provide relief in 2 weeks, so it is surmountable. Lots of lost talent out there.

    Ian Howell: I’m not surprised that such a fast fix is possible. For me, it was reasonably instantaneous once I figured out what conclusions my thoughts were steering me toward :-)

    Ben Fogt: One thing they suggest right away is to point your eyes down. The part of the brain that gets overstimulated causes your eyes to drift up, so overcoming that helps isolate the anxiety. It seems more like packing it away (for later) when performing. You tackle it head on by things like alternating cardio workouts with rehearsal. Too late for me. I lost my double-A-flat long ago.

    Ian Howell: Point your eyes down, like don’t look at the people?

    Ben Fogt: Unless the people are down. It has nothing to do with what you’re looking at and everything to do with the position of your eyes in their sockets. Eyes down, not chin.

    Ian Howell: Weird… This leads to later being able to make eye contact with the audience members?

    Ben Fogt: Also, so sorry to sidetrack your article. I’ve had too many people, especially fortunate musicians just give the same advice to me that is so missing the point. Finding that there are others like me has emboldened me to make sure the poor kids who performance anxiety the way I do can get some real help.

    Ian Howell: No, no sidetracking done at all. I do think that you describe something much stronger than most singers deal with, but it is such an interesting piece of the puzzle :-) Did you ever try beta blockers/other anxiety medications? I’m curious if those worked.

    Ben Fogt: Sure, Ian. It’s not that you’re avoiding eye contact. It’s like tug-o-war. Your eyes are pulled up and back by this anxiety. By countering that you can get some foothold to push the anxiety back, but you just do it when your eyes are rotating up. No one would notice. Its in the span of a blink.

    Ben Fogt: I didn’t know it was anxiety unlike what everyone else gets until a few years ago. I didn’t realize I could do anything about it until maybe 2 years ago. So I didn’t think it was worth it. I’m not even sure if anything like those drugs were available when it started not to mention the possible effects on how you perform under their influence. Better to train in a performance environment, I think.

    Ian Howell: Yeah, I don’t disagree re: drugs. I know that some people swear by eating a banana before going on because of the natural beta blockers. I’ve also used 5-HTP (tryptophan, basically) to good effect. But fortunately, I don’t need any of that stuff anymore :-)

    Ben Fogt Here’s the guy I was in elementary school with (up through HS). Great violinist, world class.

    How to Make Performance Anxiety an Asset Instead of a Liability | The Bulletproof Musician
    Learn how you can make performance anxiety/stage fright an asset rather than a liability.

    Ian Howell: Yeah, I’ve read his blog before. It actually sounds almost identical to what I wrote, that performance is about repeating a process, intending something specific, breathing, and doing it :-) . I sincerely contend that the element of anxiety can eventually be sidestepped. In somewhat the same way that one can wrestle with placing the larynx for every pitch, or just lower the larynx and phonate with an optimal amount of sub-glottal pressure. That way, you aren’t messing with laryngal stability in the first place, obviating the need to manage it later. It takes viewing the thought patterns that give rise to the anxiety portion of the experience as a process worthy of practice, but results in an active rather than passive (and helpless) experience for the performer. The body only does what the mind tells it to do (though this often rings false when experiencing some strong emotion).

    Ian Howell: Gracious, even his reference to tenis players is similar :-)

    • Chris Sparks

      This is a very fascinating discussion. I had a horrible fear in the beginning doing karaoke (about 1.5 years ago) of looking like an “old” fool trying to sing a song. Kept me from singing then as I am an engineer and if I am not perfect with the production then I have failed. Then after I mangled the first song (I am sure in my mind I mangled it) then it became obsessive. Hence kick in my OCD when it comes to singing. What I have found helpful to me is that when I sing, and maybe karaoke is just simpler, is that I focus on the singing and the music. I don’t even realize that there are 50 people at most listening to me sing. And when I am done I don’t even hear them applauding. I am sure they do as I have been told they do! :-) Most folks are forgiving and understanding, especially if they are singers too.


  • Chris Sparks

    Thank you Ian. That was a very good and informative article. I sing at karaoke, and while it is not as difficult as singing in a theater, a lot of what you say still applies.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks so much Chris!

      • Chris Sparks

        Well tonight is going to be one of those fear inducing, cortisol producing moments. I am giving in impromptu discussion on countertenors tonight in Phoenix. I may be asked to sing and frankly I am too scared to do it. I don’t have the confidence in myself to know that I have a proper voice for singing baroque music. Should be interesting or embarrassing.

        • Ian Howell

          Good Luck!

          • Chris Sparks

            I’ll need it!

          • Chris Sparks

            It turned out just fine tonight.


  • Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist

    Dear Ian,
    Thanks for this generous, insightful piece. I’ve definitely been dealing with The Fear lately, and am grateful for these thoughts. I had already stumbled onto the idea of reinterpreting nervous apprehensive energy as impatient anticipatory enthusiasm–they feel pretty similar, so it’s a believable adjustment. Thanks especially for the reminder to love the audience.
    I hope our musical paths cross again soon! Keep well.

    • Ian Howell

      Dear Phoebe,
      Hi!! So nice to hear from you :-) .
      You describe the “reinterpreting nervous apprehensive energy as impatient anticipatory enthusiasm” idea better than I did in my piece :-) .

      Good luck with the rest of this season, and I hope that our paths cross again too!