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

“WSUK… All day talk radio in my head… I suck!

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.'

About Ian Howell

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.