Stage Fright … Let’s Face It!

Stage fright — is it a malady to be overcome, or can it be turned to advantage as we perform? What is stage fright? The sudden rush of adrenalin, nervousness, clammy hands, breathlessness, and inability to think clearly is very common to performers.

“Let’s face it” … walking onstage a few weeks ago to perform the Saint Saens Tarantella duo for flute and clarinet with Skagit Symphony, my onset of nerves was unexpected, and unwanted! During the orchestra introduction I assessed my nervousness on a scale of 1 to 10, found it to be at least a 7 … well, maybe a 6, even a 5 or 4 … by the time I lifted my flute to play the opening statement with the clarinet, my tension had dissipated and I was fully ‘in the moment’. Stand your ground and face those nerves!

My favorite practical antidote to stage fright is bananas, which have beta-blockers that counteract the peaking adrenalin. The best approach seems to be eating half a banana an hour before soloing, then the other half ten minutes before. (Before a Vivaldi piccolo concerto a while back I ate two bananas, and was so relaxed I nearly walked off the front of the stage into the audience!) At my flute and piano studio quarterly recitals I generally put out a bowl of bananas for performers.

There’s a great suggestion to practice as if you’re performing, and perform as if you’re practicing — with the same sense of comfort and relaxation as in your home. After all, practicing should be fun and free of tension, an attitude we want to carry over to performing. For added performance security, particularly with memorized music, it is helpful to note about five ‘landmarks’ in the piece — for example, modulations or new themes. (I actually draw a little map on a notecard, with abbreviation symbols, dynamics, keys and so forth.) This helps to visualize the piece from start to finish (and even to return to a landmark if memory is elusive).

Releasing stage fright also involves relaxing control. This begins in practice, where exaggerating will expose such areas as shaky rhythms and awkward leaps (Piano leaps really do look closer in outer octaves, and flute leaps reveal if one is indeed blowing through the phrase.). So let the wrong note come out, rather than ignoring mistakes. Performance will only be as accurate as the practice, so prepare well, and confidence will soar accordingly.

When we relax control of a well-prepared piece, we can share it with the audience rather than letting our ego get in the way. This interaction with listeners, sharing from our heart to theirs, is really why we perform — then music has its fullest meaning. We are alone on stage, but we look forward to connecting with the audience, who bounces it back. Let’s re-envision nervousness, then, as anticipation — it’s from the same adrenalin!

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