For many of us performance is a critical part of why we are musicians. Some can be quite happy spending their lives with their instruments and never actually performing, however for most of us the process is incomplete without performing the pieces we work on. It gives us a sense of purpose, helps us set our goals and timelines, and reinforces our sense of being active participants in life through our connection to music. It is also a very different playing situation than what we face when we sit down to practice, or play through our pieces in the comfort of our homes, studios and practice rooms. When we step out on stage, we depart from our safe zones and enter a place where we know we are going to be judged and where we will ultimately judge ourselves. We are opening ourselves and sharing with a group of people who are often strangers, sometimes friends, and always our audience. We make ourselves vulnerable in many ways every time that door opens and we step out of the green room. This can be very exciting and rewarding, but often can just as easily be terrifying. Performance anxiety, otherwise known as stage fright, is something we all have encountered at one point or another. It is more than simply feeling uncomfortable before a performance and for some folks can create a seemingly impenetrable barrier to performing. It can range from a minor nervousness before stepping on stage to nausea, shakes, feeling lightheaded and temporary memory loss. I’ve known people who have experienced the full range and have tried all sorts of methods to alleviate the problem.
For most people the key to dealing with stage fright is focused preparation through practicing, and performing on a regular basis. The more often a musician performs, the easier it is to face the audience each time you step onto the stage, and if you have laid the groundwork through diligent focused practicing you should be fine. Some musicians, however, suffer from performance anxiety their entire careers, and some quit being active performers due to the stress they encounter from stepping out onto the stage. I’ve known musicians who have been prescribed beta blockers to help get them past this, others who use meditation, some who have rituals they follow on performance days, others who self medicate either through alcohol or less legal substances (which often leads to other issues), and others who have established comfort zones where they can function.
Generally we look at performance anxiety as something bad, something to be gotten over or past, a hindrance to performing at our best, but I think a certain amount of it is a healthy indicator that we are connected to what we are doing and value the end result. Sometimes we need to be nervous; it is part of excitement and we need that excitement to be happy. We look forward to the charge we get when we perform, particularly the excitement we have when we have those transcendant experiences where we have stepped beyond what we thought we could do and set a new bar to surpass. We are stepping outside of our comfort zones, taking risks, and hopefully reaping the rewards.
At this point in my career I rarely experience stage fright, but this is largely because I have found my own comfort zone through performing in groups, following a career that has mostly been performing as a sideman. As such, I rarely encounter intense scrutiny through sharing the stage with others and don’t have to step into the spotlight unless I want to. This has lowered my stress significantly. Also I sincerely enjoy working with other musicians and find it to be inherently rewarding to share the experience. However, the end result of this is the feeling that I am going to work at a job that I enjoy, but comes at a cost though, because I can’t honestly say that I find it exciting. I go out, do my job, perform, feel okay about it all around and there it is.
As a performer, I must say that I do not miss stage fright, but I do miss being excited and challenged on a regular basis, as an individual. This is what has led me to my current paradigm shift where I’m moving toward doing solo work and bringing a more solid focus on formal performance situations, somewhat akin to what I did as a classical musician years ago. This entails a different approach to preparation and performance than what I’ve been doing for the past twenty years. It also requires me to reassess and shift my self-expectations to a much more rigorous standard. This, I expect, will rekindle my sense of internal excitement and possibly anxiety as well along the way, but I am welcoming it whole-heartedly. It keeps me focused, and let’s me know I am alive. As such, I rarely encounter intense scrutiny, share the stage with others and don’t have to step into the spotlight unless I want to.