Stage Fright: Part 1 – What It Is and What It Isn’t
Here is a recent letter:
If I may call you that..how does one overcome StageFright?..I can play very well(I don’t mean to brag) and I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m doing it and alone I can come up with some real good licks but in public I freeze..please help me if you can
Now that is certainly the million-dollar question! If I could give you the prescription for that one in a few sentences, I think I could sell it for a million dollars! You see Larry, your question is very deep, very fundamental. It strikes at the very core of not only what being a performing musician is about, it also has everything to do with what being a PERSON is all about.
Fortunately for you and for anyone else who reads this, and is also suffering from the same thing (which I think includes everybody) I have vast experience with this one. In my many years of performing, I have suffered every degree of what is called “stage fright”. I have gone from someone who used to look out on the stage before a concert, and feel like there was a rope hanging out there, waiting for my neck, to someone who could play before an audience feeling as comfortable as if I were in my own living room all by myself. I have also dealt with, experimented with, and thought about this subject from many different angles, and believe I have come to certain truths concerning it.
What Stage Fright Isn’t
First, let me tell you some thoughts concerning a lot of the ideas that are commonly tossed around when one hears advice on this phenomenon from the many people who comment on it (and I have read many). One of the most prevalent bits of wisdom concerning stage fright is to regard it as some kind of potentially helpful thing. I have heard people say things like “oh, it’s really a good thing. You should connect with that energy and use it in your performance.”
Well, I always think whoever says that is definitely not feeling the same thing I’m feeling when I feel that FEAR, that “stage fright”. Because for me, there is nothing useful, pleasant or fun about it. The first thing I ever noticed about it was that it did nothing but prevent me from playing well, or even having any fun and enjoying myself. The second thing I noticed, was that it robbed these same things from the audience as well, most of whom are there (I assume) to hear what I sound like when I AM having a good time, doing this thing called “playing” music.
I once heard a concert performer giving advice to a young player on this subject, and his answer to the students professed problem with stage fright was “that’s because you care”, I guess he was implying “don’t worry about it, it is a sign you care about what you are doing.” I doubt it helped this guy very much. Probably left him feeling rather perplexed. Now he not only had to feel his stage fright, he had to conclude that it was the inevitable result of caring about what he was doing. I guess the message is “to care hurts”. Does that mean if you don’t feel stage fright you don’t care about your performance? To me, that explanation is absurd. True, I agree the “fright” has it’s origin in a certain kind of caring, but what I hope to make clear, is that it is caring about all the WRONG THINGS!. In a nutshell, it is the result of caring about how you, the player are appearing in other’s eyes, (or your own eyes, as we shall see) than you do about the music you are making, or sharing it with anyone else.
No, stage fright is not your friend, at least it has never been my friend. We all get to choose our friends, and for me, a friend is someone I can have fun with. This guy’s no fun.
What It Does
Before delving into the reasons for stage fright, and what to do about it, let’s bring into focus a few of the undeniable effects of it. For the audience, it is nothing but robbing them of their reason for being there. If I go out on stage to share my music with an audience (and I am really sharing not only the music, I am also sharing with them my whole relationship to music and the guitar), the audience is not there to watch me display my fear of them! They did not take a slice of their precious time to come and watch me get caught in the grip of my psychological problem about being up there in front of them, they came to hear music! They came to hear someone play, not freak out! So if nothing else, it is an extreme discourtesy to the audience members, and I believe it is the responsibility of every performer to get his or her head straight on this subject, (or at least try) and make sure they can deliver the product they are supposed to be delivering.
For me, the performer, the effects of stage fright are equally devastating. How ridiculous, how cruel, that I have spent perhaps hundreds of hours practicing, studying, working and sweating to learn these pieces and prepare this concert, and I go out on stage and have a severe traumatic experience! If I want to torture myself that badly, there are lots of easier ways to do it that don’t entail wasted practice time. I could race down the highway in the wrong lane at 100 miles an hour if I want to scare the be-jesus out of myself the way I have at times in my life by doing the “stage fright” thing.
How disheartening to have worked for hours to discover and shape the nuances of a particular passage, and not even be able to get the notes out when it comes time to share with another human being the fruits of my labor. It is truly nothing but it’s own special form of “musical impotence”. And it is all a completely self-created and self-imposed experience. It is one of the many ways human beings turn what could be beautiful into something ugly in their lives.
It’s not happening to you, you are doing it!
Having brought these points into focus, the next thing to realize is this. Stage fright is not something that happens to us, it is something we do. It is not something “coming over us”, it is something we are deliberately doing, from the inside, deep within ourselves. We are just not aware that we are doing it, because we never look that deep. So it appears to be out of our control, it appears to be something that is “happening” to us, not something we are doing.
I had a dramatic illustration of this truth one time when I was a young player, just beginning to face some of my fears about my own playing. I was just beginning to experiment with recording myself. I was shocked as I turned on the tape recorder and began to feel terribly afraid, and in fact experienced all the same symptoms of stage fright I had before that time had the displeasure of experiencing on an actual stage. There I was, sitting alone in my bedroom, with my heart pounding as I began to play for A TAPE RECORDER! What should we call that “Recorder Fright”?
This brings us to the crux of the matter. There is no such thing as Stage Fright. People are not afraid of stages.
There is only People Fright. People are afraid of people.
When I was sitting there, unable to play for my tape recorder, I was experiencing People Fright. The person I was afraid of was me! Or more properly speaking, I was afraid of all the voices in my head that I knew would start yelling at me when I listened back and heard that my playing wasn’t quite what all those voices demanded it be.
The reason you, me, and everybody else does this thing called stage fright, is because there is one thing that all people fear the most, more even, then they fear death itself. And that thing is OTHER PEOPLE!
I have read of studies where people are asked “what is your greatest fear”. Well, the winner is not fear of death, or auto accident. It is fear of public speaking. That says a lot. That is another way of saying “the thing I fear most is other people, especially if they are looking at me, paying attention just to me and what I am doing.”
Now isn’t that an interesting paradox. Psychiatrist’s offices the world over are full of people talking about how they didn’t get enough love or attention growing up. Nobody was interested in them or what they said, did, or thought. They are full of people willing to pay a high hourly rate just so SOMEONE will listen to them for an hour (make that fifty minutes).
And yet, put somebody up on stage, where they can get every iota of everybody’s attention, (no competition like having that pesky brother or sister around) and they fall apart! Isn’t that strange? Life is full of little practical jokes like that. I guess it what they always say about too much of a good thing…
Copyright Jamie Andreas, Guitar Principles.