Stage Fright: Part 2 – How It Works, And Why It Works

Okay so now that we have this stage fright thing more properly defined as what it really is, that is, People Fright, we are in a position to get some where with it. But first, a caution. Many (perhaps most) people, including professional performers, never slay this dragon. They may learn to live with being in it’s presence, and learn to perform even though they must do it while their knees are wobbling! But they never actually get to the essence of the matter, so that the dragon is slain, (or perhaps, more accurately, transformed). The reason they don’t do this, is because the matter goes too deep, too deep into the person themselves, and it is deeper than they are willing to go.

Andres Segovia, for instance, who is the most famous classical guitarist of the 20th century, and undeniably one of it’s greatest musical performers, was, throughout his very long performing career of some 70 years, plagued with incredible stage fright, often shaking visibly before going on stage, and having the beginnings of concerts seriously impaired because of it. He is one example of many world famous performers who NEVER got to the root of it, and never overcame it.

Segovia did do something however, which to me is ridiculous and deluding. He did what I call “making a virtue out of a vice”, something people commonly do when they don’t want to or can’t change a weakness. They start to “re-shape” their thinking about it and turn it into something that makes them look good! Segovia told himself (and others) that suffering from stage fright was a sign of talent, and not feeling stage fright was a sign of not having talent! While it may be true that artists tend to be highly sensitive individuals who are more prone to certain “imbalances” in their make-up, it certainly doesn’t mean that that same sensitivity/talent MUST lead to the undeniably unpleasant (to say the least) effects of stage fright.

Interestingly enough, Segovia would, during the course of the concert, overcome the feelings and start to enjoy playing for the audience, as many players do. He would say, “before a concert, I want to cancel it. After I am done playing, I want to start again”. This was certainly a good thing, but why have to repeat the endless cycle of agony each time a concert comes up?

I have told you this story about Segovia, because I want you to realize the enormity of this problem of stage fright. I consider coming to understand ourselves in the context of how we feel about walking out on stage, or any kind of playing for other people, to be an ongoing, life long process, that is in many ways as rewarding and interesting as being a musician itself. And also understand that I am not talking about a certain kind of “excitement” we may naturally feel at the prospect and the experience of performing on our instrument for other people. Even by it’s very rarity, it carries a certain kind of excitement to it. I am talking about the absolutely debilitating effects, you know, like hearing about how John Lennon would throw up before a concert! I am talking about the “scared to death” kind of feelings. I am talking about things that makes us play worse, not better.

Before we talk about “why” we are so afraid of sharing our artistic selves with other people, and why we are so afraid of other people in so many areas of life, let’s talk about “how” we are afraid of other people. Let’s start real simple, with common experiences everyone has, but I don’t think everyone notices, or appreciates what is really going on when they are happening.

How Stage Fright

Think of it this way. When you are sitting on a public seat somewhere in a public place, maybe a bus, or a park bench, and someone sits next to you, why do you tense different parts of your body as they get closer to you? Why do you make an (ineffective) attempt to “withdraw” from that other person? Everyone does, you know.

Imagine you are walking down the street, all by yourself, and you are lost in thought, or the scenery perhaps. Why is it, if someone begins to approach you, walking in the opposite direction, you not only tense different parts of your body as they approach, but you will notice, if you pay attention, that even your awareness of your own self, your own body, changes. You will, for instance, become very aware of your face, as the person approaches. You will also notice it is not a pleasant feeling. Observe yourself in this situation. You will notice yourself doing these things.

If you were walking down the street by yourself, and then saw up ahead that you had to walk past a group of strangers, you would really start to react, or rather “contract”. You would tense your body, and “harden” your “body armor” for the experience of walking past them. I caught myself doing something very interesting a while ago. I noticed that whenever I walked into a public place, a store for instance, I would (unconsciously) anticipate and prepare for encountering the people there by tensing and or biting on my lower lip, very slightly, but still tensing. I had probably been doing this my whole life and never noticed. I experimented with not doing it (you have the power to experiment once you observe it, not before). I found a very interesting thing. I found that I felt somehow “unprotected” to walk into a group of people without tensing and biting my lower lip!

I could only conclude that the reason I was doing this WAS to protect myself. In my case, knowing my own neurosis so well, I believe it comes from a childhood of being told to shut up, and being punished for speaking my mind. So I would do what is meant by the common phrase people use when they want to say something but are afraid to for some reason, I would “bite my lip”. Most of us have some similar hidden obstacles. This is an example of what I mean when I say you must go deep to make real headway with this situation. It is through a long process of such experimentation and observation that I began to notice changes in ALL my dealings with people, including the experience of walking out on stage in front of hundreds of them.

We have all learned to do these things so completely and automatically that we don’t even notice them. In fact, it’s like when you are in a room, and there is a background noise going on for a long time, but you didn’t notice it until it stopped! Then you are struck by the “quiet:” that replaces it, but before that, you just included the sound in your awareness as a natural part of the “background”.

That is how these inner reactions we perform in our contact with other people are. They are so natural we don’t notice them. But you must realize that becoming aware of yourself in this way IS the beginning of actually being able to change this “stage fright” thing we are talking about, that so many people are never able to change.

When you do begin to notice these things, notice how fear of other people operates in your daily life in the simplest affairs (being in the supermarket, waiting on line, etc.) it will be a new sensitivity. It will grow over time. You will realize that the reason you experience fear of people on the stage, is because you have fear of people ALL the time.

But exposing such a vulnerable part of yourself as the part that strives for artistic expression, and requires special abilities, special TALENTS (my god, what if I don’t have any!), now that is pushing it. Our fear of other people comes bursting out of our seams by then!

In all the above mentioned situations, you will also notice, as your sensitivity increases, that the feelings occurring are not pleasant, not in the body, or the mind, just like stage fright. It is not a pleasant feeling because what you are really doing in all these situations is, in fact, trying to avoid the other person. You are trying to avoid the fact that the other person is there, that they exist. You are doing this by “hardening” yourself, and shutting down your awareness by withdrawing your attention from what is around you, focusing it into your own body, thoughts and feelings. This is what the word “self-conscious” means. You are being conscious only of yourself, not others and your relationship to them.

You see, when you step out onto a stage, or even just go to play for some friends, you are simply demonstrating the same fear, except that it is now too big too hide! Normally, we do hide it. It’s easy, since everyone else is hiding their fear in the same ways, and hardening themselves against us. They are just as afraid of us as we are of them, as we go about our day to day routines meeting people in the usual situations, as in the examples above.

Why Stage Fright

Knowing HOW we do the People Fright thing is actually more important then knowing WHY we do it. You can endlessly contemplate the WHY and still never change it. But by working with the how, you will discover the WHY anyway, and notice it changes by itself, over time. But as far as the reason for all the protecting, all the fear of other people, the root of it is simply the inability, the refusal, to love and accept ourselves as we are, with all our “faults” and imperfections. We do it to ourselves, and then we go around being afraid everyone else is going to do it too. We condemn ourselves for the mistakes we make as players, we compare ourselves to those “great and perfect players who everyone loves and accepts”, the ones we want to be like. Then we reject ourselves for NOT being so great and perfect.

Also, it can be a vicious cycle, because often guitarists DO have many imperfections in their playing ability, and the guitar is an incredibly difficult instrument by it’s nature, anyway. So being a guitarist, especially a soloist, can be risky business. On top of that, the teaching systems that have been developed over the years are always incomplete, and largely ineffective for many students. Don’t forget that compared to piano and violin, the guitar is a newcomer. Add to all that the guitar being a solo instrument, and guitarists being a bit “quirky” by nature (my opinion), and you have all the ingredients for a lifetime of mal-adjustment!

But it is our duty to always be trying to find the paths of growth, and work to improve ourselves, no matter what stage of development we are at. Without being engaged in that process, and yet still displaying ourselves before other people while being conscious of our stagnant faults, is to invite the paralyzing effects of performance anxiety as a permanent companion on stage.

The greatest players are always working on improving themselves. They are always aware of the things that can be improved, new territory that can be explored. But we all must understand that performing is a matter of offering what you have at the moment, to other people.

So, on a practical level, one of the most potent ways to begin to loosen the grip of stage fright is to couple an acceptance of ourselves at the moment, with the process of on-going development. These conditions themselves provide a sturdy foundation for the wobbly knees of the anxiety stricken performer.

Also check out… Stage Fright Part 1: What It Is And What It Isn’t and Stage Fright Part 3: It’s a Concert, not a Contest

Copyright Jamie Andreas, Guitar Principles.