Stage fright!

Updated: Jul 17, 2018

"If I fake a fall on the stage, maybe I don't have to play..?"

"Maybe if I say I threw up, people will believe that I'm sick, and I can cancel..?"

However tasteless, I'm sure most of us have had ideas on how to get out of a concert. I find it so weird that we work and work hours on end, just to be absolutely terrified to present it in front of an audience.

I always wondered why I got so nervous, and why it changed my playing so much.

I got sick, I started shaking uncontrollably and constantly questioned why I kept playing recitals.

I was always told that the nervous feeling would go away, once I got used to it... But I don't think that's true.

My first years of piano lessons were in a communal music school. It was a big building that had its own concert hall, with open concerts almost every week.

Because of that, I could play on a proper stage whenever I wanted and whenever I had a piece that was ready, which usually was once or twice every month.

Did I play enough concerts? Yup. Did the bad nerves go away? Nope.

I did get used to being on stage, but not how to deal with being on stage.

I got used to be nervous.

I got used to be uncomfortable.

I got used to be worried.

All of these things, of course, made me play way under my potential, which means I actually got used to playing very badly on stage.

But I don't think the answer is to try to get rid of nervousness all together.

I remember one recital when I was a student at the conservatory. A friend asked me to substitute her at a concert.

It was a lunch concert in the big hall, which could attract quite a few people, so I was quite excited to get to play.

The day came; I had prepared as much as I could and I was waiting backstage, ready to enter. The doors opened and I proudly started walking out on the stage.

Not a single clap.

For the first 5 or so seconds I could only hear my own steps. The three or four members of the audience started clapping only when I stood next to the piano.

All the previous excitement went out in one breath, and there was no way of getting it back.

On one hand I wasn't nervous at all, but on the other hand I really didn't feel like showing them my hard work.

I tired to convince myself that the people still deserved a good and exciting recital, but there was no hope of that ever happening. So while I wasn't nervous, I doubt that my performance was very memorable.

It got me thinking. Why is it just a lucky coincidence if I play well? Why should I practice 6 hours per day, if I would sound as if I practiced 1 or 2 most of the times? And why should a bunch of people have the right to judge my playing anyway, what did they know? I practiced what I could, and I wouldn't be able to change anything now anyway!

And there it was.

The next concert came, and I couldn't care less about whether or not anyone came, whether or not they liked my playing, and whether or not they'd give me a standing ovation at the end.

All I cared about was that I would play and that I would be happy.

I entered the stage, and as soon as I sat down, I really only cared about me.

I play piano for me, and what they think is irrelevant.

My nerves turned into excitement, and it was as if I was competing with myself - could I sing the melody even more, could I dare to take more time and breathe.

Basically: Could I dare to make more music than before?

And it felt amazing! For the first time in my life, I wanted to go back on the stage and just keep playing.

I realized that the nerves affected me when I'd let the expectations from others overrule my own will of making music. If I only had me and my music in mind, I could much easier feel comfortable with what I'm doing.

If I'd let my thoughts about what others might think be the leading role in my performance, my playing would be full of doubt and there would really be no way of feeling at ease with the performance.

Since then, I tried to really only focus on what I want to achieve for me, and not what the audience might want me to achieve. It's of course much nicer if the audience is happy than if they're not, but that's really not up to me to decide.

If I'm well prepared (and this can't be stressed enough - being well prepared is still crucial for a good performance), the main part of the audience will most probably enjoy the concert - keep in mind, they came to listen to me, not the other way around.

It's much easier said than done (and I fall back a bit now and then) but as soon as we start to care about things we have no control over, we lose.

We can't control how many people will come, we can't control what they like, and we can't control how they react.

(If we do fall back, there are a few tricks to get into the right mind, such as thinking about a previous succesful concert or to slowly play a section that's difficult, once or twice, to regain the feeling of control)

We can however control how prepared we are, control what we play and, with some training, control whether we have a positive or negative mind when entering the stage.

If we let these things be our main focus, it's much easier to let the nerves turn into excitement rather than anxiety.


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© 2018 by Simon Danell