Rx for Stage Fright

It made the Beatles vomit before their stadium shows. It kept Barbara Streisand from performing for over a decade. I watched it make Steven Tyler pace nervously in his dressing room before a show at the Boston Garden. From butterflies to panic attacks, stage fright is nothing more than a fear of the unknown. How will the audience react? Will I forget the lyrics or sing out of tune? Will my voice hold out? Since none of these questions can be answered before hand, anxiety builds.

Preparation can help. If you are well rehearsed and in good physical condition, any reasonable person would expect to perform well. But stage fright is not a rational fear, and performers are not reasonable people. It doesn’t matter if it’s all in the mind; dwelling on worst-case scenarios puts a real clamp on the voice. Trying to talk yourself out of these mental tail-spins only makes things worse. What’s important to remember is that anxiety means you care. Apprehension is good, positive, energy which heightens reflexes and expands our abilities. Your job before a gig is not to deny fear, but to manage its symptoms.

Fear triggers a fight or flight response, making the body rigid, shutting down digestion and increasing the heart rate. This creates a lousy environment for singing. At the first sign of nerves get your body moving. Swing your arms and legs like a wide-sweeping pendulum. Slow, steady, controlled movements are calming. For most of us, loading the equipment before the gig can serve as a good physical distraction, so focus on lifting properly — don’t rush.

Nervous dry-mouth robs the vocal folds of vital lubrication, no matter how well you hydrate. When the digestive system shuts down, the saliva ducts close; the water you drink never reaches its target. Placing almost anything in your mouth should stimulate the saliva glands to reopen, but watch for counter-productive side effects. Forcing a meal on a nervous stomach causes cramps, gas and excessive mucus. Chewing gum can make it difficult to release your jaw later when singing. Sugar-free lozenges are okay, but I find it easier just to suck on my finger. The salt gets my mouth watering without coating the throat.

A rapid heart-rate shallows breathing. To reduce your pulse, inhale on a slow ten count, hold your breath for ten, then release for another ten counts. Incorporate your voice by singing long, low volume, single notes. The longer you sustain, the better the next breath will be. Repeat this until the voice stops shaking. Don’t rush the process by adding force. When single notes become steady, vocalize on scales or light phrases from songs, slowly challenging range and volume.

If you freak-out on stage, take command of your thoughts immediately. Barrage the irrational feelings with bits of reality. Recite your name and birthday to yourself. What is the date? This may seem ridiculous, but I’ve coached many people through panic attacks who could not recall how old they were for a minute or two. Most of all, remember that an audience is human. People will pull for you if you let them know how you feel. Missed lyrics and bad pitches are instantly forgiven if your heart is in the right place. Would you think any less of a performer who looked nervous? Of course not. So, give your audience the same credit and open up. Don’t let fear keep you off the stage.