Performance Anxiety

© I.Woloshen

This will not apply to all songwriters…not everyone who writes also performs, although some writers play their material live to publishers, etc. Performance anxiety is a difficult thing to deal with in that it involves fear, which is completely irrational. I have been struggling with stage fright for many years. People never know I’m nervous, because I’ve become very good at hiding it! For those who don’t perform and don’t understand the feeling, I try and relate it to having to make a speech in front of a whole roomful of people. Then I see the gleam of terror in their eyes!

The only way to deal with fear is to go through it. For a long time, I tried to talk myself out of the feeling, which is futile. The more you resist, the more ominous it becomes and harder to ignore. Alot of what you are experiencing is a physical reaction to a thought. You picture yourself getting up in front of those people and what happens? You get a rush of adrenaline…I feel it especially in the pit of my stomach…then it shoots out all over the rest of my body. Adrenaline does funny things to your body and is associated with the “fight or flight” syndrome which is an ancient part of our physical system. The blood gets thicker, in order to prevent heavy bleeding in the event of an injury. The body becomes numb to pain, going into a kind of shock. The adrenaline does this, as well as making the muscles very energy efficient and extraodinarily strong. You’ve heard of people suddenly being able to pick up cars off of their loved ones? They become superhuman as a result of this syndrome. These days, we also develope the same symptoms in reaction to extreme stress, including stage fright.

The result of all of that adrenaline is usually the shakes. Suddenly fingers can’t find the notes and chords so easily…the voice takes on a strange quiver…the knees seem about to buckle. Another thing that happens to me just before I’m about to perform, is that I start to yawn! People think I’m bored, when what’s really happening is that my body’s attempting to get more oxygen and other gases because I’m not breathing properly.

I’ve gotten some interesting tips over the years that I’ll share with you. They may or may not work, but perhaps the process of thinking through what you’re experiencing will give you some ideas as to how to deal with it.

I try to pack up everything I’m going to need either very early in the day or the night before when I’m thinking straight and will remember everything! The day of my performance I try not to be too active or demand too much of myself. Some may find it better to keep busy and that keeps the mind off of it. However, I find that if I try to avoid the thoughts too much, they get more out of control. I try to nap in the afternoon, even 20 minutes is just enough to give me that extra bit of energy I’ll need later. I also take a long hot bath to relax and soothe myself. I never eat before a performance…the nervous stomach and food just don’t go together. But drinking water or juice is good. Sometimes I’ll have coffee or tea, but not too much. Caffeine and adrenaline is a deadly mix! I never indulge in alcohol before I perform. There’s the false notion that it relaxes you, but I find that ultimately I don’t perform as well. It’s almost as if I do better when I’m in touch with the nervousness!

I get to the place early. This gives me a chance to sit and get used to the room, chat with people and get my things set up. For me, talking to people beforehand also helps me to relax. Sometimes I’ll do this exersize if I’m feeling some tension in my chest: I push the palms of my hands together in front of my chest, hold for about ten seconds, release, and repeat a few times. If I’m more nervous than usual, I’ll walk around abit to release some of it.

There was one time a couple of years ago when I was just getting into performing again after several years away from it. I was so nervous about this first performance that I figured I was going to have to write every word and every chord down because I didn’t think I was going to be able to remember ANYthing! I spoke to an aquaintance who had some interesting advice to give. She told me that some performers when we’re nervous are reacting to old negative thoughts about ourselves…you know, the things our parents or teachers told us when we were young…”don’t be such a showoff”…”behave yourself”…”children should be seen and not heard”. As we get older we start to suppress the natural peformer part of ourselves in reaction to how we are “supposed” to behave in public.

My friend told me that when I feel at the peak of nervousness, to find some quiet place where no one can see me, and GROWL! She told me to EMBRACE that showy, hammy part of myself and say YES! to it. It sounded pretty darn weird to me, but I tried it! Just before the performance, I was literally pacing around the room…I couldn’t sit still or think straight. So I found a back door and peeked outside, and finding no one there, I went out and closed the door behind me and ROARED! Then I had to laugh at what I was doing…and you know, I did one of my best performances that night! What I learned was that I have to forgive myself ahead of time for any mistakes I might make, for any fumbles, and enjoy what I’m doing when I’m doing it. My enjoying it, my laughing at myself or my situation, helps the audience to feel the same way! We click together and I relax enough to do a better job. I read a great line in a book once that said that “fear” and “excitement” are literally the same feeling! It’s our interpretation of it that changes. Now I tell myself that I’m excited instead of terrified…

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  1. IJ,

    Thanks for this article! I’m a singer/songwriter/guitarist and I just started performing at open mics this year. I get all those adrenaline symptoms!

    I played my first house concert last Saturday, and it was great (I remembered the lyrics and most of the chords) but I unfortunately watched the video and see that I rushed all the songs and was banging too hard on my acoustic. I really need to tame the excitement fear next time.

    I love the roar idea! ROOOAR!!

    I really like your blog!

    -John Kyle

    1. Thanks John…it’s a process. Keep working at it and eventually you’ll get it right. Not perfect, but just right 🙂

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