How to deal with stage fright


This year at the North York Music Festival, I was able to attend a workshop by Moshe Hammer, acclaimed Canadian violinist. He also founded The Hammer Band, a charitable organization dedicated to preventing violence in children through “music education that promotes self-esteem, empathy and tolerance.  Children who learn to play an instrument and perform together learn important life skills such as self-discipline, teamwork and resilience.”

This is my favourite video of Hammer. I love how the music tells a story:

He performs regularly and gave a presentation on how to manage nerves and why we don’t perform as well on stage compared to at home.

Here are some of his thoughts:

Can you take a breath? Now, can you take the same breath again? No! Because it’s gone. Can you take the next breath? No, because there will always be a “next” breath to take. The only breath you can take, is the one you are taking right NOW. Life is one continuous concert. You can’t undo what has already been done. Life is like playing the violin as you’re learning to play.

This is similar to playing sports: it doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you have been in the past. What matters is what happens in this moment. An audience doesn’t care how you FEEL. They don’t care how many times you’ve practiced, or how long, or if you’re tired, or your mood. What matters is how you play, and they just want a great performance.

Do we play as well on stage as we practice at home? Why or why not?

Hammer suggested several ideas to help performers to succeed on stage:

1. Practice! Practice! Practice! Once you’ve worked on the challenging parts, don’t forget to play the entire piece at home non-stop, just like at a performance, even if there are some mistakes. You must practice the piece so well you can play it correct 11 times out of 10!

2. Practice effectively.  Practice new pieces slowly, carefully, use a metronome, fix your mistakes early on (don’t keep practicing mistakes!), listen to yourself as if you’re listening to someone else, pay attention to your body and how it feels as it’s making different sounds so you can adjust it to make the sound you want.

3. Mental preparation. Wear the clothes you’ll wear at the concert.  Ask yourself what you want to tell the audience. Is being on stage and communicating with the audience the same or different as communicating with a friend? If you can tell a story well, people will be interested. Instead of fearing the stage, imagine yourself on stage, feeling WONDERFUL! Next time you feel nerves before going on stage, instead of telling yourself this is fear, tell yourself this is excitement, and that you feel amazing!

Different performers manage their feelings differently.  I once read a book where a performer had to come to grips with her anxiety. She would face debilitating anxiety before a performance, including feeling sick, shaky, nervous, etc. She decided that she loved music and wanted to perform, and she was going to perform either way. So she was going to feel extremely anxious EVERY time, or she could tell herself to ignore these feelings and just perform.

Another teacher I had said she loved performing because this was her opportunity to share her music with others, not to worry about what they thought about it.

For Hammer, his “lightbulb moment” was when he realized that if he played the piece 100% perfectly at home, but only 75% as well on stage, it was as if the fear was robbing himself of 25% of the performance! So he might as well have spent 25% less time practising at home because that was how much the fear affected him.

How do you manage your anxiety or nervousness? What do you think about before going on stage?

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