Anyone who is a performing musician, and in fact anyone who has given a speech or presented anything in front of an audience, has probably experienced what is commonly referred to as “stage fright.” At its core, stage fright is the fear of making mistakes or failing publicly. I for one have accepted a certain amount of such fear as normal, and something that needs to be handled and contained so that it doesn’t take over and decimate a performance. But this is much more easily said than done. How does one go about winning the battle against stage fright?
As I have done before, I turn to my ongoing efforts to learn to shoot a respectable score in the game of golf. This game can quickly become unnerving, and whatever good results I’ve just had can quickly evaporate. After going through this cycle several times, I’ve noticed something important. When I have my mind think about the target, my mind occupies itself with solving the problem of projecting the golf ball in the right direction.This sets my mind to thinking about the result it is charged with achieving, and gives my mind the task of solving the problem of how it will engineer bringing this about. When, on the other hand, I have my mind think about the task of hitting the golf ball with the club, I forget about the target, and invariably hit a bad shot. In making the ball the target, I have sabotaged my brain’s ability to bring about the result I desire. The brain and the nervous system it directs is designed to implement what is needed to hit the target. It is not designed to be micro-managed every step of the way.
Now let’s apply this golf lesson to music performance. If you stop to think about it, I’m fairly certain that you will realize that when your nervousness has gotten the best of you in a performance, it was while you were thinking about the details of what you were doing or had just done. You were thinking about a mistake you just made, or about how your playing or singing was going at that moment. The result of such thinking is that the stage fright got worse, and more mistakes were only a breath away. Now think about when your performance was going really well. Chances are you were not thinking of those procedural, technical issues. Instead, you were thinking about the sound and phrasing you wanted in music at which you had not yet arrived. You were thinking of the goal, the target, which was sound, tone, phrasing, or an upcoming cadence. You left the business of how to achieve those things to your brain, without micro-managing the details.
My point is that when nervousness or fear overtakes a musician in performance, it is because that musician is not allowing his or her brain to work as it was designed to work. We know that after practicing, our brains take over the execution of rapid fingerings on an instrument, and that the music is “in our fingers;” every note does not have to be consciously thought of and placed with a fingering. The brain does all this because we have spent hours teaching it to execute hundreds of motor commands that get the right fingers to the right keys without our having to make an effort to think of every note. In fact, were we to try to think about every single fingering, we would never be able to play the music properly. Stage fright is in large part the result of using our brains improperly. Make the musical outcome, and not the technical matters the focus of your attention, and you will have much less on your plate to make you nervous and fearful.