How often, after endless hours of practicing before a concert, on Day X the performer comes out on stage and feels a sudden bout of panic, even though everything had been perfectly rehearsed. Sweaty palms, pounding heart, nausea, shaking limbs and dryness in mouth – all those are the indicators of the so-called stage fright, or in other words, extreme anxiety about the approaching public performance. “But I did so well while practicing!” – would be the natural, astonished reaction. Why does it happen? Let’s try to explain this phenomenon and see what can be done to overcome it.
A number of studies have been carried out to prove that our brain can work in two modes, alternately enabling either left or right hemisphere. The ‘left-sided mode’ is responsible for all that can be characterized as analytical, rational, logical and objective, while the right side focuses on the intuitive and random.
Michèle Gingras, Professor of Music at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has transferred this theory into music reality, trying to use it as a tool to brave the stage fright of her students. According to her research, while in the practice room, a musician mostly exercises the left brain hemisphere – that is focus on the right fingering, correct breathing, tone and so on. A person is not distracted and influenced by external factors so the feeling of self-awareness is reduced to minimum. On the stage, it is the contrary - the desire to please the audience who watch, approve or criticize, the wish to be artistically and emotionally convincing during the performance – re-programs our brain to enable the right side. And here the discrepancy becomes evident: the poorly trained right brain fails to perform well and can affect the well-trained left brain. The conclusion? Both sides of the brain have to be equally trained beforehand!
Michèle suggests a couple of techniques that help musicians exercise their right brain during rehearsals and thus lead to a splendid performance in public.
Audio-recording. No one can be a tougher critic than ourselves, so try to audio record yourself playing. Knowing that the material is being taped makes a musician more concentrated on the piece and increases the self-awareness: “The recorder is listening, avoid mistakes!”. Moreover, it helps to analyze the performing mistakes while listening to the records later.
Video-recording. Adding the video component makes us flex the ‘right brain muscles’ even more. You can even pretend to leave the room and re-enter it as if the audience is waiting there for you to perform. If you do not have any video-recording device, try sitting in front of a mirror for practice – works as a good ‘distractor’ as well. Even if a mirror is for some reason not available, do not close up in the room – try practicing with a door or a window open. Close your eyes and use the power of imagination to create the ambiance of a concert.
Rhythmic solfège. This technique is often taught in French conservatories instead of the classical solfège. Instead of singing, each note is being named (A-B-C or do-re-mi) in rhythm while tapping. This method helps you to ‘x-ray’ your composition, visualize it, make your imagination work, which means the right brain is in action again – and that’s what we need!
Different perspective. Some of our fears may come from the earlier years when we were immature beginners and were making too many mistakes. For some people those fears are so strong that they keep hiding for years and bothering even those who are already acknowledged professionals. It’s important to develop the self-awareness of our achievements and try to perceive the music challenges with peace and readiness respective to our skills.
When on stage. The most important thing to remember once you are already there is that the audience can sense your emotions pretty well. The more assertively and confidently you behave, the more people like you. You can feed your brain with oxygen right before the concert by having some deep breathing or even meditating. One good way to establish a positive connection is talking to the audience before you start performing – a mere greeting can break the ice. There will be no second chance once you are on stage, so relax and enjoy the moment!
Stage fright has one big advantage – the fact that you are anxious about the way you are going to present the music piece to people means that you truly care about the result. Do not be afraid to fail or make a mistake for it only builds your experience.
Have amazing performances!
Photo of The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver by Kchang. Source: Wikipedia