Stage fright is an interesting paradox. Many singers are willing to suffer almost paralyzing anxiety as they bite and claw their way to positions that, when reached, continue to terrify them. What drives us to invite and endure these self-inflicted tortures?
The other day I spotted this graffito scribbled on a Nashville recording studio wall, “Try to relax, or we’ll find someone who can.” Ouch! What a cruel line! Nothing makes a person tighten up faster than being accused of being uptight. Nobody wants to think they’re not relaxed. “Relax? What do you mean, relax? I am relaxed!!!”
Stage fright is normal—even useful. It gives our singing energy and edge. But when stage fright is excessive it becomes counterproductive and we have to take steps to neutralize it. Here’s a little trick I learned from New York acting coach Jim DeBlaises that may take some of the Fear and Loathing out of performing and help calm your nerves.
Ask yourself what it is you’re afraid will happen. Write down all the things you think could go wrong. What’s the worst thing you could imagine? What are your worst fears? Make a list of all the things you think could possibly go wrong. Now confront them one by one by acting them out.
Do you think you might sing off pitch? Then sing a few songs out of tune. If you’re afraid you’ll forget the words, okay, do that—sing a few songs and forget the words. Maybe you're afraid your voice will crack. Well then, sing some songs and make your voice crack.
Make all the mistakes you can think of. If you’re worried you might stumble over your words, practice stumbling. What if you don't come in at the right time? Try that out. Just go crazy. Do you think you might fall down? Then practice actually falling down.
Now try to make all those mistakes -- just do a terrible job.
This won’t be as easy as it sounds, you’ll soon see that it’s harder to make mistakes than you’d think. In fact, it’s almost as hard to deliberately make mistakes as it is to deliberately be perfect. But after you’ve done it a few times, you'll find the terror starts to dissipate and your fears start to seem funny. Really put some practice time in on this. It’s not enough just to know about it.
Everyone deals with performance nerves in their own way. My mother often trotted out Harry Truman’s words, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” They came in handy whenever I started to lose my nerve. Of course, that’s where I want to be -- in the kitchen where all the action is! I’m reminded of why I wanted to be a performer in the first place.
If nothing else works for you, there’s always the trick Carol Burnett used to keep things in perspective. She recommends visualizing your audience naked—but only if you can do it without snickering!
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