Stage fright - nervousness before or during an appearance before an audience.
That’s how Siri defined it when I asked, but for me, it feels like so much more. It used to get in the way of the things I love doing most; acting and singing. Whilst I’ve grown as a person and those two things are now of less significance, I remember that at the time, it would cause me so much grief. I loved the idea of being on stage and performing, but as soon as I was stood in the wings of the stage, my heart would try to escape from my chest and my lungs would simply not work.
I didn’t understand how some people could just go out there and sing. I remember seeing Paramore at the 02 last January, and Hayley Williams yelled ‘hey London!’ - despite the fact I was rows and rows away from her, I still found myself yelling back at her like she was an old friend on the other side of a busy room. She had this kind of connection with every last person in the room and she did it so effortlessly.
I knew I had to do something - singing is a massive part of my life and I wanted to share it with other people. I knew I had a long journey ahead of me, so I figured the best place to start was within a group. My senior school had a choir; it was very church like, and they took iconic songs and turned them into hymn like versions. I found my stage fright buggered off entirely once the spotlight wasn’t solely on me. It was also here that I discovered I don’t work well in groups - that can be a major thing for people.
If, like me, you’re more of a soloist, working in groups can actually increase your stage fright, I remember every performance thinking no, I’m not proud of this and is this really me at my full potential? - that’s not how a performance should go. Stage fright and a dislike for groups can be two very juxtaposing things, but I had to work through one or the other. I realised I’d rather get over the stage fright than keeping falling out with my fellow singers over who got to sing David Bowie’s part in Under Pressure, or whether or not we were butchering a song.
So that was the first two milestones in my journey towards getting over stage fright - doing group performances, and then realising I hated it. That’s not me slating choirs and groups, because for some people, it’s better. I just discovered that sometimes, you can’t make compromises on doing the things you love.
The next step was small audiences. I got a group of five or six of my friends and announced I was going to sing. Admittedly, they were quite surprised to be spending a free period watching my rendition of a Panic! Song, but I found forcing myself to do it a on whim was better than overthinking it. I knew this wouldn’t work with actual performances, because after all, artists don’t turn up at the 02 and say ‘right, time for a spontaneous gig!’
But, it was still progress. I especially found that the audience being my friends helped.
So, my next realisation was that I felt more comfortable when I knew the audience. This encouraged me to sign up to do a contest at my college - I knew about 70% of the people in the audience. That didn’t stop my nerves, and I definitely still had a swarm of butterflies making home in my stomach, but it was bigger than anything I’d done before and another milestone.
If you imagine stage fright as a mountain to climb, I was a solid way up to the peak. There still a long way to go to the top, and then even further to climb back down, but every tiny step mattered. So, I did a whole bunch of gigs at college. By maybe the fifth or sixth one, I didn’t feel any stagefright for the thirty or so people I was performing to. A huge part of that laid with getting used to it; some of the audience were familiar faces, but others weren’t.
Every cheer, every clap and every applause was a boost up that mountain. Kind of like a ‘hey, maybe I’m not totally crap after all.’ Obviously, I still had doubts, the thoughts that they were just being polite or clapping out of pity. But so what if they were? I’d had fun, no one had chucked any food at me during my performance and I came off with more experience and less stagefright.
My last point is simple; don’t be too hard on yourself. I think I played This Is Gospel on piano a solid thirty or fourty times before I even felt a tiny bit ready. They say that practice makes perfect, but I disagree. I know that no matter how much a performer bleeds to the knuckle on their instrument or sings themselves raw, they’ll always find something they could have done differently. And that’s fine - you’ll never learn if you don’t make mistakes in the first place, but that doesn’t mean you have to go hard on yourself for it. Referring back to that Paramore concert, I remember the audience had to sing part of a verse because Hayley forgot it. And did it matter? No. In fact, I would have thought it was just a yell and response thing if she hadn’t said out loud that she’d blanked.
You’re always learning and you’re always growing as a performer. No show will ever be perfect, but that shouldn’t stop you. I was originally going to write this article on instructions as to how to get over stage fright, but I realised that might be simply not possible. I remember watching a video where Queen’s guitarist said they felt nervous before performing at Live Aid in 1986 - and that show went down as one of the singular greatest performances in musical history. Even the greats get nervous.
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