Managing Stage Fright
At last week’s session of the Inspire Your Choir course I’m running for MusicLeader West Midlands, we had a really fruitful discussion about how to help our singers go into performances calmly and confidently and be happy that they can deliver their best to their audiences. It included lots of practical tips, and gradually three main themes emerged:
- Structure. People are far more scared of the unknown than of the known. A performance situation is always going to have a sense of stepping out into new territory, since it is a dynamic encounter between singers and audience. But the more we can provide a structure to make sense of the experience for the singers, the fewer bits of unknown are available to be a source of anxiety. Participants listed the following as controllable elements to provide structure:
- Provide a clear itinerary for the day, so everybody knows what is happening when and where.
- Minimise ‘dead’ time in which people can wind themselves up, particularly between warm-up and performance.
- Rehearse all the ancillary aspects of the performance ‘frame’ well in advance, i.e. how and when to stand/sit, accepting the applause before and after, how to enter/leave the stage, etc.
- Develop rituals to set up the performance. A director of a school choir said that singing the school song in the warm-up helped her singers both bond with each other and prepare to be the public face of the school. Another useful tactic mentioned is not to sing complete pieces in the warm-up room, to help give the singers a sense of need or desire and welcome the performance as a means to finish unfinished business.
- Director behaviour. If structures are the ‘what’ of preparing our singers for performance, our behaviour is the ‘how’. Our own demeanour has a powerful effect on the experience of our singers, and we need to be sure that what they catch from us through emotional contagion is helpful. A calm and positive bearing in the face of whatever happens – whether logistical hiccups or performance errors – will prevent our singers from panicking when things deviate from the plan. (There are always things that deviate from the plan of course, but our capacity to improvise in response is directly proportional to how well thought-through the plan was in the first place.)
Our warm-up strategies can help a lot here. If your normal rehearsal warm-ups are about getting people up and going after work, you’ll find that using them just before a performance produces a completely over-hyped choir poised to sing sharp and rush tempi. Meditative warm-ups that slow and deepen the breathing and open the ears are much more useful in these circumstances.
- Mindset. Stage fright is a mindset in which we are feeling defensive of our egos: what if I get it wrong and look stupid/disappoint my friends/make the director angry? Developing a mindset that is more focused outside of ourselves significantly relaxes this need to defend. So, it’s not about me as an individual, it’s about us as a group (the school song ritual is good for this). Or, it’s not about us, it’s about the music (this is how the traditional composer-focused ethic of high art traditions works). Or, as Creating Passionate Users puts it so well: It doesn’t matter what people think about you (and your performance), what matters is how they feel about themselves after witnessing your performance.
A corollary of this is that if our singers are to focus on the beauty of the music or the projection of the message in performance, we need to have rehearsed with that mindset too. If our rehearsal methods take a 'Gotcha' approach - pouncing on mistakes to fix them - it will be much harder for our singers to trust themselves to get it right without constant self-monitoring. If we want our singers to enjoy the flow of the concert, they need to have practised it in rehearsal too.