How to overcome stage fright

 How to overcome stage fright

Tonight we got into an interesting discussion in the class, about how to overcome stage fright. The term stage fright can cover a broad spectrum – from an anxiety about starting your first tune in an informal pub session, to a paralysing fear of performing onstage in front of a paying audience.

Having learnt to play the fiddle as an adult, it’s something  I struggled with in the early days. I had no real experience of ‘performing’ in front of others to draw on (other than one disasterous school play!). So on top of feeling anxious about my ability to play, part of it was about a real lack of familiarity with being in front of other people who were focused on what I was doing. I was lucky to have a lot of opportunities which came my way, which exposed me on a regular basis to playing in front of other people, and gradually got to a point where I now generally enjoy playing in front of an audience.

How to overcome stage fright
Photo ©Ros Gasson

A large part of the perceived problem with playing in front of others is the fear of failure, or of being judged by others. If we allow ourselves to get into a state of fear before performing, it can cause all sorts of physical symptoms in the lead up to playing. The resulting tension in the muscles, sweats, knotting of the stomach, shaking etc are all likely to impact negatively on how we play. So before you know it, a cycle of fear and poor performance can set itself up, leading to a belief that we can’t play in front of other people.

So, what can you do to get over stage fright, to become more comfortable with playing in front of others, and stop this negative cycle in its tracks? Fortunately there’s a lot you can do to start overcoming stage fright, once you understand what is going on. For folk who have already tried playing in public, and found it really daunting, you’ll realise that no matter what happened for your actual performance, the sky didn’t fall in as a result.  Unless you’re planning on becoming a professional musician, the chances are that even if your performance is not at your usual standard of playing, a bout of stage nerves won’t have any great impact on the rest of your life.

The ideal way to start to get more comfortable with playing in front of others is to take it in very small steps. If you’ve never played with others, that might be by starting off with playing in a class situation, where everyone else is also learning. If you’re used to playing in a pub session, you might want to try going to a different pub session where you’ll be playing with different musicians. If you can find occasions where the steps you’re taking are small, you’ll have more chance of playing well, and feeling positive about the experience. The aim is to set up a cycle that reinforces a positive feeling about whatever stage of performing you are at.

Once you’re utterly comfortable with playing at one level, you can consider taking the next step out of your current comfort zone. For any playing situation, if you think you’re going to be out of your usual ‘comfort zone’ find some time before the event to think about how you can minimise the number of things you have to deal with. If for example you’re going to play at an open stage event, you might consider

  • Finding some other confident musicians who you can play with
  • Visiting the venue before the event, so you know what the space is like
  • Arranging somewhere to have a warm up before you perform, so you can relax into playing a little, before you go on stage

So tonight, we spent a fair amount of the class trying out playing in different situations. With each change we made,  we were just a little more exposed in our playing. First we played the Aird Ranters together several times, with some of the class playing it down an octave. Then 3 people became the audience, while the remaining six played through the tune a couple of times for them. We tried this out in different combinations, so that everyone had a chance to be in the audience. We spent a while talking about how it had been to play in a smaller group, and the audiences gave some feedback too. Several people in the audience role noticed that they really enjoyed it when there was some interaction with the players, or when the players were interacting with each other. We also noticed that it didn’t really matter when we were playing in a group that size if we lost the tune for a moment. It was fine to just stop playing, and join in later!

Next we split the class down the middle, into two groups of 4. In each group, 2 people were playing in the high octave, and 2 playing down an octave. One group played the A part of the tune, then the other group took over and played the B part. Then we moved around, so that members of each group were alternating around the circle. The first group played the tune, then the second group played the tune. We had one more go in this arrangement, with the players standing to play, rather than sitting down. After this, people got up into the circle in pairs or threes, and performed for the rest of the class. One thing I noticed was that some folk were positively enjoying this!

We also spent some time tonight looking at the bowing for Iggy and Squiggy, the reel we learnt last week. We were working on developing a ‘default pattern for bowing tunes, with a down bow at the beginning of the bar. For this tune, that means slurring 2 quavers on an up bow, after the crotchets in the A part, and after the triplets in the B part.

We ended the evening by playing through Dorothy and John Livingstone, the Barrowburn Reel, and Spootiskerry together.

Next week, Anne is coming to Edinburgh and is planning on joining the class for the night. I have a suspicion she might think she wants chocolate! 😉

The String Circle fiddle class summer term will start on Tuesday 16th April. Enrolment starts on Monday 1st April.