How to overcome stage fright

By Richie Beirach & Michael Lake

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Performance anxiety, or stage fright as we know it, is very common among artists. Let me share some of what I know about how to overcome stage fright.

Bill Evans, who I knew very well in the last five years of his life, had performance anxiety. Bill was a unique individual.

He was a very sensitive guy who projected a sense of vulnerability in his playing, which is one of the main reasons we love to hear him.

If you have performance anxiety, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy a life of performing, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t get over it. It comes down to how much you want performance success. How badly do you want to play or record or tour? Because if you have that burning desire and that need, you will know how to overcome stage fright.

Did I ever suffer from stage fright? Yes, when I was younger I had it quite often. Do I get it now? No. There is a difference between performance anxiety and being nervous just because you want to play your best.

Real performance anxiety can cripple you, prevent you from performing your best. Nervousness caused by wanting to play your best, however, is different; it comes from a flood of adrenaline. I get that.

The pressure of a big gig

One of the most important gigs I ever did was a 1987 concert called “A Tribute to John Coltrane.” I was onstage with Dave Liebman, Jack DeJohnette, Eddie Gomez, and, most important, Wayne Shorter.

It was a summertime, live, open-air concert in Japan in front of 22,000 fans at midnight. The show was recorded for audio and video. There was no possibility of doing a second take. The pressure was tremendous, and I was excited to be onstage that night with those guys.

Part of the thrill of that performance was playing for the first time with Wayne Shorter. So I had a lot to deal with.

Did I get through it? Yes, and I was very happy with the result, because I liked the pressure and rose to the occasion. Like they say, pressure makes a diamond. Turn performance anxiety into positive energy If you don’t enjoy pressure and you suffer from performance anxiety, here are a few thoughts that may ease your fear of auditions, performances, recordings, or just playing in front of others.

The first thing to remember is that fear is a form of energy.

It is negative energy, but energy nonetheless. Love, enthusiasm, confidence, and joy are all positive emotions. Ideally, you want to transform your fear—your negative energy—into useful, positive, and productive energy.

My advice is to “walk” into that negative energy of fear as though you are walking into a room. Don’t avoid it or hide from it; instead, recognize it and walk right into it. Say to yourself, “I’m going to own this negative energy and turn it into a positive force that I can use to make my playing better.”

There are many levels of fear. Think of it as a scale from 1 to 10. The number 1 indicates very little fear. Maybe some unease, like a first date.

Consider 10 to be the fear felt by a soldier in wartime, lifting his head above a wall, taking the chance of getting it blown off by the enemy. The soldier is young. He’s inexperienced and afraid of what he doesn’t know. His experienced comrades also have fear of what’s above and beyond that wall, but less so, because they’ve spent time dealing with it.

They’re better soldiers, in part because their fear is not overwhelming them and affecting their performance like it is with the young soldier.

Or maybe you’re in front of a large audience that’s judging you. Fear is a primal emotion. For hundreds of thousands of years, fear protected people from being eaten by animals or killed by invading hordes. That fear was very real and sensible.

But today we often feel fear without being in mortal peril. Playing your instrument, no matter how badly you perform, won’t kill you!

The fear you might experience in an audition.

Perhaps you are auditioning for admission to an important school. The audition is three months away, and you have thoroughly prepared the music, but you’re still nervous.

You are nervous because you don’t want to mess up the opportunity to get into that school by playing badly at your audition. How can you walk into that fear? Well, say to yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen? Can I live with that? If I fail the audition, will I die like that soldier?

No. Okay, if you fail the audition, you won’t be admitted to that school. But there are twenty or more schools that will serve you well. At least you’re getting another chance. That soldier won’t get another chance.

Think also of how we tend to build things up in our mind way past the reality of the situation. We exaggerate how scary some things are—everything from a dental visit, to a first date, to seeing a snake, to performing in front of a crowd.

Again, consider your fear as energy and direct it into a positive channel. Use your nervousness to power your confidence. You can do it. You’re not going to audition for just one school but for several that would be good for you. Knowing that can relieve some of the fear—and the practice of auditioning will give you the experience and confidence to more easily turn that fear into power and help you perform better.

Getting past the fear of an audition

After arriving at an audition, you look around at the competition, hear them—and that builds up fear in your mind. You also see the stage, the audience, and the jury, and you become distracted from playing your best.

Instead, visualize the scene beforehand. Close your eyes and imagine where you will be playing. Imagine the stage and the evaluators smiling as you perform. See and hear yourself playing. Maybe some of your close friends are in the audience. Feel the emotion of that.

Are you afraid? Probably not; certainly not as much as at the real audition. Do this several times, so when you finally arrive at the real audition, it’s more familiar to you, and you’re not freaked out by the unfamiliar inputs all around you.

Doing this will allow you to eliminate some of your fear.

I taught at the Mendelssohn School in Leipzig, Germany for 15 years.

While teaching there, potential new students would ask me for help preparing for their auditions. I would have them visit the room in which they would be performing for me, touch the piano, and get a feel for the space. 

That simple visit made a big difference for nervous potential students.

Learning to control fear when I was 12 years old

My first piano teacher, James Palmieri, had his students put on a classical music recital. He always held his recitals on a Saturday afternoon.

I was terrified to play these concerts. All us kids would play two or three pieces of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. All the parents were there with their cameras. The other kids in the audience would be following the music with a flashlight, listening for mistakes. I hated it.

I could play pretty well for my age, but I wasn’t confident. After all, I was only 12! I didn’t like that feeling of fear and the idea that everyone was judging me.

One of the reasons I didn’t want a career in classical music is that jazz gave me the platform and necessity to improvise. I thought, “How could I get nervous about something I’m just making up?” No one would know what I would play. I was free of the anxiety that comes from people scrutinizing the exact written notes on the page.

The fear of recording

I know people who fear recording and freeze as soon as that red light comes on. I, on the other hand, love that red light. Every time I put my finger down, I’m making history.

That is a wonderful and inspiring kind of pressure for me. Not because everything I play is for the ages, but because each note is being documented in a permanent recording.

Performance anxiety comes most often when you are not fully aware of yourself and of your situation. This is one of the reasons that visualization can help relieve anxiety.

Visualization and facing reality

By visualizing, you are facing the situation rather than hiding from it. It’s often the unknown that we fear most.

When I was 38, I was in the hospital for a double hernia operation. I awoke from the anesthesia and saw that I had a bandage on my stomach. An old-school nurse was taking care of me. I asked her, “How am I going to feel now that the operation is over?” The nurse looked at me and asked, “Do you really want to know the truth?” I said, “Yes.”

She took a second, then said matter-of-factly, “Well, you’re going to have a lot of pain for a while, even with medication. The first time you go to the bathroom, it’s going to be excruciating. You won’t be able to walk normally for a while. And when we take out the stitches, it’s going to hurt.”

I replied, “Wow, thank you for your honesty.” Later that day, another nurse came into my room, and I asked her the very same question. She was younger and lacked the other nurse’s direct style and honesty. Her answer was basically that everything would be fine and I wouldn’t even notice any pain.

Now, you might prefer the second nurse over the first, but I like to know what’s going to happen, so I can anticipate the reality.

This relates to performance anxiety, because the more prepared you are for the reality of the situation, the less likely it is that you will freak out by working yourself into a frenzy fearing the unknown.

I still like to know what’s happening, even if the circumstances are not ideal. For example, I like to know how large the audience will be. Is it a sold-out house? What will the weather be? How well in tune is the piano? What is the stage like?

These facts calm me by giving me knowledge, so that when I walk onstage, I am prepared for the reality of the performance.

Arthur Rubinstein had stage fright

It is documented that Arthur Rubinstein had terrible stage fright off and on throughout his career. He tried everything, but nothing stopped it.

Before every important concert, Arthur threw up. He managed it pretty well, though, with a plan. He would get dressed in his performance attire. About 15 minutes before going onstage, he would feel it coming on, put a towel around himself, and throw up. He then entered the stage and played masterfully.

So Arthur teaches us another way of looking at stage fright. Accept it. Accept it and go throw up or whatever trauma you’re going to put yourself through, and then play.

Get it over with, and go perform. In time, like Arthur, you’ll build up more confidence and no longer need your ritual. Of course, Arthur Rubinstein got famous, sold a lot of records, and made a lot of money. Those things help a lot, but you cannot depend on fame and fortune to cure your performance anxiety!

It might help you to realize that you’re not alone in your stage fright. After all, world-class performers like Arthur Rubinstein had it, as did Barbra Streisand—who even had to stop performing for a while because of it.

Managing your insecurities

It is very common to have feelings of fear and insecurity. You may feel like you’re being judged all the time, and guess what? You probably are when you perform. That goes with the territory.

Maybe it helps to think about Miles Davis on those very early recordings with Bird. Those recordings show Miles as a very immature player. Even geniuses must work hard to learn their craft. They just improve more quickly than the rest of us.

To really improve, you have to want it. And to get over your stage fright, you have to want to solve it.

Wanting something badly enough is the foundation of getting better at almost anything. Do you want to perform your music badly enough to put up with stage fright, bad stomach, people judging you, and anxiety? And do you want it enough to get over those fears?

One root of performance fear is lack of confidence. You fear not getting acceptance from others. But before you can earn someone’s acceptance, you must accept yourself. You have to say to yourself, “Listen, I’m young and inexperienced, but I have talent and I do have something to say right now as a unique individual.

Maybe I’m not famous, but I have something to say, and these people are going to get their money’s worth and hear it.” Tell yourself that, and believe it.

Sometimes you have to tell yourself that before it’s true, but you must believe that you will eventually get there.

Again, conquering your fear of performing is about managing your self-image and honestly confronting yourself. What is your current skill level? Would you like your music if you heard it without knowing it was you?

I used to ask these questions of myself all the time, as did my friends. Objectivity is required for anyone wishing to become great at anything.

Bill Evans had to overcome his fear of performance in order to develop his playing over years of hard work. In an early interview, Bill said, “I’ve built my vocabulary brick by brick over many years of study.” Once he became the Bill Evans we all know, he sounded so natural and expressive.

No, you cannot practice vulnerability, but through developing his art, he was able to project that part of himself.

Two stories of conquering stage fright

The first story took place while I was living in Leipzig, Germany, and teaching at the Mendelssohn School when I heard a knock at my front door. I opened it, and standing there was a young man.

He told me his name was Robert, and he asked for a piano lesson. I respected someone showing up at my home unannounced, so I invited him in and asked him to play something for me. He sheepishly admitted that he couldn’t.

This 17-year-old was too afraid to play privately in front of me. I said that if he couldn’t play for me, teaching him would be impossible.

I thought for a minute, and I then told him that I was going to take a quick trip to the store and that I’d be back shortly. In the meantime, he could play my piano to get used to the instrument and the surroundings.

I walked out the door, but instead of going to the store, I stayed outside listening to Robert play in what he thought was solitude.

What I heard was an exceptional talent. He could swing and express himself beyond his years. He needed to work on his technique, but I was very impressed. This kid had talent and was very musical.

I came back into my house and admitted that I had been listening. I told him that he played very well and that I would take him on as a student.

When I asked him to play again, however, he couldn’t. He was still too scared. So I raised my voice. “Why did you come here for a lesson if you can’t play for me?” Of course he had no good answer.

He tried again to play, but it was stiff and lacked the emotion I had heard while standing outside my door. I told him that if he were to become a professional musician, he would have to overcome his fear.

As an intermediate step to get him to play to his potential, I told Robert to play while I heated up some soup in the kitchen. I told him I would barely be listening.

Eventually he got more confident, knowing I was in my house but not in the room with him. Finally I went in, and in an uncompromising tone, I asked him, “You really want to be a jazz musician and play for people?” He said he did, so I said, “Then play for me now or get out.”

This was the kind of tough love that I experienced from my own mentors. I discovered that people don’t learn unless there is emotional impact in the message.

In this case, it worked because he knew I was serious. In the end, Robert did overcome his paralyzing fear, and he became an accomplished and prolific jazz pianist and composer.

The second story occurred at the Village Vanguard in 1978.

Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker, Frank Tusa, Al Foster, and I had a week-long gig. This week would eventually become the album Pendulum on Horizon Records.

It was my first time playing at the Vanguard. I had sat in the audience dozens of times throughout the years listing to Trane, Miles, Wayne Shorter, Bill Evans, and many others, but this was my turn on that storied stage, and I was nervous.

Everyone else in the band had played in that club before. Lieb had played there with Elvin and Steve Grossman, and Randy had played several times with his own band.

I tried to convince myself that it would be okay. I was prepared, I knew the material, I’d been playing with these guys for a while now; but I couldn’t shake my fear.

I remember going into the kitchen to get away from the stage and thinking about what was to come, and that was when I met Elton, a wise old African-American cook who had prepared food at the Vanguard for many years. His hamburgers were legendary.

Elton looked at me and asked, “Why are you nervous?” He could see that I was not in a good place emotionally.

I told him I was nervous because of the club’s reputation and the pressure of the Vanguard audience. He said, “I heard you can play, so what’s the problem?”

He told me that the way I was feeling was no good for the music, and that I needed to get right with myself if I was to perform to my abilities. Elton then told me to stop breathing and to hold my breath, so I did. His point was that if I had control over my breathing, I could control my anticipation of playing on stage there. I was in control of my nervous system.

He also told me to think of the two sets I was about to play. If I didn’t play a good solo on one tune, it would soon be over, and I’d have the next one and the one after that on which to play better.

“You got hired for this gig,” he told me, “so that means you can do this.” Elton was kind of a street shrink who had seen it all in this iconic club, and he sensed what it would take to calm me down.

It worked. I went up on the stage, saw the crowd and the press, and momentarily got nervous. Then I remembered what Elton had told me, and I was able to calm myself and play really well throughout those two sets and the rest of the week.

That recording, Pendulum Live at the Vanguard, became one of our most iconic recordings.

Conclusion

Stage fright is a sensitive and difficult subject. It is one that people don’t want to think about, but it has the power to prevent talented musicians from playing their best or even to stop them from pursuing the life of an artist.

If you suffer from stage fright, consider some of the things I have mentioned here on how to overcome stage fright. Address the fear straight on. Put what you are afraid of in the context of a worse-case outcome, and take the leap of performing without thinking about people listening to you and making judgments of you or your skills.

Do all or any of this and you can become a confident performer playing at your best, regardless of the circumstances.

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