Managing Stage Fright

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Hi Liz,
Thanks for writing about this topic. I adopted a "no performance" policy with my choir as soon as I discovered that like me, our choir members were easily stressed out by the idea of performance, and had joined the choir simply to sing for their own enjoyment.

This worked fine, until we were invited to sing for the Empty Bowls Benefit, a fund raiser for our local food shelf (the people who provide free food to the elderly and poor in our community). That's when we decided that while we still would not "perform," we would be delighted to "appear," thus turning a performance (Oh no!) into an appearance (Why not?).

This simple substitution of one word for another has made all the difference to our choir members. Last Tuesday, at our final rehearsal for our annual appearance at the Empty Bowls Benefit, I reminded everyone that all we were doing to do was sharing what we loved with people just like us--folks who might even join us next term if they could see how much fun we were having together. I had two goals for the upcoming appearance: 1) Have fun, and 2) Relax!

One thing we always do as a way to help ourselves achieve these goals is to include our audience in the singing, as soon as possible. For example, on Tuesday, we started our appearance with an old Appalachian song called "Sail Away, Ladies." First, I taught the audience the chorus--a short catchy tune that's fun and easy to learn. The choir sang the same part with them, so they never had to carry the tune by themselves.

Once the audience got into a groove, I signaled the choir to split into sections, adding their harmony parts to the chorus. That's when the audience lit up. Suddenly, they were in their own rock band where they got to be Diana Ross and we were The Supremes. After a short while, I brought in the verses, turning back to audience each time the chorus rolled around. Again, the choir helped them out, but this time, the audience carried the ball.

With everyone singing we could all relax, which everyone feel more comfortable and connected. At one point, we even had to stop singing and start over, after I gave everyone the wrong starting notes to a song. Instead of freaking out--which I definitely would have done during my first year of leading the choir--I stopped conducting and started waving my arms in the air:

"Hold on…Wait a second... What's happening?" I asked. For an instant there was silence. Then one of the sopranos shouted: "We started too high. The sopranos are running out of notes!"

“Ah ha!” I said, and the audience erupted with laughter. The next thing I knew, one of the tenors had pulled out a pitch pipe and was blowing the correct starting note. That’s all it took. No mess, no fuss, no shame. And on we went.

From that point on, the singing got easier, the bright line separating the audience from the choir even blurrier. After we finished we all agreed that this year, it didn't feel like we were singing to an audience of strangers, but rather to a gathering of friends.

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