Stage fright affects nearly all of us at some point. It’s also a big issue for our students.
The excellent new BBC Young Musician podcast, with Jess Gillam and friends and Nicola Benedetti, covered this recently. The podcast is here; it has many excellent points that are useful for teachers and students.
There are many symptoms that can arise from stage fright or performance nerves.
Symptoms I have felt include feeling cold, weak, tense, butterflies and perspectives on my instrument feeling altered.
Performers’ symptoms also include clammy hands, feeling lightheaded and disorientated.
Also we’re all physically and psychologically different so can experience varied selections of these or even all of them at once!
The solutions appear to be equally varied too with certain ideas or methods working better for some students than others. From a teaching perspective this can make helping them a bit tricky.
It appears that a trial and error approach to see what works better for each student is often needed, so having a few ideas and methods for making stage fright less of an issue can be useful.
One of the points I found particularly interesting listening to the podcast was using posture to help with stage fright.
When we’re very nervous our bodies appear to go into fight or flight mode.
We automatically tense up, our stomachs and digestions are unsettled and we feel agitated or hyper alert.
It makes sense to me that by focusing and changing our body posture we can trick our bodies into coming out of fight or flight mode and help ourselves function more normally.
To prepare for informal and formal performances some ideas to try with your students are:
- even steady breathing
- changing negative posture (ie slouching)
- raising shoulders and releasing them
- rotating shoulders
- power stances (mentioned by Sam Becker on the podcast)
- being floppy like a puppet or rag doll
- making a comfortable strong contact with the floor and a good balanced stance.
Part of one of my courses at music college included some Alexander Technique lessons. One thing we were taught was to think of our body as being like a relaxed spring!
Using informal performances to help students with stage fright
I’m a big fan of the informal performance practice and find it useful for a number of reasons.
One of these is that it ‘seasons’ students giving them a bigger range of performance experiences and it’s easy to do.
I arrange or encourage students to perform in as many different:
- locations (even if it’s to choose a different room in their house for a performance to family),
- and to different groups of people as possible.
This way students are more used to performing in a range of circumstances where the sights, acoustics, general sounds, temperature of the environment and relationship to the audience is different.
They can then get used to a greater range of environmental distractions.
And as performance can often get easier with regularity of use, this box is ticked too!
Sometimes I ask students to play to other students as they’re setting up. Often they’re not keen on this but if they can play to their peers they can often play to anyone!
Stage fright has its name for a reason, because we feel fear.
To make the situation less scary for students I tell them to imagine the audience or examiner in funny hats or fancy dress. Only not too funny, we don’t want to go from fear to cackling hilarity.
Exams can be huge generators of nerves and we’ve all been there. Plus if the first thing you see is an examiner with a visage like the north face of the Eiger it’s hard not to feel like your chances are doomed!
Knowing this I tell students if the examiner looks grumpy it’s not you, they just want their cup of tea and biscuit. Only don’t ask the examiner if they’re ready for their tea and biscuit!
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