Stage fright is a real and valid fear. Even the best among us experiences stage fright at least once in our lifetime. As a performing pianist, I have had my fair share of nerve-wrecking experiences before an audience. I want to share with you my personal successes in overcoming stage fright as a pianist and how to avoid being paralyzed with it.

Empty StageCredit: zamanyahre of FLICKR

What is Stage Fright?

Stage fright is also known as performance anxiety. It is a fear or phobia associated with being required to be in front of a group of people and conducting a task like speaking, presenting or performing. During any kind of public self-presentation, anxiety can arise for many reasons - but most of this is (in my opinion) rooted in what we think people might think of us.

What are the Symptoms of Stage Fright?

Pre-performance jitters come in many different forms. They are as different as the individuals that encounter stage fright. For many (including myself), symptoms may include

  • elevated heart rate
  • sweaty palms
  • being light-headed
  • tremors in your arms or legs
  • dry mouth
  • and yes, even diarrhea!

What Causes Stage Fright?

I'm no physician, psychiatrist or therapist - but as a pianist who has had his fair share of public recitals, I can safely say that stage fright stems from two areas:

1. Uncertainty

2. Fear of Failure

True story. There is a dream I've had multiple times which involves me being on stage at the piano, with the orchestra waiting for me to start playing - and I have no IDEA what the piece is. 

Even in my sleep, I hear my heart pounding as I sit at the piano on stage, audience silent, and the orchestra players shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

Uncertainty can play a major role in performance anxiety. The feeling of "not being prepared" can cause an individual to be hesitant in moving forward. For me, the uncertainty of knowing whether my performance will be well-received by my audience can lead to stage fright. 

The fear of failure is yet another cause of stage fright. I have certain standards I have set for myself in my performances and the fear of a memory block, or an instrumental 'malfunction' is a real and present one. Because I'm more focused about what others might think of me and my performance, it contributes to the paralyzing fear that is stage fright.

Can I Overcome Stage Fright?

Yes, certainly - otherwise I won't be honest and daring enough to write this article. Having experience stage fright first hand, and having worked through the process of overcoming the fear involved, I can confidently say that overcoming stage fright is more than possible .. for you.

Overcoming Stage Fright: Solutions from The Perspective of a Pianist

Here are some proven ways I have adopted that have helped me overcome performance anxiety as a pianist. Although I'm not a public speaker, I'm quite sure that some of these solutions may prove applicable to your situation as well.

  • Prepare well: If you take huge steps to prepare well for your performance, it eliminates much of the uncertainty you may harbor before the performance itself. I spend many hours studying my music, and notating (IN RED) the portions of my score that are potential "hazard spots" during a performance. I take time to master these 'spots' until they become second-nature to me and my fingers. Anything I can do to "firm up" my performance helps decrease the chances of stage fright. This includes performing my piece in front of only a SMALL group of people, many weeks or months before a public performance. 
  • Give The Gift: When you adopt an attitude of service to others, a lot of stress and anxiety is taken away from the focus you once had on yourself. After I've prepared for a recital with the best of my abilities, I say to myself: Now it's time to give this gift of music to the many who have taken time out of their busy schedule to listen to my performance. I remember the first time I adopted this technique. After my performance, a lady from Japan came up to me and said: "Thank you. That was a very ... benevolent performance. " I've never heard that word used to describe a performance before - but I think I knew what that guest had sensed. She probably sensed that I was not performing to "make others like me" - but that I was giving my performance as a gift to those who had come to listen.
  • Take Control: Take control of the aspects of your performance, and realize that it is absolutely alright if not EVERY aspect of your performance is in your control. For instance, there are some things I can have control over: the placement of the piano on stage, the height of the piano bench, the lighting on the stage, the preparation of my music etc. For the aspects I cannot control (like who turns up for the performance, or the weather, or the unexpected phone ringing during the performance), I have resolved that those are part and parcel of a live performance and adds to the memory of it! Take charge of the things you can take charge of, and for the rest, let memories happen.

I've had many successful piano concerts after adopting these three solutions in my performance life. I DO still experience the 'butterflies in my tummy' just before a performance, but stage fright does not paralyze me anymore. In fact, I use the nervous energy to make my performance come alive, and it shows.

I wish you the very best in your endeavors to deal with and eventually overcome stage fright. Whether you are a musician, public speaker or leader, you MUST know that stage fright can be overcome. I am living testament of this.