As I waited backstage for my name to be called, I was surprised at how calm I felt. I was about to step in front of a live audience of thousands while TV cameras broadcast my performance to millions of viewers who would watch me compete for more than $10,000.
I am not a seasoned performer; I’m a songwriter who writes for other artists. Until that day the largest venue I had ever performed at was a candlelit coffeehouse with a dozen tables. Now, I was representing the US in the Castlebar International Song Contest, which was held annually in County Mayo, Ireland from 1966 through 1988.
I took my place on stage and the orchestra began playing the introduction to my song, “Wraparound Memory” (written with Bryan Cumming). As the curtain slowly rose, the spotlight blinded me, and the blood in my veins turned to ice water. My heart threatened to burst from my chest. I became unable to feel my fingers on my guitar strings and a searing panic consumed me. But the worst part was that I had no earthly idea of the lyrics to my song—not a clue— and there were no teleprompters. Having rehearsed at least a hundred times, the words to the first verse came out of my mouth of their own volition. While I sang the chorus, I frantically tried to recall the second verse, but it was hopeless. I begged God to make any words come out of me. If they rhymed and made sense, that would be a bonus for which I would be forever grateful.
When the time came, I performed the second verse with lyrics and guitar chords perfectly intact. I attribute it to something akin to muscle memory; I had rehearsed the song so many times, my brain was able to produce the lyrics on autopilot. Nashville-based vocal and performance coach Kim Wood Sandusky whose clients have included Beyoncé, Lauren Daigle, Thomas Rhett, Lauren Alaina, Toby Mac, and Kelly Rowland, underscored this, stating, “Even the most seasoned artist can experience stage fright. So, if you experience stage fright, always be rehearsed and fully prepared with your songs. The saying “practice makes perfect” is very true. A singer who has rehearsed daily and knows the songs will be confident and ready for the performance. Feel the excitement you have to sing and share the story of your songs.”
Whether you are a non-performing songwriter who is occasionally called upon to share your songs at a writer’s night or songwriting festival, or a well-known singer prone to stage fright, there are actions you can take to alleviate your anxiety. Remind yourself that you were born to share the gift of your music, and your audience will forgive you if you make a mistake.
Some performers find that moving on the stage, ie, walking to different parts of the stage or grooving to the music helps relieve their fear. Others find it helps them to focus on and engage directly with an audience member.
After the Castlebar debacle, for years I kept my stage fright mostly at bay by having a “cheat sheet” with chords and lyrics close at hand when I performed. Ironically, I have no fear when I am teaching or presenting a keynote speech in front of thousands or being interviewed on television and radio shows. In fact, my adrenaline kicks in and I feel laser-focused. With that in mind, I reframed my musical performances as teaching opportunities. I shared about the process of writing the songs or the lessons those songs helped me to teach. It worked. Look for the messages you can tell yourself to alleviate your fear.
Lis Lewis, Los Angeles-based vocal and performance coach whose clients have included Rhianna, Britney Spears, Miguel, Courtney Love, Gwen Stefani, and Demi Lovato shared, “It isn’t just being nervous or worrying you might forget the words. Stage fright can be an overwhelming anxiety; your heart beats harder, your breathing gets tight, you might sweat or get lightheaded, you can’t think. In that situation it’s difficult to be ‘in the moment’ and perform your best.
“Before you get up to perform, go into a stall in the bathroom and try to focus on your breathing. Take deep slow belly breaths. This sounds easier than it is because when you’re nervous your brain wanders and refuses to settle down, but breathing is the very thing that will help you become more present. It will lower your center of gravity and help you relax. Imagine you’re a martial artist who must consolidate their energy from their center to give power to their arms and legs. Picture a power source in your stomach that emanates rays of light. It will help ground you, so you aren’t so scattered.
“Relax your shoulders and your neck. Breathe in for four counts and out for six counts. Relax your hands and feet. If you take just five minutes to regroup, you’ll be surprised how much it helps your performance. You may still forget the words, but you won’t mind so much.”
In summation, practicing our songs, doing breathing exercises, moving onstage, engaging with an audience member can all help to allay stage fright. By taking these steps and reminding ourselves that you do not need to be perfect, we can replace the fear of performing with the joy of performing.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwritingand Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs by him are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. A guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, he has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, the BBC, rolling stonesand the New York Times. To receive a free video, “3 Things You MUST Do for Success” and weekly tips to enhance creativity click on Join Songwriting With Jason Blume on Facebook for free events and song criticism. For information about his workshops, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.