Stage Fright

What It Is And What It Isn't

Here is a recent letter:

Jamie - If I may call you that.. how does one overcome stage fright? I can play very well (I don't mean to brag) and I'm sorry if it sounds like I'm doing it and alone I can come up with some real good licks but in public I freeze.. please help me if you can.

Now that is certainly the million-dollar question! If I could give you the prescription for that one in a few sentences, I think I could sell it for a million dollars! You see Larry, your question is very deep, very fundamental. It strikes at the very core of not only what being a performing musician is about, it also has everything to do with what being a person is all about.

Fortunately for you and for anyone else who reads this, and is also suffering from the same thing (which I think includes everybody) I have vast experience with this one. In my many years of performing, I have suffered every degree of what is called "stage fright". I have gone from someone who used to look out on the stage before a concert, and feel like there was a rope hanging out there, waiting for my neck, to someone who could play before an audience feeling as comfortable as if I were in my own living room all by myself. I have also dealt with, experimented with, and thought about this subject from many different angles, and believe I have come to certain truths concerning it.

What Stage Fright Isn't

First, let me tell you some thoughts concerning a lot of the ideas that are commonly tossed around when one hears advice on this phenomenon from the many people who comment on it (and I have read many). One of the most prevalent bits of wisdom concerning stage fright is to regard it as some kind of potentially helpful thing. I have heard people say things like "oh, it's really a good thing. You should connect with that energy and use it in your performance."

Well, I always think whoever says that is definitely not feeling the same thing I'm feeling when I feel that fear, that "stage fright". Because for me, there is nothing useful, pleasant or fun about it. The first thing I ever noticed about it was that it did nothing but prevent me from playing well, or even having any fun and enjoying myself. The second thing I noticed, was that it robbed these same things from the audience as well, most of whom are there (I assume) to hear what I sound like when I am having a good time, doing this thing called "playing" music.

I once heard a concert performer giving advice to a young player on this subject, and his answer to the students professed problem with stage fright was "that's because you care", I guess he was implying "don't worry about it, it is a sign you care about what you are doing." I doubt it helped this guy very much. Probably left him feeling rather perplexed. Now he not only had to feel his stage fright, he had to conclude that it was the inevitable result of caring about what he was doing. I guess the message is "to care hurts". Does that mean if you don't feel stage fright you don't care about your performance? To me, that explanation is absurd. True, I agree the "fright" has it's origin in a certain kind of caring, but what I hope to make clear, is that it is caring about all the wrong things!. In a nutshell, it is the result of caring about how you, the player are appearing in other's eyes, (or your own eyes, as we shall see) than you do about the music you are making, or sharing it with anyone else.

No, stage fright is not your friend, at least it has never been my friend. We all get to choose our friends, and for me, a friend is someone I can have fun with. This guy's no fun.

What It Does

Before delving into the reasons for stage fright, and what to do about it, let's bring into focus a few of the undeniable effects of it. For the audience, it is nothing but robbing them of their reason for being there. If I go out on stage to share my music with an audience (and I am really sharing not only the music, I am also sharing with them my whole relationship to music and the guitar), the audience is not there to watch me display my fear of them! They did not take a slice of their precious time to come and watch me get caught in the grip of my psychological problem about being up there in front of them, they came to hear music! They came to hear someone play, not freak out! So if nothing else, it is an extreme discourtesy to the audience members, and I believe it is the responsibility of every performer to get his or her head straight on this subject, (or at least try) and make sure they can deliver the product they are supposed to be delivering.

For me, the performer, the effects of stage fright are equally devastating. How ridiculous, how cruel, that I have spent perhaps hundreds of hours practicing, studying, working and sweating to learn these pieces and prepare this concert, and I go out on stage and have a severe traumatic experience! If I want to torture myself that badly, there are lots of easier ways to do it that don't entail wasted practice time. I could race down the highway in the wrong lane at 100 miles an hour if I want to scare the be-jesus out of myself the way I have at times in my life by doing the "stage fright" thing.

How disheartening to have worked for hours to discover and shape the nuances of a particular passage, and not even be able to get the notes out when it comes time to share with another human being the fruits of my labor. It is truly nothing but its own special form of "musical impotence". And it is all a completely self-created and self-imposed experience. It is one of the many ways human beings turn what could be beautiful into something ugly in their lives.

It's Not Happening To You, You Are Doing It!

Having brought these points into focus, the next thing to realize is this. Stage fright is not something that happens to us, it is something we do. It is not something "coming over us", it is something we are deliberately doing, from the inside, deep within ourselves. We are just not aware that we are doing it, because we never look that deep. So it appears to be out of our control, it appears to be something that is "happening" to us, not something we are doing.

I had a dramatic illustration of this truth one time when I was a young player, just beginning to face some of my fears about my own playing. I was just beginning to experiment with recording myself. I was shocked as I turned on the tape recorder and began to feel terribly afraid, and in fact experienced all the same symptoms of stage fright I had before that time had the displeasure of experiencing on an actual stage. There I was, sitting alone in my bedroom, with my heart pounding as I began to play for a tape recorder! What should we call that "Recorder Fright"?

People Fright!

This brings us to the crux of the matter. There is no such thing as Stage Fright. People are not afraid of stages.

There is only People Fright. People are afraid of people.

When I was sitting there, unable to play for my tape recorder, I was experiencing People Fright. The person I was afraid of was me! Or more properly speaking, I was afraid of all the voices in my head that I knew would start yelling at me when I listened back and heard that my playing wasn't quite what all those voices demanded it be.

The reason you, me, and everybody else does this thing called stage fright, is because there is one thing that all people fear the most, more even, then they fear death itself. And that thing is other people!

I have read of studies where people are asked "what is your greatest fear". Well, the winner is not fear of death, or auto accident. It is fear of public speaking. That says a lot. That is another way of saying "the thing I fear most is other people, especially if they are looking at me, paying attention just to me and what I am doing." Now isn't that an interesting paradox. Psychiatrist's offices the world over are full of people talking about how they didn't get enough love or attention growing up. Nobody was interested in them or what they said, did, or thought. They are full of people willing to pay a high hourly rate just so someone will listen to them for an hour (make that fifty minutes).

And yet, put somebody up on stage, where they can get every iota of everybody's attention, (no competition like having that pesky brother or sister around) and they fall apart! Isn't that strange? Life is full of little practical jokes like that. I guess it's what they always say about too much of a good thing...

How It Works, And Why It Works

Okay so now that we have this stage fright thing more properly defined as what it really is, that is, People Fright, we are in a position to get some where with it. But first, a caution. Many (perhaps most) people, including professional performers, never slay this dragon. They may learn to live with being in it's presence, and learn to perform even though they must do it while their knees are wobbling! But they never actually get to the essence of the matter, so that the dragon is slain, (or perhaps, more accurately, transformed). The reason they don't do this, is because the matter goes too deep, too deep into the person themselves, and it is deeper than they are willing to go.

Andres Segovia, for instance, who is the most famous classical guitarist of the 20th century, and undeniably one of it's greatest musical performers, was, throughout his very long performing career of some 70 years, plagued with incredible stage fright, often shaking visibly before going on stage, and having the beginnings of concerts seriously impaired because of it. He is one example of many world famous performers who never got to the root of it, and never overcame it.

Segovia did do something however, which to me is ridiculous and deluding. He did what I call "making a virtue out of a vice", something people commonly do when they don't want to or can't change a weakness. They start to "re-shape" their thinking about it and turn it into something that makes them look good! Segovia told himself (and others) that suffering from stage fright was a sign of talent, and not feeling stage fright was a sign of not having talent! While it may be true that artists tend to be highly sensitive individuals who are more prone to certain "imbalances" in their make-up, it certainly doesn't mean that that same sensitivity/talent must lead to the undeniably unpleasant (to say the least) effects of stage fright.

Interestingly enough, Segovia would, during the course of the concert, overcome the feelings and start to enjoy playing for the audience, as many players do. He would say, "before a concert, I want to cancel it. After I am done playing, I want to start again". This was certainly a good thing, but why have to repeat the endless cycle of agony each time a concert comes up?

I have told you this story about Segovia, because I want you to realize the enormity of this problem of stage fright. I consider coming to understand ourselves in the context of how we feel about walking out on stage, or any kind of playing for other people, to be an ongoing, life long process, that is in many ways as rewarding and interesting as being a musician itself. And also understand that I am not talking about a certain kind of "excitement" we may naturally feel at the prospect and the experience of performing on our instrument for other people. Even by it's very rarity, it carries a certain kind of excitement to it. I am talking about the absolutely debilitating effects, you know, like hearing about how John Lennon would throw up before a concert! I am talking about the "scared to death" kind of feelings. I am talking about things that makes us play worse, not better.

Before we talk about "why" we are so afraid of sharing our artistic selves with other people, and why we are so afraid of other people in so many areas of life, let's talk about "how" we are afraid of other people. Let's start real simple, with common experiences everyone has, but I don't think everyone notices, or appreciates what is really going on when they are happening.

The How Of Stage Fright

Think of it this way. When you are sitting on a public seat somewhere in a public place, maybe a bus, or a park bench, and someone sits next to you, why do you tense different parts of your body as they get closer to you? Why do you make an (ineffective) attempt to "withdraw" from that other person? Everyone does, you know.

Imagine you are walking down the street, all by yourself, and you are lost in thought, or the scenery perhaps. Why is it, if someone begins to approach you, walking in the opposite direction, you not only tense different parts of your body as they approach, but you will notice, if you pay attention, that even your awareness of your own self, your own body, changes. You will, for instance, become very aware of your face, as the person approaches. You will also notice it is not a pleasant feeling. Observe yourself in this situation. You will notice yourself doing these things.

If you were walking down the street by yourself, and then saw up ahead that you had to walk past a group of strangers, you would really start to react, or rather "contract". You would tense your body, and "harden" your "body armor" for the experience of walking past them. I caught myself doing something very interesting a while ago. I noticed that whenever I walked into a public place, a store for instance, I would (unconsciously) anticipate and prepare for encountering the people there by tensing and or biting on my lower lip, very slightly, but still tensing. I had probably been doing this my whole life and never noticed. I experimented with not doing it (you have the power to experiment once you observe it, not before). I found a very interesting thing. I found that I felt somehow "unprotected" to walk into a group of people without tensing and biting my lower lip!

I could only conclude that the reason I was doing this was to protect myself. In my case, knowing my own neurosis so well, I believe it comes from a childhood of being told to shut up, and being punished for speaking my mind. So I would do what is meant by the common phrase people use when they want to say something but are afraid to for some reason, I would "bite my lip". Most of us have some similar hidden obstacles. This is an example of what I mean when I say you must go deep to make real headway with this situation. It is through a long process of such experimentation and observation that I began to notice changes in ALL my dealings with people, including the experience of walking out on stage in front of hundreds of them.

We have all learned to do these things so completely and automatically that we don't even notice them. In fact, it's like when you are in a room, and there is a background noise going on for a long time, but you didn't notice it until it stopped! Then you are struck by the "quiet:" that replaces it, but before that, you just included the sound in your awareness as a natural part of the "background".

That is how these inner reactions we perform in our contact with other people are. They are so natural we don't notice them. But you must realize that becoming aware of yourself in this way IS the beginning of actually being able to change this "stage fright" thing we are talking about, that so many people are never able to change. When you do begin to notice these things, notice how fear of other people operates in your daily life in the simplest affairs (being in the supermarket, waiting on line, etc.) it will be a new sensitivity. It will grow over time. You will realize that the reason you experience fear of people on the stage, is because you have fear of people all the time.

But exposing such a vulnerable part of yourself as the part that strives for artistic expression, and requires special abilities, special TALENTS (my god, what if I don't have any!), now that is pushing it. Our fear of other people comes bursting out of our seams by then!

In all the above mentioned situations, you will also notice, as your sensitivity increases, that the feelings occurring are not pleasant, not in the body, or the mind, just like stage fright. It is not a pleasant feeling because what you are really doing in all these situations is, in fact, trying to avoid the other person. You are trying to avoid the fact that the other person is there, that they exist. You are doing this by "hardening" yourself, and shutting down your awareness by withdrawing your attention from what is around you, focusing it into your own body, thoughts and feelings. This is what the word "self-conscious" means. You are being conscious only of yourself, not others and your relationship to them.

You see, when you step out onto a stage, or even just go to play for some friends, you are simply demonstrating the same fear, except that it is now too big too hide! Normally, we do hide it. It's easy, since everyone else is hiding their fear in the same ways, and hardening themselves against us. They are just as afraid of us as we are of them, as we go about our day to day routines meeting people in the usual situations, as in the examples above.

The Why Of Stage Fright

Knowing how we do the People Fright thing is actually more important then knowing why we do it. You can endlessly contemplate the why and still never change it. But by working with the how, you will discover the why anyway, and notice it changes by itself, over time. But as far as the reason for all the protecting, all the fear of other people, the root of it is simply the inability, the refusal, to love and accept ourselves as we are, with all our "faults" and imperfections. We do it to ourselves, and then we go around being afraid everyone else is going to do it too. We condemn ourselves for the mistakes we make as players, we compare ourselves to those "great and perfect players who everyone loves and accepts", the ones we want to be like. Then we reject ourselves for not being so great and perfect.

Also, it can be a vicious cycle, because often guitarists do have many imperfections in their playing ability, and the guitar is an incredibly difficult instrument by it's nature, anyway. So being a guitarist, especially a soloist, can be risky business. On top of that, the teaching systems that have been developed over the years are always incomplete, and largely ineffective for many students. Don't forget that compared to piano and violin, the guitar is a newcomer. Add to all that the guitar being a solo instrument, and guitarists being a bit "quirky" by nature (my opinion), and you have all the ingredients for a lifetime of mal-adjustment!

But it is our duty to always be trying to find the paths of growth, and work to improve ourselves, no matter what stage of development we are at. Without being engaged in that process, and yet still displaying ourselves before other people while being conscious of our stagnant faults, is to invite the paralyzing effects of performance anxiety as a permanent companion on stage.

The greatest players are always working on improving themselves. They are always aware of the things that can be improved, new territory that can be explored. But we all must understand that performing is a matter of offering what you have at the moment, to other people.

So, on a practical level, one of the most potent ways to begin to loosen the grip of stage fright is to couple an acceptance of ourselves at the moment, with the process of on-going development. These conditions themselves provide a sturdy foundation for the wobbly knees of the anxiety stricken performer.

It's A Concert, Not A Contest

So far we have talked about what Stage Fright is, and what it isn't. We have looked at how it is done, and why it is done. We have seen that it is not something that happens to you, it is something you actually do. We have seen that it is just another form of People Fright, although a highly potent form.

Well, if Stage Fright is something we do, I think we can all agree we would rather not do it. But how do we not do it? The answer may surprise you.

There is no way to not do it. Or more correctly, there is no way for "you" to not do it. There is no way for the "you" who does it to not do it.

There is, however, a way to go through it. There is a way to give birth to a new "you" who does something else instead.

The answer to our problem is to discover what it is we should be doing when we play music for other people, and then do that. And what we will find when we do that, is that the Stage Fright thing stops.

In order to find out what it is we should be doing when we play music for other people, instead of doing Stage Fright, we need to look at a couple of things first. We need to consider a couple of questions.

One, what is music? Two, why does anyone want music in their life? Three, what are we really doing (or trying to do) when we listen to music, or play music for ourselves or for other people?

What Is Music?

There are three kinds of people. First, the people that have no feeling for music at all, and whose lives would not be affected if there were no such thing as music in the world. I believe these kinds of people are very rare, and that they are similar to the kind of people who don't like dogs or little children, and the ones I have met always gave me the shivers. Personally, I don't think I have met many at all, in fact, only one or two, so I have to account for them here. I'm sure there must be more, I have just been lucky so far.

Second, there are the people to whom music makes a pleasant background to their daily activities. It's nice to have around, like a basket of plastic fruit on the kitchen table. I do know a number of people like this, but I try not to spend much time with them.

Thirdly, there are the people who recognize what music really is. They recognize that music is the most potent form of magic a human being is capable of making. They recognize that music not only expresses emotion, music is a tangible form OF emotion. Music is emotion, it is energy in motion, human energy, human feeling emotional energy. That is why this third type of person not only likes music, not only loves music, they need music. Thankfully, I know lots of these people. You will find this type of person as what we call a professional musician, or as an amateur, it makes no difference.

There are many among this third group of people who recognize that music is divine. If you are one of the people who like to use the word God to express your feelings about the ultimate reality (as I do), then you may think of it, like me, as the voice of God. When I was a teenager, listening one time to Beethoven's 9th symphony, I was at once converted and baptized. I didn't need any scriptures to tell me what God was like, whether there was a God, or any of that nonsense. The "Meaningfulness of Existence" had been revealed to me through a higher Revelation, one that doesn't need human words. It was revealed in a different language, the one we call music, the one that never needs a translator or interpreter, because it speaks "in tongues", directly to every human heart. And it had been spoken by one of Music's greatest Prophets, Ludwig van Beethoven.

There are many musicians throughout history who have recognized the divine nature of music, and because they recognize it, they have the proper reverence for it. Beethoven, of course, felt this way. Antonio Vivaldi, the great Baroque composer of the seventeenth century, was, in addition to being a great musician, also a priest. One time he ran off the altar in the middle of saying Mass, because he had just at that moment received an inspiration for a new piece of music which he had to immediately write down, lest he forget. "I was called by a higher authority", he later explained.

In our own time, musicians like Carlos Santana exemplify this highest type of artist. Santana's relationship to his music has always been intensely spiritual, and you can certainly hear it in the notes! There is an intense quality of ennobled human emotion in his playing, as there is in the music of all such artists. "When I play, it's no good unless I cry" he has said.

I have always noticed that the greatest musicians came to see that what they had dedicated their lives to was of a Divine, or Ultimate origin. In addition to being irresistibly compelled to be music makers and creators, they knew they were answering a supremely high calling. It is not without meaning that Franz Liszt's students were not called students, but disciples. The same with Francisco Tarrega, (who Segovia called "the patron saint of the classical guitar").

Why Do People Want Music?

Now, human beings have argued endlessly over their confused ideas of "God", and made hundreds of versions of "God" each in their own image, and each with a different name which they know is the "true" one. But the beautiful thing about the language of music is that there is no confusion. There is no doubt. It is a direct communication of the Divine to the human heart, and it speaks to each heart that recognizes it. And it speaks in the native language of every heart it touches. When we are moved by the music we love, transported and taken to that place which is above this world, we don't need someone to explain it to us, or tell us whether it's "true" or not. We know.

And if you are a music lover, it doesn't matter whether you have ever thought about it in this way or not, whether you have ever used the words I am using. The Reality we are talking about is beyond words, by definition! That's the whole point! That's why we need music to touch it! Music puts us in touch with our intuition, our "inward knowing" of the Spiritual Reality that stands behind this physical one we normally touch.

A thirteen year old listening to their favorite rock band or rap artist, the 30 year old listening to their favorite pop artist or folkie type singer/songwriter, the person sitting down to meditate upon the mysteries of a Bach fugue or late Beethoven string quartet, all are feeding upon this most necessary food of the human spirit, and are drawn to it as naturally as a baby to it's mothers milk.

Now, here is the whole point.

What I am essentially saying is that music is a basic human need, it is not a luxury. If we do not feed upon this spiritual food, we will pay a price, we will suffer. If you have put yourself in the position of being one who makes this magic called music, if you have decided to become one who speaks this potent, universal, wordless language, than you have just joined a special community.

What Should We Be Doing When We Play Music?

If you have decided to be the provider of this spiritual food for others, then you have taken on a very special job, a very special function. And you must have the proper relationship to it, as those you are providing it for must also.

A priest, minister, or rabbi, is also one who serves the function of providing, or leading people to, spiritual food. He or she leads the congregation to commune with a higher, spiritual reality. I assume that such a spiritual figure, when they are conducting services, are wholly focused on what they are doing. I assume they are not up there thinking, "Gee, how am I doing? Hope the congregation is liking this!

Likewise, I assume the congregation is focused on the reason they are there, to participate in a mutual "spiritual" experience, which the leader is providing. I assume they are not sitting there waiting for the guy to trip up a couple of words! I assume that if the leader misses or mumbles a few words here and there it is not going to make the participants lose their entire focus, and miss the spirit of the experience.

Many performers create terrible strictures for themselves by being so afraid of missing a few notes here and there. They play as if their primary focus was to not miss a note, instead of playing with feeling and expression. That would be like giving a speech, and focusing more on your articulation than on the meaning of what you had to say. Of course, it is not like the technical aspects are not important, but they are of secondary importance. Music began because something needed to be expressed that couldn't be expressed in words. Technique is the servant of expression, and should never be the master. Anyway, technical matters will take care of themselves when we know how to practice correctly.

Being "In Concert": Your Responsibility

The dictionary defines "concert" as "agreement in action, feeling, or purpose". It is a union, a meeting of mind, emotion and spirit. And the meeting takes place in a world of higher vibrations. If I am giving a concert, I am supposed to have MADE that agreement, to meet you there, the audience member, in the sound. That is my commitment, and I am supposed to be living up to it, not be thinking about myself, and whether I am looking good or not, and whether you like me or not! It's a concert, not a contest!

And you are supposed to be living up to the agreement also, you are supposed to be "in concert" with me, meeting me in the sound, and not thinking about something else.

As I said in the beginning of this three-part essay, when a guitar player plays for another person, they are not only sharing the music, they are sharing their relationship to the guitar as well. If your relationship to the guitar, your relationship to your role as a guitarist and musician, is a mediocre one, a lukewarm one, you will not have much to share. First of all, it is your responsibility to make your relationship to music and the guitar (as your chosen instrument) a passionate one, an emotional one, because that is what we are dealing with here, that is why we bother to be musicians, because it is an inherently emotional affair.

Don't Fight Fear, Ignore Fear

Many people make a big mistake by trying to "fight" their stage fright, or to trick by performing little mental maneuvers, like imagining the audience naked or in their underwear. Well, I do believe in doing whatever gets you through the night, but don't confuse it with getting to the heart of the matter. When Fear, when Stage Fright arises, it is because deep inside yourself, you are devoting a large part of your attention on yourself, and not the music. In fact, here is something very interesting to ponder. It can be just as detrimental to your performance to be sitting there performing and be feeling really good about yourself as it is to be feeling bad about yourself. Most of us performers have experienced playing really well, and then sitting there patting ourselves on the back (in our heads), when we should be busy playing. Guess what happens? Bam, there goes that passage! Either it gets messed up, or just suffers from a lack of feeling or involvement, because we were to busy thinking about ourselves, this time in a "positive" sense.

There must be no "self" when you play. There must be only the music. When we do make that inner error of putting self before music, whether "positive" or "negative", the thing to do is to become aware of what you are doing. Take hold of your attention, and place it on the music, and feel your passion for it (which is what you are supposed to be doing, it's what the people came for).

Fear (which is the result of your inner error) is like an unwelcome visitor who just popped in to see how miserable they can make your life. He stands there and starts saying nasty things to you to see if he can get your goat. Like any bully, if he sees he starts to get a reaction from you, he gets more power, he gets bolder. Pretty soon, he'll have you on your knees. However, if he sees you are ignoring him and playing your guitar instead, he gets all deflated. It's no fun; he hangs around a little bit, gets bored, and leaves.

The way through stage fright is to stay centered in that passion, to be with it, to lose the sense of doing the music, and stay with the sense of being the music. This is the responsibility of the performer, just as it is the responsibility of the audience member. When this is done, there is no stage fright, because there is no one there to be afraid. When Attention is where it should be, on the music, instead of on the self, you cannot be "self-conscious", you can only be "music conscious". Then, the magic can really take place.

To Be With, Or Not To Be With

As in all relationships in life, it comes down to this: to be with, or not to be with. Love, is to be with. Fear, the opposite of Love, is to refuse to be with. When it comes to this matter of playing our instrument for others, Stage Fright is what happens when we refuse to be with. Stage Fright is what happens when we refuse to be with the music, the audience, and ourselves.

Jamie Andreas is a virtuoso classical guitarist from New York.

She started playing guitar at age 14, by 17 she was giving concerts and teaching guitar.

Jamie Andreas