Stage Fright

I Cor. 2:1-4
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.”

What is performance anxiety/stage fright?

Merriam-Webster defines stage fright as “nervousness felt at appearing before an audience.” This definition points us in the right direction. However…

Different levels of PA

One thing the formal definition doesn’t communicate is that there are various levels of performance anxiety. There are episodes I would label as “stage fright” which include full “crash and burn” events. They can be so debilitating to a performer that it cripples the performance. Same cases are so severe that they cause the performer to walk off stage before the performance is finished. Even the most basic physical (musical) functions are paralyzed. Unfortunately, these extreme cases often feed the fears of future performances causing a cyclic problem which becomes very difficult to solve. This can spiral so far out of control as to end the performer’s career.

I think it’s these “crash and burn”, career ending episodes that most people associate with the term “performance anxiety.” When we offered “An Expression of Grace” as a workshop, very few musicians signed up. I think this is because most musicians don’t experience these “crash and burn” episodes when they perform. So they assume they don’t have any performance anxiety issues.

But performance anxiety isn’t only limited to the extreme “crash and burn” scenarios. Different levels of performance anxiety have different effects on our performances. Most people do indeed experience performance anxiety, but don’t recognize it as such because it’s not as extreme as the classic cases we hear about.

For most of us, performance anxiety prevents us from doing our best. It prevents us from realizing our full potential as performers. We live our lives knowing what we are capable of doing and we are continually frustrated because reaching that level is always just beyond our grasp. THIS TOO is performance anxiety and it’s something we all need to deal with if we are going to perform at the quality level that God intended.

Different Symptoms

Different people have different symptoms when they are nervous. My “crash and burn” nervous symptom was dry mouth, which doesn’t sound so bad for most people, but for a trumpet player it is disastrous. Some people shake. Others become distracted and unable to maintain mental focus. Some sweat profusely. Dizziness, excessive body tension, numb extremities, hypertension and nausea are also symptoms of nervousness. Not all of these are equally detrimental to musicians. It really depends on the severity and how that particular symptom affects the the mechanics of their particular instrument.

The three most debilitating symptoms of stage fright for trumpet players are shaking, dry mouth and lack of mental focus.

My Story

Stage fright was a normal part of my daily life for longer than I can remember. It’s interesting that while I was preparing my notes for this website, I found a journal entry from when I was very young. It was a piece titled, “How I Feel In Plays.”

“I got shy yesterday in the play. When I had to do my part I started to laugh when I was supposed to be scary. After I got off stage, I felt hot and funny all over. I always feel hot and funny when I do something in front of people.”

I’m only guessing, but I think I was in second or third grade when I wrote that. I don’t remember ever doing plays and I don’t remember writing a piece about it. But there it is, proof that I suffered from stage fright long before I had my first musical performance.

Elementary School

I do remember that first performance. I was in fifth grade, living in Maryland at the time. My father was in the military and we moved a lot. Changing from one school district to the next, the curricula were never the same. I started playing trumpet during the summer between fourth and fifth grade but later had to take lessons when we moved to North Carolina (Ft. Bragg) because they didn’t have band there until seventh grade. Fortunately, my first semester in fifth grade was spent in a district that had band at that age and I had my first performance there in Maryland.

It was tiny band…just two trumpets, two clarinets and no one to hide behind. We played our concert for the entire student body using music from the beginning band method. It was the first time I had ever performed in front of people and I got so nervous that I was shaking. I found it difficult to concentrate and ended up fiddling with my fingers on whatever they could find to fiddle with.

What they found was my valve button. I put my finger on the top of the valve and flicked it. The button shot out of the stem like a rocket and landed somewhere between me and the hundreds of kids sitting and watching us perform. I remember the feeling of the buttonless valve stem as I tried to play the trumpet and silently remarking to myself  how similar it felt to a missing tooth. Something was missing which had always been there before. With that realization came the gut wrenching feeling – I was terrified. What had I done? Hundreds of fellow students were watching me and I was scared.

Junior High School

That was the first of half a lifetime of similar experiences. There were several of these episodes while I was in intermediate school. I remember one time playing a contest with the band in a gymnasium. There were several bands on the floor and we took turns performing. I had a big solo on Camelot and that was the first time I ever remember getting a dry mouth from my nervousness. Dry mouth is NOT the kind of problem you want as a trumpet player. I think I got through the Camelot solo, but there was a fuzzy tone throughout. It was certainly not what I was capable of doing at the time.

Here’s another story from my junior high years that I’m including for its entertainment value:

A Kiss and a Gong

It was the band’s final concert of the year, my last performance before I left for high school, and they were giving out all of the awards during a pause between the last two songs. I had received a few awards for various things. I think I was the band’s quartermaster and I got some other awards for things I can’t remember.

The final award was a traditional, flower lei given to all of the members leaving for high school. They asked all of us eighth graders to stand up and wait to be honored in this way. There were maybe four girls taking turns putting the leis around the kids’ necks and kissing them on the cheek. One of them was a girl whom I had a crush on. I had always been very shy……VERY, VERY shy. I was hoping, NO, praying to God that she wouldn’t be the girl who was going to kiss me.

Well guess what?

She was!

I shook as she climbed the risers to put the flowers around my head. Then came the dreaded kiss. She was shorter than I was so she had to stand on the tips of her toes to reach me. I freaked out and leaned as far back as she was leaning forward.

Then I fell!!!

The band was set up on the floor in the gymnasium just in front of the stage. The trumpets were on the risers closest to the stage and the percussion section was set up on the stage. Right behind my chair was the gong and I fell right into it.

It was quite a show. I didn’t really know what was going on as it was happening. Were these the fire works I had heard of? When I finally came to my senses, the entire gymnasium was full of people laughing at me.

A recording was made of that concert and it was pressed and sold as an LP. I didn’t get my copy until I called my band director over twenty years later. Even though the infamous kiss wasn’t on the recording, I can’t help but to think about it when I listen to the LP.

Stage fright and performance anxiety can come in many different forms. Being shy around “girls” is another form of the same thing. We will be talking more about non-musical performance anxiety on other pages.

High School

It was my dry mouth problem which eventually lead to me taking lessons from my fourth trumpet teacher. He was my judge for solo contest and when my dry mouth set in, I was so upset that I blurted out a couple of cuss words when the notes wouldn’t speak. What’s remarkable about this is that I had never cussed before that day. My judge and future teacher gave me the lowest grade possible. He said he would have given me a Five but the judging system didn’t go that low.

Cussing was a big deal to me and when the performance was over, I couldn’t believe what I had done. I was ashamed of myself. I called the judge to apologize (something that took a lot of courage – I remember how much I dreaded making that call). I explained my nervousness problem to him and asked if he would be my teacher.

University

I was always intimidated by my first university level trumpet instructor. He was a tall man, demanding, stern and always expecting the best we could give. These, I believe, are GOOD traits for a teacher to have. But it’s this kind of expectation that sometimes led to stage fright episodes while I was in college.

I remember needing to walk out of lessons because my dry mouth prevented me from playing. The more I tried not to think about it, the worse it got. I don’t remember any very serious episodes that were as severe as the ones I had in high school and junior high, but the problem was constant. I remember being fine in rehearsals and then looking up into the audience to see my trumpet professor sitting there, auditing the rehearsal. Instantly my mouth dried up and I couldn’t play anymore.

During my college years, I don’t remember any “crash and burn” episodes, but the quality of my performances always suffered. By that time I had found some physical “work-arounds” which worked for me, but it never made the performance anxiety go away.

After School

Soon after I had begun my musical career, I started taking a few auditions for orchestras. My last “crash and burn” episode of stage fright was at one of those auditions. It began with a dry mouth and spiraled more and more out of control from there. I remember walking out of the room before the audition was over. It was that bad.

When I took that audition, I had already discovered certain physical “work-arounds.” You can read more about that on page two of this website. The problem with the physical “work-arounds” is that they don’t always work. In fact, they never work so well as to make the performance anxiety go away. The need for a true cure and a lasting solution for my performance anxiety remained.  The following pages of this story, on this website, tell you how I reached a lasting solution that solved the performance anxiety problem at the root level.

Other Related Scriptures

Mark 13:11
Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

Luke 12:22-26
Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?'”

Summary

When stage fright hits, it can have severe results. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride which most of us never asked to be on. For some people it can be the end of their careers. It is not uncommon for someone to be so overwhelmed with performance anxiety as to get out of music completely to avoid that discomfort.

Fortunately, I found ways around my problems and my performances became increasingly better. But note the wording here, “ways around my problems.” My nervousness was a problem in my music career until I was in my mid thirties.  The “work-arounds” can only get you half way there.


Questions for you to consider:

1) Do you suffer from extreme stage fright? When you perform, do you have any of the symptoms listed above? Do you shake? Do you lose focus? Do your fingers get cold or do you sweat a lot?

2) Do you “crash and burn?” Do your performance anxiety symptoms cause you to completely shut down? Have you been plagued with this for a long time and dread the times when you have to perform before and audience?

3) What have you done to control it? Do you have your own “work-arounds?” Do you know what to do to deal with the physical symptoms?

4) Would you like to know how God’s grace fits in your life in this context? An Expression of Grace is my personal solution to all of my stage fright problems. Continue on to page two to learn more.


To read the next page of this story, please click here. >>

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Dealing with performance anxiety as a Christian musician.