How to Overcome Stage Fright when Singing [What is Performance Anxiety?]
Stage fright is common amongst performers, singers and musicians, both amateur and professional. It can be debilitating and affect your delivery if it’s not kept in check. So how do you overcome stage fright when singing?
Stage fright (or performance anxiety as it’s also known) is a feeling of nervousness experienced prior to, or during, an appearance in front of an audience. Many artists experience it, but there are techniques available to ensure it won’t hold you back.
In this guide on how to overcome stage fright when singing, we cover some practical techniques on overcoming performance anxiety. Learn how to manage any stage fright feelings you may have and even turn them to your advantage during your singing performance.
What does stage fright feel like?
Imagine yourself backstage, about to give a performance that could make or break your singing career. How do you feel? The chances are, if the stakes are high, you’ll have some serious nerves going on. Psychologically, the more value and importance we place on something, the more it can cause anxiety. When it feels like everything is riding on this one set, the need for it to go well is elevated.
Some nerves do add an edge to a performance, but if they’re overwhelming, it can have a negative effect on your performance. This is why it’s so important to learn how to overcome stage fright when singing.
What are the symptoms of stage fright?
Is your mouth dry? Do you feel light-headed? Are your hands almost dripping with sweat? Is your mind racing as you picture yourself losing your voice, or feeling your throat becoming so tight that you can barely even speak, never mind sing? Even minor tensions can be difficult to manage sometimes, so what is going on in your mind? Are you telling yourself people won’t like you? Are you afraid you are going to embarrass yourself? Scared you will not won’t remember your words or miss not reach that note?
A key element in working out how to overcome stage fright when singing is to pay close attention to your inner monologue and physical reactions. What’s the story you’re telling yourself, how are you saying it and what are the changes going on in your body? These are common symptoms of stage fright or singing anxiety and being able to recognise them is half the battle. Coping with stage nerves is a part of every performer’s life, regardless of experience. You are not alone and you’re in good company.
The science of stage fright (what causes stage fright?)
Before you learn how to overcome stage fright as a singer, it is interesting to know a little about what it is and why it exists. If you find you have a shaky voice when singing, nervous energy may have taken over. When you feel nervous and scared, the brain identifies the on-stage performance as a high-stakes situation and a potential threat. This then triggers the fight or flight response.
Their amygdala has been hijacked.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped piece of nervous tissue found in the brain. Its role is to manage emotions, memory and is the instigator of that fight or flight reaction. Once this hijack is underway, the adrenal glands react by pumping adrenaline and noradrenaline around your body.
This, in turn, decreases the flow of oxygen around the stomach and increasing increases its delivery to your muscles. Cue a rush of energy, shakiness and that overall antsy feeling. You’re ready to rumble or run away.
When hormone levels are sufficiently high, these physical symptoms will begin to occur. In the worst-case scenario, blood pressure may drop rapidly. This can even cause the person to pass out on the spot. Not a great start for your performance – imagine this happened during a live showcase with talent spotters in the audience. This seemingly unhelpful chemical reaction is responsible for the feeling you may know as stage fright or performance anxiety.
However, there are plenty of ways to counter these physical effects.
Using a few of these simple techniques and methods, you can reduce the cortisol and adrenaline spike, keeping you cool, calm and collected.
Stage fright and the solo artist
Discovering how not to be nervous when singing a solo is a big part of an artist’s arsenal. A breaking, shaking and overly breathy voice isn’t a good look or sound. Auditions often cause less experienced singers anxiety. So it’s well worth working on your nerves and confidence ahead of your regional audition date.
It must be said that the purpose of the fight, flight or freeze response is when there is a real danger, all that extra adrenalin makes us alert to everything wanting to run or hide. Being scared to go on stage is essentially a huge overreaction to what is really a safe situation. There is no actual danger, so the reaction is out of proportion with the factual situation of performing on stage.
Even with famous artists the worse incidents that could take place occur, like forgetting your words or not reaching that all-important note, these things happen, and it is worth having a little word with yourself reminding yourself that these fears are unfounded really, you are perfectly safe and in no actual danger.
Telling yourself all the reasons you can think of why there is no actual reason to feel fear on stage will remind yourself that you want to provide a confident, fun, well-rehearsed and polished performance, where you are focused only on the moment and thoroughly enjoying every exciting second of it.
Types of stage fright
There are two main types of performance anxiety:
- Irrational anxiety: fear for no good reason: “If I am well prepared, it should be possible to overcome irrational anxieties.”
- Rational anxiety: insufficient practice and preparation: “Perhaps I can only play at home alone? Out here on the stage, I am just going to embarrass myself.”
Not surprisingly research shows there are a number of influencing factors.
Also, the anxiety might be caused by insufficient preparation or bad memories of the first time you played by memory. Maybe the sufferer is a perfectionist scared to make a mistake. Perhaps you have ineffective coping strategies or find very large – or even very small – audiences hard to deal with. Maybe you lack good technique or the working conditions you find yourself in are not good.
Another influencing factor is upbringing, expectations from parents, teachers and authority figures that have put pressure on as a method to motivate in the past. If a person has been in a situation where they received frequent criticism or spent time in a learning environment that pointed out mistakes and ignored the positives it encourages avoidance of taking risks. In this scenario, performing publicly could easily become challenging.
If any of these factors sound like you, please feel free to contact us, or to seek the help of an empathic vocal coach, who can work with you to build your confidence.
Stage fright statistics (performance anxiety)
Research among professional musicians shows that 60% of the participating musicians suffer from stage fright, among whom 20% to a serious degree which hinders them in their professional career (Van Kemenade, Van Son & Van Heesch, 1998; Fehm, L. & Schmidt, K., 2006; see also Hart, 2007, chapter 4.2).
Stage fright occurs at all levels, among beginners as well as conservatoire students and top musicians. Women appear to be somewhat more susceptible to stage fright than men, though it may also be that women are more open about it (Wilson, 1997).
Generally, stage fright does not just go away; and a focused approach does lead to a reduction of the problem. Stage fright is not just an inconvenient side effect of the profession; it can break or seriously hinder a musician’s career. Also, it is a hazard for the physical and mental wellbeing of the people it concerns (Salmon & Meyer, 1992).
Implementation research HeartMath training programme with students of the Prince Claus Conservatoire PETER MAK Research Group Lifelong Learning in Music & The Arts 2010.
Is there a cure for stage fright?
While you may look to learn how to get over the fear of singing in front of others, this is actually an important process. As mentioned previously, stage fright is your body preparing for “fight or flight”. So stage fright is nerves, nerves are controllable. When you learn how to manage your nerves this way, you can tune in to the exact correct level of excitement that produces the best performances.
Everybody has had a situation where they feel they are doing their best performance. It might be in front of your friends or family or even alone. It doesn’t matter where it is, you just need to know when it happens and then utilise that feeling like a resource on stage. In doing so you can harness the energy and peak your performance to achieve some pure, raw, star quality.
So, the question is not how to cure performance anxiety but how to effectively transform it and use your nervous system to your own advantage. Now you’re cooking with gas.
While persistent, paralysing stage fright is a form of social phobia that is generally caused by social conditioning. It is often argued that the greater the fear, the more likely you are to deliver an unforgettable performance.
Although when we say cure, a more accurate label would be the methods of transforming these feelings into something far more positive and exciting. Once you realise you can wilfully control your nerves and change the state of your own mind and feelings, you can really fly (not literally of course – don’t try that at home).
Getting in the zone: overcoming stage fright
The feeling of complete control on stage is known among musicians as entering the zone, a phenomenon explored by famous psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
In his bestselling book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the scientist explains how the perfect correlation between skill and challenge results in a state of optimal performance — or flow.
“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Csikszentmihalyi explains in an interview with Wired.
There are plenty of methods for getting in the zone, however, the key is ‘perfect correlation between skill and challenge’. So the first vital clue to overcoming stage nerves is to be confident in your performance. Then you have gained the skill part of the ‘flow’ formula. The more practised you are the more confident you will feel. And you more satisfied you’ll be during, and at the end, of your set.
Here’s a great article about getting in the zone we found for you on Headspace.
Honing your craft
As mentioned, getting in the zone depends as much on the challenge ahead as it does on your skill level. When it comes to performing or auditioning, there are two things you must master.
The first one is obvious: you need to train your voice. The second is improving as a performer: one who doesn’t crack under pressure but, instead, uses it to fuel the performance. To prevent nerves from getting in the way of your act, do consider working with a professional voice coach (which has the added benefit of learning how to sing better overall).
Understanding the technical side of singing is another way of gaining confidence and controlling the voice, even in a stressful situation. And not every setup is going to be ideal. You might have to perform in front of rowdy, disinterested crowds, outdoors, in cramped spaces and in venues where the tech fails.
Learning to handle these scenarios is all part and parcel of becoming a pro. Finding your way around these challenges can even be a creative process in itself – and it’s super satisfying when you turn it around and have the audience enraptured.
And of course, practice! practice! practice! Keep going until you are happy with your performance and know what you are doing inside out – and then some. That way you know what you are capable of, which will fill you with confidence and is a big part of managing your performance nerves.
Many people have a fear of singing in front of family. If you can overcome this, you’ll have the ability to nail it with pretty much any other crowd.
Strategies for overcoming stage fright
Now that you know performance anxiety is a good thing, you need to learn how to harness it.
There are many supposed cures and while some might swear by chamomile tea or bananas, it’s possible that these are only placebos. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
While best practices of eating and drinking [prior to going on stage] may not solve your performance anxiety directly, some foods and beverages may improve the quality of your vocals — which, in turn, could have a knock-on effect on your confidence.
Reappraisal, or seeing things in a new light
Believe it or not, merely acknowledging that stage fright can be transformed into a good thing, is a step towards enhancing your stage performance. Instead of feeling helpless, or having a victim mentality, you now know that you can take control and harness its power!
Think of an upcoming audition as an exciting challenge rather than a threat. This increases your chances of enjoying yourself on stage. When you enjoy yourself on stage, the audience feels it and want to support you. There’s something really infectious about enjoyment in relation to performance.
And when you appear nervous, or on edge, the audience senses that too. So the more at ease and in control you appear, the more the crowd will relax and get into it. Let them know they’re in safe, experienced and professional hands, by exuding confident body language.
Recognising the physical symptoms of anxiety as a prerequisite to entering the zone is called reappraisal. Check yourself, breathe deeply, and say “ahhhh…” slowly and out loud to yourself a few times on the out breath. Let your awareness drop to just below your belly button and all the way down to your feet.
Plant your feet on the floor and feel an imaginary thread on the top of your head pulling you up. Legs heavy and grounded, head open and light. Practice that feeling when you’re at home.
It is an ancient martial arts and yogic technique for keeping grounded.
How to get over stage fright with the power of imagination
To imitate a high-pressure situation, surgeons use virtual reality to learn their life-saving skills. Visualisation is a similar but more accessible strategy, commonly used in professional sport.
|“Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — Author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”
Visualisation helps high-level athletes maximise their performance at high-stakes events such as the Olympics.
They don’t only imagine how they will move but also how they will react to the roar of the crowd, the bright lights, and countless cameras pointed in their direction. Because they know they’ll have a whole lot more to deal with, than just the competing aspect.
Creative visualisation is used by business-people and star performers around the world.
Can creative visualisation show you how to be less nervous when singing?
Well, it seems it can do more than that. Our research is showing us that not only can it be used to calm us down, only we can even train ourselves to perform better by using these techniques. The more we imagine beforehand how we want to feel when we perform, the more likely that outcome is. As we have visualised it, we then are able to believe it. And because we believe it, we can do it.
Make this a regular practice. Before every gig or audition, imagine yourself smashing it out of the park. Repeat it – see the audience going crazy in your mind’s eye until you begin to believe it.
Our natural tendency can be to catastrophise everything that could go wrong, allowing your fears to play out. This stems back to ancient times. We are rigged to anticipate fear so we don’t get die. The problem is, if you’re overly fearful, while you won’t be killed, you might feel like you’ve ‘died’ on stage.
The act of creatively thinking and imagining beforehand is something that the most successful and confident performers do quite naturally. It’s a habit typical of high performers that know how to get in the zone. Plus it feels great.
So there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t use this method to enhance your performance. Take it a step further and start practising your future award acceptance speeches. Positive thinking works, so aim high.
How to overcome stage fright when rapping
We’ve talked a lot about singing and how to get over stage fright in that context. But what about rapping? Well, the techniques and methods are generally the same as those used to stay calm when singing on stage.
Yet as a genre it can bring its own set of fears. In the main, lyrics flower much slower when singing, than when rapping. And there’s far fewer of them (especially in a ballad) and are often repetitive. So a major concern for rappers can be the fear of forgetting the words, bringing its own specific kind of legitimate anxiety.
There are specific methods that can help rappers to remember lyrics and to improvise if they do forget. So work on this ahead of time, can prevent unnecessary performance anxiety.
While stage anxiety is basically learned behaviour generally absorbed due to lack of strong extrovert role models when young as we learned earlier there can be many reasons why this lack of confidence exists and the behaviour can be imprinted at a preverbal stage of development through negative experiences; therefore, psychological exercises can be massively effective in dealing with the problem.
It is important to recognise that not all anxiety is equal and different strategies are suited to different people. So it’s all about finding which of the techniques and exercises works best for you and honing it.
How to not be nervous singing
Be well prepared. Practice. Practice. Practice. Eliminate anything and everything that can go wrong. Practice until you cannot go wrong
What should you not drink before singing?
Some suggest an alcoholic drink to calm the nerves. This is a very flawed strategy and not one for a professional artist. Start on this road and it’ll become a habit – not good if you plan to perform long term and for a living. It also dulls your senses and dries the throat. Avoid dairy products too as they encourage mucus production.
How do you sing in front of an audience?
If you’ve not performed live before, this might be daunting. But you just have to dive in and do it. Sign up to some low key open mic nights, to begin with, then build up to bigger gigs. Focusing on your song, intention and meaning, while communicating with your audience, will stop you overthinking.
How do I relax before performing on stage?
Relax your body by doing some gentle yoga postures, Tai Chi or stretches. Relaxing the mind can be a bit more of a challenge. Katy Perry is an advocate for stress relieving meditation, and does it before every live performance, recording and when writing. Or practice some ten minute mindfulness exercises for relaxation.
Have you experienced stage fright? What techniques have you used to manage or overcome it? Please share in the comments below.