Michael Johnson Photo

Stage Fright

THE SOLO PERFORMER: Dealing with Stage Fright

Written by
Michael Johnson

You've got your Jolly Roger clothes on, you've got the microphone, the lights are on you and the owner has just told the crowd to shut up, all of which presumes that you have something to say, and you are getting that kind of "show and tell" sickness that you used to get at grade school pageants or college recitals.

What you meant to say was "Well, good evening. It's great to be here in Ashtabula at the Corn Ball." What you actually said was something like, "We'll get even, no . . . fine I'm . . . thanks."

Suddenly your mouth is so dry that your lips are sticking to your teeth and you find yourself gesturing oddly with your shoulder and wondering if they think that maybe something unfortunate happened to you. And they're trying to cope with the whole thing. It is now, of course, it hits you that you started with the second verse, you're doing a live rewrite, and you have no idea how this song is going to end.

Your guitar suddenly feels like it's tuned a half step low, but you find to your shock that you cannot hit either the high notes or the low notes. Your vocal range has shrunk and your heartbeat is interfering with your vibrato. Your palms are wet and your mouth is dry—a great combination. Well, you know what I always say . . . "There's no business like farming."

I will never forget singing the national anthem at a world series game in Minneapolis, looking up at that big TV screen and there, staring down in judgment was my own huge and menacing face. (O'er the land of the freeeeee . . . !!") Laughable afterwards perhaps, but when you're living it, stage fright is painful.

Fear is the greatest destroyer of personality. Those who don't suffer from it seem to be the ones who simply can't wait to get on stage. Others are tortured to the extent that they won't perform at all. (I'm somewhere there in the middle). We've all heard the hollow statements like, "A little stage fright is good for you—keeps you on your toes." Wimpy little false hope, placebo-like words recited by someone who's not going to be onstage tonight. Sorry moms, but anything that gets in the way of being real is not exactly what you need right now. While there may be something to be said for adrenaline, which may actually heighten concentration, there is no use for fear.

Stage fright, in a word, sucks.

Audiences come to shows, I think, for a couple of reasons. First, of course, they come to be moved; to be different for a while. But they also come to watch you do the very thing they'd never do in a million years—get up in front of a crowd and show yourself.

We all know the symptoms. They vary widely, depending on who you are, how you are tonight and how important the occasion is to you. People are amazed that even seasoned performers, having faced thousands of crowds still get scared before the show. I guess the subconscious has no sense of time.
  • Sensory Deprivation—inability to see or hear well.
  • Lack of Coordination—under or over emphasized gestures, late gestures—stiff movements
  • Emotional Flatness—restricted or muted inflections
  • Trembling—weak in the knees
  • No vocal control—dry throat, hard to control facial muscles (And your dad still asks, "When are you gonna get a real job?)
  • Distorted sense of elapsed time
  • Sudden Tiredness ("I couldn't possibly do a show right now, I'm falling asleep.")
  • Memory Loss—difficulty concentrating
  • Babbling ("Hi. My mom's crazy. She lives in Seattle . . . For my next song . . . ")
Incidentally, if there is anyone out there who has all these symptoms, I'd like to come see your show sometime!

It's not placebos, but the truth can free you up about all this. Here are some truths and some suggestions:
  • Remember that your show is really an act of giving. You do love this music and you do want them to appreciate it too. There is real power in wanting to give them something.
  • You really learn fast under pressure. Some of the mistakes you make the first time you will never make again.
  • By the third song, you'll probably not be nervous anymore.
  • 90% of all audiences are sympathetic and interested in what you have for them. Sometimes the people who are trying to listen are even more upset than you are about the loudmouth over there and those situations often take care of themselves. They're on your side and they want you to be comfortable so that they can be too.
  • Remember, you know much more about your stuff than they do. They can't read your mind, and they're not aware of the little screw ups here and there.
  • Play and sing a lot the night before. Have the stuff "under your fingers," so that if you go on automatic for awhile, you won't return to discover that while you were out, a junkie has been driving the bus.
  • Walk a little backstage. Try to be inside your body. Do some breathing.
  • Do your homework. Know whatever it is you need to know in addition to the show. Things at the beginning happen pretty fast. Consider these: The first thing you're going to say; how you're going to enter; how to adjust yourself on stage at the beginning (do try to avoid that huge "popping" sound when you plug in your guitar, people don't like it when you hurt them). Make yourself think about these things. Don't confuse leaving things to spontaneity with ignoring stuff that you're afraid of.
  • I usually consider the first song a bit of a throw away, certainly nothing cerebral. (But don't choose it too casually. It's always difficult to find a good opener.) I figure they'll be busy checking me over, and I'll be busy trying not to fly apart.
  • Look at them. Make contact. There is no way you can affect them if you won't let them affect you. Maybe let them know you're a little bit spooked. You gotta start from where you are.
  • Concentrate on what you mean. What you mean is why you're there. It's all just robotics without that.
  • Also there are lots of quirky little tricks performers do before shows. We have themes and variations and, no doubt, you will develop yours: some have to shuffle their feet, some just jump around, some have to meditate and others cannot be alone.
But when you're finally past the jitters, and you are actually doing what you wanted and it's working and you're so immersed in the giving that the doing only needs occasional monitoring, all this talk is just so much jive. And after the show, no matter how well or poorly you think you did, you feel pride, and it's the fact that you got up there and did it that you are proud of.

Break a leg.

Performing Songwriter - Volume 1, Issue 6 - May/June 1994

More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns