Contributors: Ben Green & John Kline
In his first real performance, our son Wes belted out each and every Christmas carol at his preschool holiday showcase louder and more confidently than the next. His volume was only amplified by the increasing silence of his classmates, perhaps put-off by his antics and the entire mysterious, mystifying ritual unfolding around them.
I was relieved. He's less extroverted than his sister and I'd always wondered how he’d do in front of a crowd. Would he have the ease and nonchalance of his dad, or would he inherit the heart palpitations, trembling and shortness of breath characteristic of my onstage persona? I thought we were in the clear.
This year, a few verses into Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, things went awry for Wes. As he scanned the audience for family members, a sickly look of horror took ahold of his face. My reassuring smiles were no match for the rising panic, and after a few seconds he ran offstage in terror and tears. No incentive could get him back up there.
We asked him what happened. “I saw everyone looking at me and my stomach hurt,” he said.
But we’re not giving up. At home, Wes is the singer and dancer. He’s the one who tinkers with the piano, bursts into song and pounds on the drums. He envisions himself onstage, and we’d like to help him get back up there.
We’ve thought a lot about how to coach Wes to manage his stage fright, and have done some research. Piano teacher John Kline has shared some of his tried and true strategies as well. As the Greensleeves Music recitals approach, we thought it would be a good time to share some simple, effective tactics for helping students cope with stage fright.
Don’t fear the fear.
It’s not wrong or unusual to have stage fright. Pointing out that this is normal, that many others in the room feel the same way, and by sharing your own experiences and coping strategies you can help dial down your students’ anxieties. Focus on the fun of performing instead of perfect playing. Focus on coping with fears rather than needing to conquer them.
The fight-or-flight sensation is overwhelming. Suddenly their stomach hurts, their heart is racing, they feel flushed and just… weird. We can explain to kids that their brain is causing it all. The brain senses a new environment. It gets overly excited and thinks there might be danger. It sends commands to your body to gear up for a fight or flight, and that’s why your heart races, your pupils dilate, and you feel so very stressed out. By realizing this and refocusing their thoughts, kids can control their own minds and alleviate their own fears.
For older students, Kline suggests a cognitive reframing of the entire performance experience. "I try to help my students view a performance as 'Here is a song I enjoy playing. It means something to me and I would like to share it with you.' This takes their focus off the audience (or any external force, really) and onto the music. The only focus is this music that is meaningful to them and is a part of them in some way. Then any mistakes that happen are just a part of the performance, not disasters or something to be ashamed of. Just part of a bigger process of being able to express themselves more clearly."
Have your child or student get used to the feeling of being watched. They can practice in front of the family, teacher, stuffed animals, a mirror or the family dog. Take a video and let them watch. Have them visualize the entire experience, step by step. Leading up to the recital, have them treat practice sessions like a performance, walking into the room, picking up the instrument, playing and then walking “offstage” when finished. Make this dress rehearsal full of the kind of distraction they'll experience in real life.
Kline says, "I also like to let them know that the recital space is rarely as quiet as your practice space at home. There will be audience members who whisper, cough, sneeze, open candy wrappers, and babies who cry. So I do my best to re-enact all of these sounds during their run-through! After a laughing fit, we talk about how to acknowledge the sounds, but not let them distract you from your task. Soon, anything I do to try to distract them no longer works. Flashing the lights, having a one-way conversation with them, and stomping on the ground are all just "things happening" instead of "potential performance destroyers."
The more kids experience the sensation of being onstage in a busy recital hall the less foreign it will feel by showtime!
Many students feel terrified to make a mistake. Kline says, "I have had students ask me, "What happens if the audience boos at me?" A re-assurance from me usually is an easy fix. I'll say, 'I have played in SO many recitals and that has never happened, even when I stopped halfway through my song!'"
Parents too can provide reassurance by discussing expectations for the performance. When kids hear that you will be pleased with any outcome, that your hope is for them to enjoy themselves rather than play perfectly, it calms their nerves. Open communication also allows them to release their own pent-up worries and to set achievable, stress-free goals for recital day.
Teach your child some mind-body tricks to alleviate their anxiety. Straight posture and focus on each breath, in and out, can clear the mind. A mantra can help as well, whether it be “I’m ready,” “I’m good at this,” or even “Har har mukanday”, a yogi mantra intended for liberating oneself from fear.
Get lost in the music.
Unlike many other on-stage performers, musicians have the opportunity to avoid eye contact and ignore the crowd altogether if they wish. You can encourage your child to simply focus on their song, their instrument, and the joy of playing.
Younger students might do best memorizing their song. This allows them to rely less on their sheet music. Kline says, "The visual distractions and unfamiliarities of the stage are sometimes too much to handle and distract them keeping their eyes focused on the small print. I think it helps them immensely to have their aural memory in the forefront, and the visual to be a backup."
"To help them with this, I make a recording of their song for them. I ask them to listen to it frequently to aid in their practice. The goal would be that practicing and listening to a finished recording in tandem would enable the student to play their song away from their instrument, knowing every note, every finger, every small detail as it is being played in their head or on a recording."
For students performing from memory, or with particularly tricky spots in their song, Kline suggests setting anchors in the music for them to locate in an SOS moment.
"I like for them to have "landmarks" throughout the piece that they can jump to if they have a memory slip," he says. "In the week(s) prior to the performance, we fake memory slips and jump to the next landmark, to be prepared for any worst-case scenario."
Preparation can greatly reduce showtime anxieties. Have your child or student select their outfit the night before and set it aside. Figure out the driving route and parking in advance. Arrive a little early. Let your child or student go to the front of the recital room (or even stand onstage) and look out into the sea of seats. It will be less jarring when they see it again for their performance.
Stage fright is scary and might never go away. But it does get easier every time. Teachers, parents and students can work together to alleviate this common fear and have a successful performance. When kids are in control, have simple strategies, and the reassurance that simply trying is good enough, they just might surprise themselves up there!